Location – Cool, Room 302, building 1, E, 兴华路 Nanshan, Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, China, 518060
Website – http://www.thatsmandarin.com
Contact – +86 755 2683 2393
1. Kindly brief us in short about you and your journey since the beginning of your career.
My name is Xiaochao Guo, and I’m the founder of That’s Mandarin Chinese Language School. I started teaching Chinese nearly 20 years ago to foreign students in Beijing. Back then I realized that most beginners struggled with the same problem: new Chinese words are really, really hard to memorize!
When you start learning Chinese, the new words don’t make any sense at first – they are just a bunch of sounds. It’s not easy to make your brain process them into meaningful words. But you can help your brain by building connections. That’s how I came up with a technique we now use at That’s Mandarin, called Link Words.
For example, there was one student in my class who just couldn’t remember the Chinese numbers from 1 to 6. His name was Leo. So I told him to link number 6 to his name, “六 (liù) – Leo”, and it worked! He used the same trick for other numbers, finding “link words”, and quickly mastered all the numbers.
Another method I always used in class was storytelling techniques. We see the world more vividly through stories; and in class, a good story makes the students forget that they are studying, and learn effortlessly.
It all started when I arrived at one private corporate class early and sat down to read the magazine in the lobby. There was a riddle in it about a young man in a sports car passing by a bus stop in heavy rain. There were 3 people waiting there: his good friend who once saved his life, an old lady that looked very ill, and a beautiful girl. The man had only 1 free seat. Who should he offer a ride to, and why?
I liked the simplicity of this story and used it in class. The student loved it, and since then the story grew into a whole series — episodes at the hospital, the coffee shop, and so on. Each time my students expanded the riddle and rebuilt the story as they wanted.
These and other methods helped my students learn Chinese quickly and start speaking from day 1. Not to boast, but at one point a whole university group of language exchange students joined my classes.
Then I decided it was time to open a school. In 2005, That’s Mandarin school was founded, and more teachers joined the team.
The Chinese name of the school, 思道睿 (Sīdàoruì), echoes the English word “story”.
2. How do you use technology in the classroom?
Very soon we realized that Chinese writing affects learning speed a lot. When Chinese learners take notes, their focus is not on the teacher and the conversation, but on their notebook and notes. So we thought of a way to ‘relieve’ the students from this cognitive overload during the class, by creating a digital platform where the teacher would take class notes in a digital format, to be easily (and forever!) accessed and reviewed by students.
This was a game-changer. So many students shared that in the past, their classes in brick-and-mortar classrooms were too fast-paced and difficult to follow. The teacher would write the characters on a whiteboard, and the students would be so busy copying them correctly into their notebooks, that the precious class time would be gone, and the student’s focus on conversation and speaking would be completely lost. But Mandarin Café (this was the name of our first platform) took away that unnecessary level of difficulty. We also built the system in a way that students could click on any unfamiliar word and see its translation, which also sped up communication — a sure way to have a sense of progress in class.
This was back in 2010. And in 2020, we upgraded the system to an advanced learning platform, NihaoCafe. Now all our students and teachers use it for online and offline classes.
Apart from digital notes, we also added a rich library of content for all HSK levels. It even features our own, newly produced HSK-graded TV series with famous actors! There are also hundreds of custom articles, videos, audio and comic books, vocabulary and grammar exercises, etc.
We also use time-proven methods such as Link Words and storytelling techniques, to make sure our students can learn Chinese faster and in a more meaningful way, related to their daily lives and study goals.
3. What has been one of your greatest contributions to the institution you have worked in for their development?
No doubt, it was the decision to re-build the online learning platform, NihaoCafe. We updated it just before the pandemic, and this way all our students could easily switch to online classes and continue learning all over the world. Until now, language students still cannot come to China to study, but we have so many online learners who connect with our teachers online and say that their dream is to come to China one day and learn at our physical schools.
The story of NihaoCafe was featured in ChinaDaily:
4. Please tell us about your organization in brief.
As a premier Chinese Language School, we’ve been delivering excellence in Chinese teaching since 2005 to more than 50,000 students of different nationalities.
We provide Chinese classes in Shanghai, Beijing, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Milan, as well as anywhere in the world via NihaoCafe.
The school motto is:
Dǎpò yīqiè chángguī, jiāoliú zhì shàng
“Break all conventions and just communicate”
As already mentioned, in 2010, That’s Mandarin became the first Chinese language school to combine advanced teaching methods online and offline. Later, we also expanded our Chinese Link Words technique into a book for Chinese beginners. The book helps students remember new words better and faster than traditional learning methods.
5. How have you dealt with challenges, and what are some ways you have resolved them?
Here’s a quote from Abigale Wan, That’s Mandarin Managing Director:
“When Covid-19 started, we quickly shifted most of our classes to online – even for students who were in China but couldn’t come to the school. To give you a rough idea, we used to have around 70% of students taking offline classes, and 30% online. Now, only 30 per cent of our students take classes offline, and the rest have switched to online programs.”
In a way, this crisis gave a boost to our online courses, and made our students understand that we live in a new digital era where online format can offer a quite satisfactory experience. Of course, being in China in person and practicing Chinese day by day is wonderful, if a student can come to China and study here — but online learning has proven to be an effective alternative for the students who don’t have that chance.
Abigale also says, “Many Chinese language schools didn’t survive, and with borders closed, more are likely to close down soon. The only reason our school was able to survive is NihaoCafe — a learning space developed specifically for Chinese language learners.”
After the pandemic, a few of our former competitors joined That’s Mandarin.
6. What motivates you?
I think my biggest motivation is seeing how students from all over the world, all walks of life, succeed in learning Chinese and improve day by day. Also, our cultural events are a great motivation — it’s always amazing to meet with learners who show interest in the Chinese culture, even absolute beginners. Sharing culture is a way to connect beyond the language.
7. Being in the industry for a long time, enlighten us with the educational scenario of your country and the ever-changing education sector.
We believe that interest in the Chinese language is going to strengthen in the future. Especially when the borders open up!
At the same time, big changes are coming in the HSK (Chinese Proficiency Exam) system, and we’re getting ready for this as well, both with NihaoCafe and with our paperback textbooks. The exams are going to get harder in the beginning, but easier at higher levels — so the learning process is going to become more balanced.
8. Who has most influenced you to become an educator/administrator, and how did they influence you?
Most certainly the students! Students are the best critics. They’ve helped us shape our teaching style and methods. As they say, when the teacher’s pace is too fast, he/she’ll be the only person to catch up. So knowing how hard it is to learn Chinese, we’ve tried to look at the process through the students’ eyes, and make it as comfortable and ‘making sense’ as possible.
9. What are your professional goals for the next 5-10 years?
Now that NihaoCafe is up and running, we keep updating and improving it.
At the same time, in the past year we’ve been working on a completely new project —a platform for young Chinese learners, NihaoKids. We see big potential in it.
This platform is quite different from NihaoCafe, and designed specifically for young learners, so they can learn Chinese in bite-sized, game-like lessons.
We’re also dreaming of opening more campuses around the world. Ideally, a campus in every big city! (Haha.) At the moment, the biggest language course provider in China are university language courses. They are good, but the class size can sometimes reach 20-30 people. So we’d like to give the learners an option: if they want to learn the ‘traditional’ way, they can choose a university course, and if they need to learn Chinese fast with focus on communication — they can come to us.
10. What message would you like to portray the student across universally?
“Every language contains a unique worldview.”
Language doesn’t just provide you with tools to communicate, but also with an insight into how people see the world.
If you a foreigner living in China, Chinese language won’t only help you get things done — in many ways, it can help you understand how people think, what drives their actions, and to bring you closer to the people around you. Our biggest dream is to help learners all around the world build these connections with China and Chinese people.