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Learning the local lingo

Good pay, flexible schedule, easy work - when it comes to teaching Mandarin to foreigners, most people think it's a piece of cake for Chinese teachers. However, those in the industry say it's actually difficult to survive in today's changing market.

Shi Xudeng, deputy director of the International College of Chinese Studies in East China Normal University, says teaching Mandarin isn't as easy as some think.

Shi says that increasing competition in the market means there is an abundant supply of teachers in China.

For most foreigners who want to learn Chinese there are basically two ways: a full-time language school in established universities and private training centers or hiring a private tutor.

Foreigners working full time may find private training centers or private tutors an ideal choice as they usually charge reasonable prices and scheduling is flexible. But does this mean professional language schools are at a disadvantage?

Yao Yuan, a lecturer at Shanghai International Studies University's College of Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language, doesn't think so.

"Both professional and private institutions help the market in separate ways. For colleges, it is more suited for students who want to learn Chinese systematically or get a qualification such as HSK level 6," Yao says.

Those who don't have time for full-time enrollment at school will likely find private tutors the best option since most will come to your home.

The key to this option is finding a relatively experienced teacher, experts say.

Private tutors such as Cindy say that although they enjoy their work it is not easy.

"I do enjoy my work, but it can be exhausting as well. I have to travel all over the city to meet my students and I spend a lot of time to ensure lessons are thoroughly prepared."

Despite the hard work, payment can be low and is negotiated between student and teacher. Furthermore, classes in private schools often struggle to attract more than four people at a time.

Shi says: "Private Mandarin tutors are more like blue-collar workers these days… The fee can be as low as 50 yuan per hour."

It may seem harsh, but this is the reality faced by many of the city's young language professionals.

An Englishman on a three-year assignment in Shanghai with his wife, who declines to disclose his name, is now learning Chinese with a private tutor.

"I find Mandarin very difficult to learn, even though I'm only focused on learning spoken Mandarin," he says. "My way of learning European languages is to picture words and to learn language structure, but somehow this doesn't work for me in China."

The use of tones, complicated use of words and huge gap between learning methods are problems Chinese teachers need to overcome. Professional teachers now realize that focusing on rote learning and memorization are not always the best ways to teach foreigners Chinese. They find a more open-minded and fun approach to teaching can benefit their students.

Still, Shi says, "A comprehensive education plan is essential for some students." In these cases, college professionals have an advantage.

Shi also counters the myth that one is qualified to teach Mandarin just because they have mastered both Chinese and English.

"Teaching Chinese as a foreign language is actually a very specialized subject. A person with only some knowledge of Chinese is definitely not qualified as a teacher," Shi says.

He also says that the use of English teaching at many non-professional organizations is bound to reduce the efficiency of Mandarin learning.

New Zealander David enjoys living in Shanghai very much, especially the process of learning Mandarin.

The English teacher, who doesn't want to reveal his surname, has a private tutor.

"I'm very satisfied (with my tutor). She is very helpful and persistent," he says. "I have been learning Chinese for six months and I can order a lot of food on my own now.

"It doesn't bother me whether the teacher is professionally qualified. But the teacher has to be a woman though, because I feel more comfortable talking to a woman," he adds, laughing.

For some, however, a classroom with students from all over the world makes a big difference in learning.

Thomas Pak, a Chinese-Belgian, says he likes studying Mandarin at university.

"I feel very delighted to study in the university and it's not boring at all. The learning environment is good and I can go to the snack bars with my new friends and talk about our classes."

Russian student Alexander Kislitcyn says he is extremely obsessed with Chinese history and he has been learning Chinese for three years at Far Eastern Federal University.

"I came here to improve my spoken Chinese and Shanghai International Studies University is the instrument of more communication opportunities and the teacher is very experienced," he says in fluent Chinese.

Some choose the college to enhance their Mandarin ability as they plan to look for a job in China or live here for a long time.

Other students start by wanting to be able to have basic conversations and do things for themselves, but end up wanting to take their studies further once they start.

"I love Chinese culture as well as pop stars, especially Faye Wong (a Hong Kong superstar)," says Yoshio Kabashima, who is from Japan. "At first I just wanted to practice my tones but now I really enjoy being here and the courses are really helpful."

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