Mandarin learning at Leeds University Business School

We spoke to a student, a member of professional staff and an academic to get their different perspectives on the value of engaging with Chinese language and culture.

They have all either taken Business Confucius Institute (BCI) Chinese courses or made other efforts to build connections through learning more about China and Chinese.

As Faculty International Tutor Maria Hussain explains, “it is more important than ever to consider the intercultural complexities of our ever-connected world.”

A great way to expand and challenge our own perspective on the world around us is through learning a new language.

Maria continues, “Language conceptualises the world around and in turn shapes the way that we think and engage with people and our context- so, the greater exposure you have to learning and engaging with different languages the more interculturally competent and aware you will become. The facilitation of intercultural competence development through shared language/cultural learning and exchange is vital to enable us to ‘think’ and ‘learn’ in new and innovative ways.”

These case studies demonstrate the efforts of staff and students to increase their cultural awareness and make others feel welcome and included.

First-year Economics student

We spoke to one first-year Economics student who sees Mandarin as an enjoyable activity that is also an investment in her future. Various factors played into her decision to sign up for BCI evening classes in January 2021, and she is now part-way through the level 2 course.

She says, “I’ve always had a fascination with China – the architecture, music, food and language.” Early experiences such as a China Day at her primary school helped to spark this interest, which developed over recent years as she got more into East Asian music and TV shows.

I love learning new languages.

As well as enjoying languages, this student gains satisfaction from working towards goals she has set herself. The challenge was part of what drew her to Mandarin, and from the way she speaks about it you can tell she relishes opportunities for growth: “Even if it takes me ten years to be fluent, I’ll still work towards it… and even if I don’t, I’ve still gone for it. I like to challenge myself.”

She also hopes that it might help her to stand out when applying for further studies, a graduate job, or internships.

I did think that it would be a great addition to my CV – employers will think ‘wow, out of their own time they decided to learn another language, a hard language’

But at the end of the day, learning Mandarin is “largely just for the fun of it!” and she has set her sights on completing as many levels of the BCI courses as she can. After spending her first year learning online due to the pandemic, she hopes to be able to meet Chinese classmates in-person and learn the casual, informal language that she might not see in her textbook.

Faculty International Assistant

Faculty International Assistant Hannah Mawson is no stranger to language study. A Japanese and Spanish graduate, Hannah actively works on those languages in her spare time through courses and language exchanges.

She added Chinese to the mix in an effort to feel more confident about pronouncing Chinese names correctly. Working in an International Office and speaking to many Chinese people, she felt it was important to “at least learn basic sayings, and be able to say hello or how are you.”

Hannah found it fairly easy to fit in her Chinese classes – “it’s only one evening that you have to book in” – but she did set aside extra study time to make sure she got the most out of the course. Her solution was to review Chinese at lunchtime, “going over the characters, making flashcards, using The Chairman’s Bao.”

After completing three levels of the BCI Chinese courses Hannah feels more confident pronouncing Chinese words. She notes:

There aren’t many variances in pronunciation. As soon as you’ve got the phonetics down you’re pretty much set to go with people’s names, towns, cities etc.

While Hannah is able to communicate at a higher level in some languages (for example speaking Japanese with visitors who came to the Business School from Kyoto), her experience with Chinese shows how a little can go a long way in making you feel more comfortable and confident when interacting with people from other countries.

Reflecting on her experience of studying languages, Hannah notes that it has increased her cultural awareness and given her various transferrable skills.

It’s taught me resilience, because learning a language is a tough journey. Even the smallest success is worth celebrating. It’s taught me to keep going.

Another benefit is helping you to put yourself in others’ shoes. Hannah’s own experience as a language learner helps her to empathise with others who are not speaking their native language: “it helps you to be patient with people – if you’re speaking to someone who is learning English as a second language it might take them longer to get their point across, and that’s something I understand from being on the other side of learning languages.”

For anyone interested in language learning, Hannah recommends episode 3 of Leeds University Business School’s ‘Go Glocal’ podcast, which is produced by the Faculty International Office. This episode features Mursal Hedayat MBE, who co-founded language learning company Chatterbox after graduating from LUBS in 2015.

Associate Professor

Louisa Hill, an Associate Professor who teaches research and employability subjects, is passionate about supporting international students.

She became particularly conscious of the difficulties international students may face in her first job at a higher education college. The majority of her students were actually born and raised in the local area, but they still struggled to understand her accent – and she grew up only 10 miles down the road!

Knowing this, Louisa was concerned for the small number of international students for whom English was a second language. She did her Masters thesis on how to support international students on business programmes within her teaching practices, and worked at different institutions with many more international students. Now, at Leeds University Business School, 95% of the postgraduate students she teachers or tutors are from China. The proportion at undergraduate level is lower – about 4% – and in the institution as a whole 14% of students in the 2019-20 academic year came from China.

I wanted to support international students as much as possible, not only to ‘survive’ but also to ‘thrive and be given the opportunity to make positive contributions to the university, national students, the teaching and the wider community.

Louisa has taken various steps to achieve this with her Chinese students, noting that although they could easily be able to learn these thing eventually, “my interventions help to speed up the process of acclimatisation, so that they are in a similar position to their national peers.”

Actions Louisa has taken include:

  • Including case studies about Chinese culture in her teaching.
  • Sharing examples of previous excellent work from Chinese students.
  • Recommending the Chinese language version ofThe Study Skills Handbook by Stellar Cottrell as a resource to help students understand UK academic culture.
  • Having key words and terminology for some of her employability sessions translated into Chinese. For a particularly in-depth lecture, which was recorded in English, a PGR teaching assistant (and native Mandarin speaker) translated the slides.

Without studying Chinese, Louisa has still used the language to help achieve her goals. She has a sign in Chinese on her office door, to help reinforce the message that she is happy to help students. This touch, including giving her name in Chinese, aims to break down any barriers and cut through the hesitancy that Chinese students might have about approaching a professor for help.

This year Louisa used this resource provided by the Business Confucius Institute to practice appropriate greetings in Chinese, and then put on her Chinese silk top and recorded an e-card for students. She felt that this was appreciated by students and colleagues who may have been missing celebrating with family and friends.

Engaging with the culture is another way to help create connections. Louisa enjoys visiting local Chinese supermarkets (she recommends KH Oriental Food), trying out Chinese dishes, and discussing cooking with her Chinese students: “They are currently giving me advice on how to braise tofu!”

When asked what tips she has for other staff, Louisa stresses it’s important “not to be afraid to try things – don’t worry if you don’t pronounce a word correctly, as students really appreciate the effort you have gone to to make them feel more comfortable.” Having said this, she agrees with Hannah that getting names right is important, and advises staff to check if unsure.

LUBS Chinese New Year e-card for 2021

While time is a big issue for most people, small steps such as sending out the LUBS Chinese New Year card each year can make a big difference. Louisa also recommends attending relevant BCI lectures, or reading the China section of the Financial Times “as there will be some small element that you can make reference to within your teaching.”

Personally, she finds that the rewards more than make up for her efforts.

I have seen Chinese students grow in confidence. It makes students smile when they realise that someone acknowledges them as an individual with a range of experiences and knowledge.

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The Mandarin Aspirations Project

We aim to encourage and celebrate the learning of Chinese by sharing the motivations (why study Chinese), study experiences (challenges and rewards) and study outcomes (employability, confidence and intercultural skills) of Chinese language learners. We hope that these Mandarin Aspirations stories will encourage those of you already studying Chinese, and inspire new learners to join a growing and supportive community of Chinese language enthusiasts in the UK.