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Skype your way to learning Chinese

Interested in learning Chinese, but don't have the money or time to study in China? Some teachers are turning to Skype for help.

Sumner Lemon
PC World
Tuesday, May 1, 2007; 12:32 AM

Interested in learning Chinese, but don't have the money or time to study in China? Some teachers are turning to Skype for help.

The high sound quality offered by Skype Ltd.'s VOIP (voice over Internet Protocol) software and the proliferation of high-speed Internet connections in China and elsewhere, make it possible to dial up a Chinese tutor who can help teach you the basics of Chinese or polish your language skills ahead of that big business trip.

Stephanie Xu, a tutor in Beijing, has been using Skype to teach Chinese for a little more than one month. She found her first online student, a U.S. businessman who already spoke some Chinese, through an advertisement she placed on the Web site of That's Beijing, a local English-language magazine.

"For teaching daily conversation, Skype is very, very good," she said.

Xu charges 80 renminbi (US$10.35) per hour-long Skype session. That's less than the 100 renminbi she charges her offline students for face-to-face sessions, but she saves time by avoiding the one-hour commute into downtown Beijing from her home in the city's northern suburbs.

On the other hand, getting paid can be tricky. Xu's first student sent a letter with 800 renminbi in cash after two lessons, paying for subsequent lessons in advance. "In the future, I'm thinking about using PayPal or Western Union," she said, noting that bank transfers to China can be complicated and difficult to arrange.

Freelance tutors like Xu aren't the only ones using Skype to teach Chinese. Language schools are also taking advantage of the technology.

EChineseLearning, in Beijing, offers daily Chinese classes for a monthly subscription fee of US$100. The 50-minute lessons are taught by teachers from Beijing Language and Culture University and other schools that work for eChineseLearning on a part-time basis. The classes are all taught online, using the voice chat features of Skype, Google Talk, Yahoo Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger or Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Live Messenger.

"We mostly use Skype because the sound quality is better," said Michael Zhong, an eChineseLearning sales executive.

Founded last year, eChineseLearning currently has about 100 students ranging in age from children to adults, mostly from the U.S., Zhong said. They pay for their lessons using PayPal service or Google Checkout.

Beijing may be half a world away from students in the U.S., but the time difference is well suited to evening lessons for U.S. students, Zhong said, noting that 8 a.m., Beijing time, is equivalent to 8 p.m. in New York or 5 p.m. in San Francisco.

Building a business teaching Chinese online can be difficult, especially for freelancers like Xu who lack the deeper pockets of a language school. Seeing promise in Skype as a teaching medium for conversational Chinese, she posted several ads on Internet forums hoping to attract potential students, without success. "Nobody tried to contact with me," she said.

Without the money for her own advertising campaign, Xu is looking for creative ways to promote her business and remains enthusiastic about the potential of online tutoring.

"I'm going to focus on Skype tutoring in the future," she said.

© 2007 PC World Communications, Inc. All rights reserved

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