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Online language instruction booming in China

BEIJING—Chinese instructors are teaching their language to students around the world without ever leaving China, as Liu Yang recently demonstrated while sitting in a cubicle peering at a streaming video image on her computer monitor.

Her headset comfortably on, Liu gently addressed a faraway student struggling to speak in the standard Chinese dialect. She watched him on her screen, corrected his pronunciation and guided him through simple drills in an online textbook.

With the latest technology, student and teacher heard each other clearly. They also saw each other on camera.

The era of interactive online language instruction has arrived. It may never be a complete replacement for face-to-face instruction, experts say, but its low cost and convenience make it attractive. Instruction in standard Chinese, or Mandarin, is taking off in China, where teachers are paid less than instructors abroad and easily embrace the technology.

"This is a trend. It is unavoidable," said Dr. Marvin Ho, founder of the Taipei Language Institute, a Chinese-language school with 12 centers in Taiwan, Mainland China, Japan and the United States.

Ho has set up an online call center in west Beijing where some 20 teachers offer online sessions. The center is teaching 147 employees of the Mitsubishi Corp. in Japan, offering them 50 hours of instruction in Chinese for business dealings. The students learn 2,160 vocabulary words from a textbook geared to Mitsubishi's needs.

"The online one-on-one teaching strategy is very convenient for both teacher and student," Ho said. "It saves a lot of time. (Students) can do it at home or in the office. They don't have to fight traffic."

New businesses are emerging with similar language training, often using Internet telephone services such as the popular Skype system, whose software allows tens of millions of Web users around the world to speak to one another free.

"This week, I gave an online Chinese lesson to Robert. He's in California," a Chinese tutor in the city of Hangzhou wrote recently on a Web log. "We talked through Skype and the lesson turned out to be pretty good. Teaching Chinese is like my ideal part-time job."

Across the globe, schools and individual teachers are offering interactive online instruction in such languages as Russian, French, Japanese, English and Spanish.

"Last summer, I found out that Skype could be a very useful tool for us to teach Chinese to foreigners in their home countries. We started to advertise our service online. Now we have about 60 students altogether around the world," said Ma Xiaotong, the general manager of Beijing Dragon and Phoenix International, a language and culture school.

Her school mails textbooks to students and charges $10 an hour for instruction.

Some schools set up Web cameras so that their students can see their teachers. Some combine that system with a software package that includes language drills.

It took six months for the Taipei Language Institute to develop software for its Japanese clients, Ho said. The program allows students to see phrases on their monitors in Chinese characters and also in China's pinyin system, which uses the alphabet and tone marks to show the pronunciation and tone of each word. In Mandarin, the same sound with a different tone can have a new meaning.

The software also allows teachers to use writing pads to write Chinese characters that later appear in red on students' screens, allowing reading and comprehension tests.

Ho, who founded his chain of schools in 1956, said there are significant drawbacks to online interactive language instruction.

"You cannot depend on this. Nothing can compete with person-to-person, face-to-face," he said in a telephone interview from Taipei. "A lot of drills need to be perfected in a real situation."

The director of Ho's Beijing center, Wang Yang, noted other shortcomings.

"You can't see the body language," Wang said. "The feeling of the language is very important."

She held a piece of paper an inch from her lips and aspirated a unique Mandarin sound, causing the paper to flutter. She said the pronunciation was difficult to teach online.

"Students don't understand if we say `bo' instead of `po,'" Wang said.

At most cubicles, the Chinese tutors can see interactive images of their Japanese students. A few of the Japanese, though, are shy and prefer to turn the Web cameras off. Many of them learn from their homes.

Convenience is a big factor, Wang said.

Ho said he believes online language instruction will flourish in coming years when used in combination with face-to-face instruction.

Ma said teachers working through her institute are spread across China.

"We have a primary-school teacher in a suburb of Shenzhen (in southern China) who speaks good English and Chinese. She is now teaching several Australian kids Chinese online, and the kids love her," Ma said.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondent Fan Linjun contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): CHINA-LANGUAGE

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