Path of Immersion: Andy Zhou of Live the Language school
German native Andy Zhou arrived in Beijing eight years ago as a student eager to learn Chinese through any means possible, trying BLCU (Beijing Language and Culture University), private language schools and even online learning programs. Learning from his own successes and mistakes studying Chinese, he has launched Live the Language school (www.livethelanguage.cn), a Chinese-language school for foreigners.
How and why did you start the Live the Language school?
I started LtL because I am passionate about China and the language. I started studying Chinese eight years ago at BLCU – probably the best years of my life. After BLCU I studied with private tutors, by myself, and online.
The other reason I started Live the Language is that I want to create the school I wish I would have had when I first came to Beijing, one that combines the strengths of BLCU’s programs, the flexibility and smaller class environment of private language schools, and the revelations I had from studying Chinese myself.
What motivated you to begin learning Chinese?
When you speak Chinese, it opens so many doors. It’s frustrating living here without being able to speak Chinese – I’ve met so many people I wanted to talk to but couldn’t. So many doors are closed to non-Chinese speakers. So that was my motivation – there were so many things I wanted to see and understand and so many people I wanted to talk to but couldn’t. I knew that learning Chinese was the only way to overcome those barriers. At LtL, we want to help people to learn about China because we think it is a shame that expats can live in Beijing for years and say they didn’t ever get a chance to see anything amazing because of all the doors that were closed on them.
How do Chinese people and Europeans differ in their communication?
Chinese people express themselves differently from Europeans. Chinese people rely a lot on implications and non-verbal communication. Just because you speak Chinese doesn’t mean you necessarily understand what the other person is trying to convey. They often don’t say things outright. In fact, in China it is considered a skill to express something that people understand without directly saying it, which causes a lot of miscommunication between natives and Chinese-speaking foreigners. On the other hand, Europeans are absolutely direct when they communicate. They want you to tell them what it is that you want, and not beat around the bush.
How does the LtL experience differ from other available language programs?
People who work at LtL are incredibly passionate about Chinese. Most are foreigners who love the language, as it is sets our criteria in choosing our staff. We also offer a full immersion of Chinese culture in our programs, because our philosophy is that it is not enough to just learn Chinese in the classroom. You need to spend parts of your private life speaking Chinese and experiencing China. That’s why we’re called Live the Language.
We arrange home-stay programs throughout the year, where students stay with Chinese families and speak Chinese outside of the classroom. We also organize immersion trips – we travel outside of Beijing for a week to an area that speaks good Mandarin and we take Chinese lessons and live in a completely Chinese environment free from any distractions. Lastly, we regularly arrange activities such as badminton classes, calligraphy classes, discussion groups, poker, mahjong, or whatever that suits our students’ interests for them to connect with locals.
For our business internship program, we design a special course that focus on learning Chinese in a business setting, and we help students write a Chinese C.V. and teach them how to do a mock Chinese interview. Then, we set them up with available positions within Chinese companies because ultimately we want them to be immersed in a Chinese-speaking environment.
How difficult was it for you personally to learn Chinese and how does your experience influence LtL’s teaching methods?
It was very difficult, because even though I’m fascinated by languages, I’m not very good at learning them. At the beginning, I had trouble with my pronunciation because I started learning Chinese in very big classes at university and the teacher did not have time to go over my tones individually with me. Only when I got to an intermediate level did I realize that I had been saying them wrong, and it proved to be very difficult to get it out of my system. Incidentally, pronunciation is one thing we pay a lot of attention to, making sure that people learn the right tones from the beginning. I also struggled with learning characters, because the university teaches by rote memory and I have a horrible memory. It was only later that I learned more effective ways of learning characters. You can learn the radicals and understand where the characters come from and what they actually mean, which is a step up from meaningless rote learning, and thus how our instructors teach at LtL.
If you could take one historical artifact back to Germany to properly express China, what would it be?
I would love to take an old map from Zheng He from when he sailed the South Pacific. Europeans always think of themselves as the ones who explored the world, and it’s interesting to think that on the other side of the world there were also Chinese explorers exploring us. The Chinese probably came to Europe and said something like, “Bloody hell, how funny these people are – they write with letters instead of characters.” The world didn’t just revolve around we Europeans.
What is your favorite cultural site in Beijing?
I’d say the Drum and Bell tower is my favorite, because it is right smack in the middle of Beijing. The unique thing about Beijing that I find fascinating is that it is an international metropolitan city with huge, leering skyscrapers where fast, forward thinking happens. But in the middle of Beijing you have life that’s almost like a quiet, peaceful village, and this setup just doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world.
Could you share any memorable stories from when you first started studying Chinese?
I was taking the taxi home from university everyday, and I had my address written on a paper. It was the same ritual everyday – I’d say my address, the taxi driver would look at me without understanding, and I would have to hand over the little note. After three weeks of learning, I got into a taxi and said my address, and the driver didn’t say anything or even look at me. He just started to drive. I think that was the happiest moment of my life. I almost wanted to kiss him.