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New Post 17.02.2009 10:58
  shuai
1199 posts
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Shortcuts to learning Mandarin 

Shortcuts to learning Mandarin

The best way to learn Mandarin is still to go to China and surround oneself with native speakers, but today's technologies offer cheaper and easier alternatives that give one the opportunity to learn in the comfort of one's home. 

Shanghai-based Praxis Language is one such service. It offers Mandarin lesson podcasts for people around the world to download and listen to when it best suits their lifestyle. "I guess we're a new category - not part of the traditional solutions. What we're working towards is a form of mobile learning," said Ken Carroll, a co-founder of Praxis. 

Carroll, with 20 years of experience as a language teacher, comes from a more traditional background. Since 1996, he has
been running an English-language training center in Shanghai which offers old-fashioned classroom teaching for Chinese people wishing to improve their English.

"We noticed students would spend more time going to and from the school than in the actual lesson," said Carroll, "When Apple's iPod [player] got popular, we though it might be a good idea to use podcasts for teaching languages. The first we tried was in Mandarin, called the ChinesePod. It is still the most popular of our services." 

Since it started in 2005, Praxis now offers other language courses, including FrenchPod, ItalianPod and EnglishPod. There are plans for other languages such as ArabicPod. Praxis has found that podcasting is a cheap and effective way to distribute high-quality education around the world. 

Just as the rise of Japan's economy created many Japanese learners around the globe, the recent increase in China's global influence has led to more people wanting to learn its language. "Mandarin is just emerging, and it has at least 20 years of growth ahead of it," said Carroll. 

Today, Praxis averages 250,000 visitors every month to its ChinesePod and other language services. Half of the visitors are from the US, with the rest spread over Asia, Britain, Australia and Europe. The attraction of Praxis' courses is flexibility, as users can learn at their own pace, picking lessons and topics which interest them instead of following the rigid structure of a traditional language institution. 

Marc van der Chijs, a Dutchman living in Shanghai, was expelled a few years ago from a university Mandarin class after he had to suspend his studies twice because of business trips. He now learns his Mandarin via podcasts. 

"There are people who can excel in the traditional learning environment. But for an adult businessman, it is difficult to find the time to go to class, open a textbook and learn," said Carroll. 

The Praxis program has more than 1,000 free lessons and downloads, covering beginner to advanced levels of conversational Mandarin. It teaches basic dialogue, such as how to greet people and go shopping, but also covers more sophisticated subjects like Chinese history and culture and more fun ones like the latest urban slang. 

The company runs on a "freemium" business model. While beginner lessons are free, it charges up to US$125 a month for an executive course, which includes a live instructor calling one every day to talk for 10 minutes. 

But even for people who like the traditional way of learning, with a teacher helping at each stage, today's technology offers an alternative. 

Idaped, another Shanghai-based start-up, offers formal one-to-one classes, during which one can talk to a native Mandarin teacher in China over the Internet. The price is just US$8 per hour, much less if compared with the US$30 charged per hour for similar classes in New York or London. 

"Compared with hiring a private tutor, our service is much more flexible and inexpensive," said Adrian Li, co-founder of Idaped, "More importantly, while the quality of private tutors can vary considerably, our standards are guaranteed." 

Li has a degree in economics from Cambridge University and holds an MBA from Stanford. While he was studying in Stanford, he met his co-founder Jonathan Palley, who had developed a virtual flashcards - pictorial learning aids - program for languages. The shareware has been downloaded over 250,000 times. 

The two received funding in 2006 from Toivo Annus, one of the founders of Skype, which is now part of eBay. It later also attracted the backing of Xu Xiao Ping, the co-founder for the largest private education school in China, New Oriental School, which is listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in New York. 

In some ways, the new technology is an improvement. After each lesson the student is given a playback of his or her performance in "class", with mistakes highlighted and instructor's remarks. As the whole session is recorded, the student can go through it again and again to learn, said Li. 

Mandarin is a tonal language, and the slightest mistake in pitch can radically change the meaning of a word. However, one advantage is that the grammar is not as complicated as many European languages, for example there are no verb tenses, relative clauses or singular or plural. 

But to really excel at any language, one needs to get out of the classroom and interact with real people in all walks of life, and this is where italki.com steps in. 

Founded in 2006, italki's founders thought of combining social networking with language learning. The website is similar to popular social networking site Facebook, but instead of just meeting new friends, users network with each other to learn languages. 

"It is like a language exchange," said William Bean, a partner at venture capital firm Softbank China and India Holdings. He has invested an undisclosed sum in italki. "If you are looking for a language partner for studying Mandarin, you will have a lot of choices," he added. 

The website had over 400,000 members registered at the end of 2008. Of the traffic, 17% comes from China, 7% is from the US and the rest is scattered around the world. Spanish and French are also popular, accounting for 14% and 9% of the traffic. There are members from over 200 countries on the website speaking over 100 languages. 

However, not everyone believes social networking with a language partner online is a good alternative to formal study. 

"It [italki] lacks structure. Also, the quality of your language partner or their availability is difficult to guarantee," said Carroll of Praxis Language. 

"You cannot learn a language without language exchange. But you cannot learn a language with language exchange alone," said Bean. 

Italki's new service is also turning into a marketplace for language teachers to sell their services online. 

"Much like eBay, teachers can offer their services and students bid for them," said Bean, "And there is a rating system for teachers based on the feedback of their past students." He added that italki takes part of the transaction fees, which it hopes will eventually become its major revenue source.


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