So you want to study Chinese in Beijing

The pros and cons of Worldlink Education

Last spring, for selfish personal reasons, I quit my perfectly good job in Singapore and abandoned my wife for three months to come to Beijing and study Mandarin. I am now living and working in Beijing, along with my wife, so I guess the whole crazy stunt can be considered a success.

Before I came to Beijing I spent a lot of time trying to figure out exactly how I was going to study here. I had two years of Mandarin instruction in Singapore, so I wasn’t starting from scratch, but my skills were elementary. I had no idea which language programs or schools in Beijing were reputable or what would be a fair price to pay. I spent a lot of time on the web and wrote to acquaintances living in Beijing.

I got a lot of different opinions. Some people told me to come to Beijing, hire a tutor and work one-on-one. Some people told me to attend classes. I heard BLCU (Beijing Language and Culture University) was great. I heard BLCU sucked. It didn’t add up to a really coherent picture. One problem was a shortage of useful information on the web. It was easy to find websites for Wordlink Education, BLCU, the Taipei Language Institute and other programs with registration information, classes, fees and so forth. What I couldn’t find was third-party reviews, real testimonials from students or critiques by people who had been through the programs.

Ultimately I chose Worldlink Education’s Beijing language program, and instruction at their in-house school, the Beijing Chinese Language Academy. Worldlink seemed reputable and well organized and their office in Australia, through which I did registration, was responsive and quick. I chose their in-house classes rather than BLCU instruction (which they also offer) because of the smaller class sizes.

On the whole, the experience was pretty good, but not perfect. I posted this article so that people who are considering Worldlink for study in Beijing know exactly what they will and won’t get from the program, and what kind of an experience they can expect.

I am also including a little bit about Beijing itself. I am not going to write about the city in detail. Others have done that, including me in my China Diary blog ( Also, I am not an old China hand by any stretch. My total time in Beijing is now a year. But I’ve been in Asia for nearly ten years, so I have some perspective.

All of this is based on my own experiences. Other people will have different opinions, and your mileage may vary. Shop around, and don’t make your decision based just on what I have to say. I invite other Worldlink Beijing alums to add their own comments, good or bad, using the form at the bottom of this page.

“Motherfuckers,” muttered the American in line behind me, “I fucking hate the Chinese.” I was in Bangkok, boarding my most recent flight to Beijing on a transit from Singapore. The passengers were mostly Chinese and the queue to board the airplane was random disorganized at best. The angry American was coming to China on business for what I am sure were six long, miserable weeks. Clearly not all of this guy’s baggage was suitcases, if you know what I mean, but I think he was a pretty good example of how you can end up if you don’t learn to roll with the cultural punches.

If you haven’t spent time in Asia, be prepared. Very little English is spoken away from the central business district. Although it’s modernizing fast, Beijing still has a lot of third-world grime, dust and odors. Much of the food is shockingly oily. Public transportation is crowded and, often, uncomfortable. Queuing (lining up for things) is an inexact science. People might seem rude and brusque at first glance. Service may sometimes seem appalling (although it can be surprisingly good at times). You’re a foreigner, so sometimes you’ll pay more for stuff.

Relax. Things just don’t work the same here, and you have to have patience, tolerance and open-mindedness. Chinese social idiosyncrasies are as valid as American ones. Treat discovery of those idiosyncrasies as a cross-cultural adventure and you’ll have a good time. If you expect things to work like they do at home or are quick to get frustrated or angry, you’ll end up culture-shocked and miserable like my fellow traveler in Bangkok. Beijing is fascinating, generally inexpensive and great fun. Western comforts are easy to find once you know where to look. It is much more accessible and easy to get around than I thought it would be. In general I have found Chinese people to be friendly, enthusiastic about speaking Mandarin, and engaging and curious about me and my country.

Some of this stuff seems obvious, but my own Wordlink roommate wrestled with a lot of these issues while he was in China. He was a great guy with good Mandarin skills from university, but this was his first time outside the US and I think a lot what he experienced here took him by surprise. There is no real way to know if you’ll like it or not before you arrive. Buy a good guidebook and read it thoroughly before you get on the plane. Track down people who have spent time in China and talk to them.

This is what you are coming for, so I’ll spend the most time on it.

Worldlink classes consist of three sessions: Speaking, comprehension and listening. Normally these are taught by different instructors, and each session uses a different BLCU text provided by Worldlink. You have two of the three sessions each day, varying over the week. Speaking and comprehension provide the backbone of vocabulary and grammar while the listening course uses cassettes to get you used to hearing and understanding native speakers. I strongly advise going to the BLCU bookstore, near Worldlink, and buying your own set of the cassettes for your listening session. The entire set for one textbook costs about 80 yuan (US$10). If you take the “intensive” course there is an additional afternoon session which is mostly extra reading and vocabulary.

The professors are mostly retired BLCU instructors and the instruction is Asian in style, which means a lot of working through the book by rote and not too much creativity. Homework consists of book exercises and memorizing vocabulary and characters. Different instructors encourage different amounts of discussion in class, but, generally, there is a serious lack of useful conversation time.

You are expected to use language exchange partners or tuition for conversation, but there was a chronic shortage of tutors at Worldlink while I was there. Language exchange partners are local students who swap their Mandarin coaching for your English. If you’re lucky, as I was, you can get a great one who will become a good local friend. If you are unlucky, you’ll get someone who was roped in by being invited to a party where “there will be foreigners” and who has no real idea what he or she is getting into. Several of my friends’ language partners were recruited in this way. There is no shortage of energetic local students advertising to be tutors and language exchange partners, so if Worldlink isn’t providing what you need, don’t be afraid to swallow the modest cost and strike out on your own. If you want to progress, there is no substitute for speaking Chinese to locals.

If you already have some Mandarin, Worldlink will give you a placement test when you arrive. It’s one-page, and no one actually speaks to you. One page is no basis for assessing someone’s language skills. If you’re having a bad day with your characters, or if there is some key vocabulary in the reading passage that trips you up, you get downgraded. If you’ve encountered the parable in the reading passage before and can explain it, you get placed high. To Worldlink’s credit, you can shift classes. They say you can do this during the first week, but they are fairly flexible about it throughout. If you feel uncomfortable with the level of the class you are in at any time, don’t be afraid to ask to change up or down.

Worldlink does not offer all course levels all the time, and they shoehorn a lot of students into the next-best class level. A good friend of mine was not willing to settle for next-best, and browbeat Worldlink into opening a new class at his level. That was fortunate for me since I ended up joining him after spending one weeks in a course that was too easy and then another week in one that was too hard.

But we learned another lesson: Worldlink’s quality of instructors varies wildly. Some are truly fantastic. Some are complete no-hopers. One friend of mine had his Mandarin skills ridiculed in class by his teacher. Not a constructive approach to instruction. Our new instructor was friendly and well meaning, but he had a complete inability to explain vocabulary and grammar in Mandarin, which some of the instructors are very good at. He also had not been trained for the listening class and had apparently never operated a cassette player before. There were some tragicomic moments as my friend and I used our bad Mandarin skills to explain to him how he was supposed to teach us.

Again to Worldlink’s credit, they eventually replaced him with a significantly better instructor with whom I enjoyed studying. But it took a second round of furious lobbying and threats by my energetic classmate. All in, the first three weeks of my twelve week program were something of a write-off. Bear this in mind if you are coming for a month-long program.

Students come to Worldlink for varying lengths of time, and the people in a class can change with time. In the nine weeks after I finalized my class our group ranged from two students to nine. I spent the final three weeks as the sole student in the class, which was at once useful and trying. Four to six people is very comfortable. Much above six and no one person gets to participate much in class. If there are more than ten people in your class at Beijing Chinese Language Academy, complain loud and hard. You are paying extra to avoid BLCU’s large classes.

Often the students have substantially different skill levels. That is not necessarily bad, but it can be frustrating for everyone involved at times. More frustrating, motivation levels can vary dramatically from people who are driven to learn to complete tourists who cut most of their classes and only manage to slow class down at the odd times they show up. We had a one student who was in our class for one month during which he attended six times and contributed nothing but carbon dioxide and surplus body heat.

I spoke to a lot of my friends and classmates about their experiences in Worldlink classes. Opinions ranged from those who felt it was tremendous experience to those who felt it was a total waste of time. On average my friends thought their classes were OK, but were disappointed because they felt that the classes could be significantly better. Better instructors, more conversation and less rote book-work were what many of them wanted.

There is no doubt that you can learn from the Beijing Chinese Language Academy classes taught at Worldlink. I did. But use the classes a springboard to get vocabulary and grammar. You’ll gain much more actual speaking and listening ability from talking to locals, whether they are language exchange partners, tutors, taxi drivers or shopkeepers, than you will from the classes.

My experience was great. I had asked for a three-person apartment, but demand was high with the rush of students returning to Beijing after SARS and I was “upgraded” to a two person apartment. The apartment complex, Huaqing Jiayuan (Leisure Garden), was in a neighborhood called Wudaokou. At first I was alarmed by how far the apartment was from the school, nearly four kilometers. But I rapidly got over that.

The apartment was clean, modern and spacious, if not overly stylish. Despite a very odd smell from the drains in the shower, it was a long way from the roach-infested pit I had mentally prepared myself for. Wudaokou was a great neighborhood to live in, with dozens of bars, restaurants, outdoor beer gardens, coffee houses and shops. A subway station right across from the apartment provided easy access to downtown. School was a ten minute bus ride away, but for most of the summer I walked the forty minutes to and from school. It was hot and dusty, but not unpleasant.

There were a few issues in the apartment that you should prepare for. Although there was a fine fridge and microwave, total cookware consisted of a frying pan, a cleaver and a cutting board. Dishes were four bowls and eight chopsticks. Fortunately, the supermarket downstairs had a fine assortment of ridiculously cheap kitchenware. Also, in Beijing you often prepay for your power, which I didn’t know at the time. Although that was supposed to be taken care of for us, our power went out a couple of times, requiring frantic calls to the landlady, Worldlink etc.

Worldlink’s website also made a few unsupported claims about the apartments. For instance, it says that “all apartments have Internet access”. It would better read, “Internet access can be arranged in all apartments.” It’s not hard to do, but you do have to pay for it yourself (80 yuan a month for broadband). Also, the website says that all rooms have desks and chairs. Well, I got to the apartment first, so I claimed the master bedroom, which did have a desk and a chair. My roommate was in the microscopic second bedroom, which fate he accepted with good cheer. But he had no desk or chair. The apartment also didn’t include the promised DVD player, but my roommate wasted no time prying one out of Worldlink. Ultimately, I was very comfortable there.

Some of my friends who had opted for the dormitories were not so lucky. The dorms are rudimentary but serviceable, but they were also full. The overflow was placed in the Chengfu Hotel, right off of Beijing’s fourth ring road, about two kilometers from campus. The Chengfu was, not to put too fine a point on it, popular with the local whores. It was an adventure for male and female students alike. It didn’t have either the convenience of the dormitories or the charm of Wudaokou.

Some students opt to stay at the Xijiao Hotel, also in Wudaokou. I put my father up there when he was visiting Beijing, and I have nothing bad to report.

Home stays with Chinese families are another option, and I can’t really comment on them much since I didn’t do one myself. I will tell you that my friends who did home stays had mixed experiences. Some thought it was great, some thought it was weird and uncomfortable. Based on what I have heard, I will tell you this: The language benefits of a home stay are real (see “Immersion” below). But be prepared to gamble a bit on the quality of your family, and be ready to surrender some privacy and independence regardless. If your situation is uncomfortable, ask Worldlink to move you.

Fellow Students
My fellow students were the best part of my Worldlink experience. In three months in the program there I made many very good friends, some of whom I hope to stay in touch with. The ready-made social group is hard to beat when you come to a new city, especially one where there can be difficult to make local friends quickly. People were friendly, supportive and fun.

They were, on average, younger than me. I was the rare mid-career professional, at the creaky age of 36. Many of my classmates were college students or grad students, with the occasional 30 something and one or two older people. But we were all strangers in Beijing, and I found it very natural to form friendships with people.

Having a group made it that much easier to navigate restaurants, explore the city, be tourists, share experiences, and generally survive three months in a strange place without feeling stranded. Having moved back to Beijing to work just two weeks ago, I miss that ready-made group of friends, and I feel much more isolated.

The trade-off of the social group is that Worldlink is not “immersion” in Chinese. I was constantly surrounded by English speakers, and hung out with English speakers in my spare time. For a while, I worried about this. “Don’t take anyone to Beijing who will speak English with you,” said my tutor in Singapore (who is from Beijing). Well, I didn’t need to take anyone with me. I found them all there. But I think the trade off of immersion for the support and fun of great was worth it.

You can immerse yourself a bit more with a home stay, if you like. But unless you are relentlessly dedicated to speaking Mandarin all the time, you’ll end up speaking English to your classmates anyway, especially if you want any kind of social life.

There are some non-Worldlink programs that pledge students to speaking nothing but Mandarin. Whatever works for you. Immersion is great, but there is plenty you can accomplish by simply making the most of opportunities to speak the language. My fellow-students and I had a series of “speak Mandarin” dinners where we spoke in Chinese to each other. But it seems a shame to limit all of your discourse to the lowest, linguistic common denominator for three months. If you want to immerse yourself, go backpacking on your own for a month through rural China or get yourself an English teaching job in the sticks for six months (not hard). Worldlink won’t do it.

Worldlink promotes a few bells and whistles to flesh out their package, including the weekend excursions and social outings, elective classes and the student-lounge with Internet access. As with everything else about Worldlink, it’s a grab-bag of good and bad.

I never did any of the weekend trips, although they were very popular. They seemed quite expensive to me for what they were (often 1500 yuan or more for two days by train to Xian or Inner Mongolia, which is deceptively close to Beijing). Often fifty, sixty or more students went on the trips, and they were basically package tourism. Here is your schedule. On the bus, off the bus, eat here, sleep there. If you don’t mind that, go for it. A lot of people had good fun.

For places like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace I suggest skipping the Worldlink trips and doing it on your own, or with a small group of friends. It’s easy to hire a driver and get to those places and more fun to chart your own course when you’re there.

I only did one elective, a course on Chinese character writing. It covered stroke order and radicals. It was OK. I think the electives are very hit-and-miss, and I didn’t feel like I was sacrificing anything by only taking up one of my allotted four.

As for the student lounge, the computers are full of spyware and tend to run badly, but they do generally work. Think twice before accessing your Internet banking. Demand is very high at peak hours (right before class and right after). If you have a laptop, it’s a better bet to bring it and plug it into the Worldlink network. The lounge is often a disaster area of pizza boxes and beer bottles. It’s not so good for lounging, but reasonably tolerable for checking your webmail and meeting your friends before lunch.

Management and Organization
Worldlink is bang-up at processing your application and getting you enrolled in the program. They will meet you at the airport, just like they say they will. They will have someplace tolerable for you to stay. The fundamentals work fine.

The devil is in the details, however. As an academic program, Worldlink seems fairly haphazard. It all comes together in the end, but with rough edges. As we learned, if you don’t end up with the right class or the right instructor, you need to be prepared to make things happen. (Or, if you’re like me, find a friend who is prepared to make things happe). Things like tests and attendance are all fairly random, and depend a great deal on the individual instructor.

Be prepared to be taken by surprise here and there, and to have to ask to office to help you with things that you might feel they ought to automatically take care of, like buying electricity for your apartment. The upside is that the staff were generally very helpful when I did have to ask for them to take care of things.

Was it worth it?
Unquestionably. If you want to come to study Chinese in Beijing, Worldlink makes it easy. The courses, the accommodation, the visa paperwork and the ready-made gang of friends are all taken care of. It’s the easiest way to get there, and it takes the burden of organization out of your hands.

But you can expect some compromises in the classes and the quality of service. That’s the deal you make. I had a good experience, but I worked hard to speak Mandarin with regular Chinese people on a daily basis, and I had a head-start on the language. I also knew exactly what I wanted to get out of being in Beijing for three months, and I achieved that. Even though that didn’t all have to do with Worldlink, they served the purpose I needed and so I feel good about the experience. Not everyone felt the same. My roommate thought the whole thing was a poor second to his Duke University language program of the year before.

It would be easy to come to Worldlink and piss the time away and not learn much, or to be scandalized by a poor experience and give up on it (which some people do). You’re paying a lot considering the local costs, so be willing to go to the mat with Worldlink to get your money’s worth if you feel jerked around. Be clear about what you want to get out of the experience and do what you need to in order to achieve that. Come into it with your eyes open and can be worth your while.

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