Learning Chinese in Guilin

I enrolled on a two week immersive language course with the Chinese Language Institute in Guilin. I’d been learning Mandarin for the last year in Hong Kong, along side my international relations modules, and thought that my language skills would get a real boost out of studying somewhere where the language was actually spoken (even if only for two weeks). I chose CLI because I wanted to go to Yangshuo and Longsheng, near Guilin, anyway but also because it was a lot cheaper, with much better value for money than courses offered in more popular destinations like Beijingor Shanghai. In my opinion Guilin is a better destination than these for studying as there is far less English spoken, so you have to use the language more. It is not so small and uninternational a city however that you can’t find most things (like western food restaurants) that you’d get back home, abeit with a limited amount of choice.

My tuition fees included accomodation and meals at a homstay (although dorms were also an option) and 4 hours of one-on-one private lessons daily. There was also a whole range of activities each week, such as dinners, cooking workshops, movie nights, KTV (karaoke), trips to local tourist sights, etc. The staff were really friendly, and as much language learning seemed to done around the majhong table during breaks as in lessons (although less of the vocab is usable in polite company). Most of the students stayed in the dorms (in the same building as classes) and there was a rec room where you could chill watching movies or play table tennis. It was a nice place to hang out and if I had been staying longer I would’ve opted to live at CLI, rather than across town.

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Cave visited on a weekend trip

My lessons were hard work, each being two hours long. Unlike when you are sat at the back in a class of twenty, you have to be constantly switched on the entire duration. With daily homework as well it was exhausting. However, as lessons are tailored to you individually, although my teachers pushed me hard, it was at a pace I was capable off and I am glad for it. Outside lessons, the teachers also chatted to us in a mix of English and Chinese in accordance to our abilities which was nice. I have to stress how lovely my teachers were, offering to go with me when I asked where to buy some trousers is just one example. I feel like my Mandarin improved more in those two weeks than it had in months and months of learning at HKU. It wasn’t so much that I had made huge gains in terms of volume of vocabulary, but rather in my ability to string sentences together in the spur the moment, as is necessitated in real life conversations. My listening is still terrible unless someone is speaking tremendously slowly but these things take time. At first I was surprised by how good many of the other students Mandarin was but with a couple of years of learning behind them, and months spent at CLI,  its actually not all that surprising. I am going to continue studying Chinese, back at my home university, and i’d like to return to CLI for a longer period if I have the money to in future.

Finally, I’ll say a bit about my homestay. I stayed in a flat, where the family lived with the grandparents, had a six year old daughter and a very cute and rediculously silly kitten. The mother spoke very good English but I could hardly understand the grandparents (when they weren’t speaking the local Guilin dialect). Despite the language barrier they were very warm and welcoming, and would mime each morning to ask if I had eaten – a bit awkward when you still can’t quite stomach spicy noodles for breakfast. The food they cooked me was nice, I just don’t like Chinese food for breakfast. I also turned down some of the more adventurous offerings, such as frog. I wasn’t sure if the daughter could speak any English but she could certainly sing all the words to ‘Let it go’ from the disney film Frozen. She was to shy to speak to me in any language but was constantly asking her mum to ask me things (such as what was my favourite colour and did I have a baby) and I would often catch sight of her peeking at me fromaround the corner before she ran off in giggles. The only bad thing about staying with them was my bed, which was rock solid (basically a plank off wood with a blanket). However, they were very nice – even when I forgot the code to get into tbe building at close to 2am. The mother just said it was no trouble as the grandparents still weren’t back from their night out.

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Kitty snuggled up on my backpack
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