I had some people ask me about my learning experiences and background so I thought I do an Ask Me Anything on here for a week (until 10th of January).
Short Bio, I am Andreas Laimboeck, the founder or LTL and Flexi Classes. I am originally from Germany/Austria, went to university in the UK, came first to China in 1999, lived in Beijing for 16 years and started LTL in a Beijing coffee shop in 2008.
I have been bad at learning languages all my life, almost failed French at high school and was the only student in my year at Beijing Language and Culture University who wasn’t given a Mandarin graduation ccertificate due to too low scores.
Today Mandarin is my main work language and I am currently studying Vietnamese (A2 level I would guess).
Ask Me Anything
Good idea to do this. Here are some questions:
What did you do to become an HSK examiner (an awesome achievement!)?
After reaching an advanced level in Chinese, what did you to to further improve your language ability?
What was the process like to start LTL as a business?
Thanks Cameron. I was worried nobody was going to ask anything
HSK examiner: It is less illustrious than it sounds. The HSK is mainly multiple choice so the scores are calculated by the software automatically. What the HSK examiners do is make sure the exam is run properly. So that includes running the software properly on the PC, trouble shooting connection issues (there is a Hanban support team online one talks to), making sure students dont cheat etc.
When a school is accredited as an HSK examination centre, several staff members have to take the exam to become accredited examiners, which is what I did when LTL Beijing became an HSK examination centre. It’s a pretty long exam and all in Mandarin.
The step from advanced to fluent Mandarin: It is usually not made in the class room but in real life. For me it was working in an only Chinese speaking office in Beijing for a year, dealing with Chinese customers and colleagues who couldn’t speak a word of English. It was either be able to communicate or loose your job. I managed to keep my job but it was quite a challenge. At the beginning it felt almost impossible, but after a while I found that conversations at work with customers actually always were about the same things. I wrote a list of specific vocabulary needed for my job, expanding it every day at the office. At the end I ended up with about 150 very technical words and it turned out of you knew these you could actually understand everything that was discussed.
That plus amazing immersion. I remember coming back from one business trip to the Chinese “countryside” and suddenly realized I had not spoken, thought or used a single English word for a week.
I found Mandarin is all about immersion at all levels, but even more so at the advanced level.
Setting up LTL as a business: We started super small. For me it was mainly my experiences at university in Beijing, which I enjoyed, but later realized how many things were done wrong but students don’t realise until the end of their course and they know how to study Mandarin.
I helped friends of mine who came to China to study at university to improve their experience by organising homestays, getting them to get away from the university student bubble in Wudaokou etc. which helped a lot, but the teaching was still the same rote memorization, large classes, non-interactice teaching, with loads of hand writing and almost no speaking.
So I thought, what if I created a program that taught Mandarin exactly how I should have learned Mandarin back then?
That was the beginning. A million issues, challenges etc andore than a decade later here we are.
Please keep asking
What is your home town in Germany/Austria?
How did you manage to stay in China?
I am originally from Frankfurt
Personally China is a great place to live in, though I am definitely a Beijinger. Shanghai might have its advantages, but for me it is Beijing all the way.
Technically getting a work visa for China is quite a challenge and a lot of paper work, but once you have it, renewing it is very simple, so once settled its quite easy to stay.
Andreas, you mention how important immersion is in the language learning process is. Given the current situation with getting into China for foreigners, sadly also ruling our the possibility of in-person LTL for many now too, do you have any suggestions of other ways we could recreate or simulate an immersion experience until China opens up again?
Given your long and vast time living like a local in China, are there any hidden gems or aspects of China / Chinese culture that amazed you which most foreigners never get to see?
Hi Andreas! I am also interested in what took you from almost failing language student to fluent language speaker. Was it a change in your outlook / language learning methods / immersion experience? What do you think made the biggest difference to you when acquiring new languages?
Immersion, immersion, immersion and not give up, not give up, just won’t give up.
That’s basically how I got to fluency and it is how I see it works for pretty much all our students with western language background (it’s different for Koreans/Vietnamese/Japanese/heritage speakers) who get to fluency in Mandarin.
I speak by far the best Mandarin out of all my past class mates today. They all either gave up or didn’t get into an immersion environmt.
Talent, being able to quickly hear tones, good memorization skills etc are all useful but in the end rather irrelevant. The only two things that really matter to achieve fluency in Mandarin in my experience are immersion and an the determination to continue to study however frustrating it might be at times.
Yes, exactly, never give up. Simply go on and look around the next corner.
I have been teaching piano and other things for decades (1 on 1) and I stopped to be impressed by talent too much.
The real winners are those who feel some sense in what they are doing, who decide to stick to it and try out everything until it works.
When we have our class meetings when everybody plays some piano pieces you would not be able to hear who is the really talented student, but you clearly hear and see who has a personal bond to music or to the instrument or to doing something with your hands and feet, or to show something new learnt, or to be on stage, or to take a risk and try out something in public, or to meeting the other learners, or, or…
Every time I am still surprised how different the results look like, compared to the lesson situation, and also how students can suddenly improve and be so different even after years of seemingly less interest.
How have you found learning Vietnamese after Mandarin? I did the opposite. I was at a solid intermediate level of Vietnamese and when I started Chinese it confused the hell out of me. Tones, but different, some words same but different, some grammar same but different. I decided I had to forget Vietnamese to learn Chinese. I literally pushed it out of my mind. So now I mostly can’t speak, Chinese keeps entering my mind instead, a little sad about that. Though I find I can still understand. I ran Ito a Vietnamese person in Beijing the other day and asked her to say some random stuff and I can understand easily. also YouTube videos. I’ve also been away from VN a long time now. I think if I was back there, the language would also come back quickly. I do think having learned VN first helped me with tones , since I got the concept from day one. But it took a lot of work to change “dau huyen” to 第四声. What has your experience been like?
I think knowing Mandarin has overall helped me with Vietnamese. The main advantage (and difference to when I started learning Mandarin) was that I knew how I should learn the language instead of trying to learn as I had with French or English.
I knew I had to focus on tones and pronunciation (which is much harder in Vietnamese than Mandarin) and immersion was the key.
Also, a lot of vocab is similar and that definitely helps me a lot. Sometimes when I don’t know a word I just I just say it in Mandarin and I would say have a 25% success chance with that.
Same as you though I struggle with the words that
are almost the same but have different tones. 问题 for me goes down and up and now suddenly having to accept that vấn đề goes sharp up and slow down is really hard. Over the years Mandarin
tones have become engraved somewhere in my memory and changing that is really hard - while of course not forgetting the Mandarin pronunciation, as I want to learn a new language, not exchange one for the other.
So overall I found knowing Mandarin has been a valuable advantage to learn Vietnamese. I never did it the other way round so can’t comment on that experience.
A follow-on question to your response to Phillip; is Vietnamese the first “new” language you have learnt since Mandarin? And if yes, why Vietnamese and how long have you been learning it?
I actually started with Spanish five years ago and went to Colombia for a Spanish course, with homestay and everything, just like we do it in China.
Was lovely, but in my daily life in Beijing Spanish was just non existent so I lost motivation a bit. Also after studying Mandarin I developed very little tolerance for conjugating verbs. Why does one have to say “Yesterday I did”. It already says “yesterday” so why is there a need to change the verb too? In Chinese it’s simply “Yesterday I do” Today I do" "Tomorrow I do ".
So much easier!
Not very surprisingly my Spanish teacher was not impressed.
In the end I missed the immersion experience though.
With Vietnamese that is much better now.
haha very true. Despite Mandarin’s many other difficulties, the simplicity of past/present/future is amazing
re: improving Chinese, it’s good to hear that persistence is the thing that you think was the most important. Sometimes I feel like wow, I am spending so much time on this language, is it really worth it then I have a really nice conversation or interaction with someone in Chinese and it re-motivates me. I think that’s also probably why immersion is so important - it’s difficult to get those little motivation sprints elsewhere!
So true. I think an actual conversation is a few years away, but I do feel a little proud when Duolingo understands what I’m trying to say when I repeat phrases. Does that count?!
I have to disagree with you here. I found neither to be easier or harder. Just different tones ie. speed/contour. What I would say is this: the Chinese are MUCH more forgiving of imperfect pronunciation. I have heard, for example taxi drivers given destinations by foreigners with very off pronunciation and they are still understood. My experience with Vietnamese was that it had to be absolutely spot on or you were not being understood. I also find that Chinese are just generally more willing or even expecting to speak their language with you. The Vietnamese on the other hand could be the extreme opposite in this respect.
I think we might not necessarily disagree just that I had written a bit ambiguously.
I knew I had to focus on tones and pronunciation (which is much harder in Vietnamese than Mandarin)
I meant pronunciation is Vietnamese is much harder than Mandarin. Not the tones. I would agree that they are similar difficulty for the two languages.
The number of different vowels I find more challenging in Vietnamese than Mandarin.
Overall Mandarin pronunciation (not including the tones) I found comparatively easy, certainly not harder than French. While Pinyin is not always accurate it is still a lot more accurate than French or Vietnamese spealling (especially when you live in South Vietnam, but everything is spelled in Northern pronunciation)
Ok, thanks everyone for all the questions, was very interesting. I ran the AMA a bit longer than originally planned, but will close it now.
Anyone who wants to know more about me now will have to buy me beer at a bar.
All the best for the year of the Tiger.