Learning Chinese for More Than Business

May 4, 2014 Updated: June 26, 2015

Everyone’s learning Chinese. When one of every five people on the planet is said to speak Chinese, it becomes very tempting for the other four to learn it too. 

According to a 2011 report by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, K–12 enrollment in Chinese language programs rose by 195 percent between 2005 and 2008, the year for which latest figures are available.

In the United States, many professionals learn Chinese for reasons related to business and international diplomacy, and urge their children to study the language for similar reasons.

But for Jon Hills, founder of Hills Learning—a Manhattan learning center teaching Chinese, Japanese, and Korean—the key is passion. 

“If you’re learning a language for a business purpose, my personal feeling on that is you’re not going to learn it thoroughly,” he said. Among the languages taught at the center, Mandarin has the highest dropout rate, presumably for this reason. 

“You can learn some basics, but to really sit down and have a full out conversation in Mandarin, and not only do that but maintain it throughout your life, you need a personal drive,” Hills said. 

Hills found his personal drive traveling through over 50 countries throughout Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa. He became interested in Chinese when he was teaching English in Japan. He picked up some Chinese language from friends, liked the way it sounds, and became intrigued by Chinese people and culture. 

When he returned from his travels, however, he noticed a lack of Asian language teaching in New York. Though it was a difficult time to start a business in January of 2009, just after the market crash, he began building the sort of language learning service he envisioned.

He began by using his knowledge of Japanese to match private tutors with potential students from his desk at home. After a couple months, he introduced Korean and Mandarin to the center’s offerings.

‘To Speak Is to Know’

Hills Learning Center currently serves 80 students of Mandarin through group classes and private, one-to-one tutoring. Group classes consist mainly of adults whereas private tutoring is preferred for children.

In intimate classes of no more than eight, students progress through 24 levels to reach advanced proficiency. Each level is eight weeks, 1.5 hours a week. 

Class time is a chatty affair. Teachers converse with students about topics ranging from basic introductions to workplace and travel scenarios. Students receive practice assignments to work on during the week.

In private lessons, students may request to hone any of the main skills, as well as test preparation and cultural etiquette.

Teachers at Hills are all native speakers with more than three years of teaching experience and are trained in Hills Learning’s unique teaching method, SWIRL. 

SWIRL stands for the five basic language skills—speaking, writing, intonation, reading, and listening. It reflects Hills’s philosophy, “to speak is to know.”

Of these, speaking and listening are top-tier priorities, followed by intonation (crucial in a tonal language like Chinese). Lastly, students master reading and writing for total fluency. Typically, three of these areas are worked on simultaneously each session. 

With the SWIRL method, which integrates skills in a way similar to how children learn—first by speaking and listening, then by reading and writing—students are able to absorb language efficiently and organically.

Opening New Worlds

Puerto Rican-born polyglot Huascar Robles has studied in France and lived in Brazil, but felt an inexplicable affinity for Chinese culture. 

“With China it’s different. … I just felt like I had to learn Chinese, I was attracted to the culture,” he said.

After his 38th birthday, Robles took the plunge and began studying Mandarin at Hills Learning, an experience that’s opened him up to the richness of Chinese culture here in New York.

“Locally, it’s how amazing that I can learn a language and just go somewhere and just talk to people … so if you’re in this city, particularly, or in a metropolitan city, I would recommend to anyone to learn Mandarin, because it’s going to be a very up-and-coming, pervasive [language].”

“Now I’m reading [Chinese] books, I’m meeting people, and the more I get to know it, the more enamored I am,” Robles said. 

His biggest takeaway from learning Chinese is gaining deeper cultural perspective.

“Learning another culture also makes you understand yours. The majority of Chinese people are open minded, wanting freedom, beautifully artistic, [and] introspective—which reflects nothing of their current government.” 

“Another benefit of learning another culture, [is] you start to analyze your own as you learn the other one.”

A Handy Guide to the Four Tones of Mandarin

When referring to the tones in Mandarin, in Chinese you literally refer to them as “the first tone” or “the fourth tone.”

This illustration uses the sound “ma.” “Ma” can mean at least four different things, depending on which tone you pronounce it with. In the dictionary, there are 16 entries for “ma” in all tones, so intonation is essential if you want to be understood.

1) The First Tone
Called the “high level” tone—is a high, elongated sound. It sounds like how you’d say “ahhh” when you go to the dentist.

Ma pronounced with the high tone means “mother.” 

2) The Second Tone
The “rising tone”—is a tone that slowly rises from low to high inflection. This tone sounds like you’re asking the question “what?”

Ma with the second tone means “hemp.” 

3) The Third Tone
The “falling and then rising” tone. You’ll start at about the mid level with your voice, go down deeply, then back up again. The tone mimics inflection when you sound surprised. It sounds like if you were to ask the question, “Really?”

Ma with the third tone means “horse.” 

4) Fourth Tone
The “falling tone.” This tone drops abruptly. It’s the sharpest and most quickly pronounced tone.

Ma with the fourth tone means “to scold.” Seems fitting, as the sound of the fourth tone itself sounds like a mother telling her child a quick “no!” ?

Source: Hills Learning