Leading the Pack

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Friday, August 17, 2012 

under Education & Career by Michael Ardaiolo

Daniele Bardaro, the Managing Director and owner of the Mandalingua Chinese Language School in Shanghai, has a pair of eyes that rarely rest. They are also slightly magnified by his glasses, which give them an enthusiastically animated quality. When he begins to talk about his language school, his body follows suit. He leans in, gestures in conductor-like strokes to emphasize his point, and then sits back decisively to show his approval. Language, and the acquisition of it, has a caffeinic affect on his personality. Since excitement is half the battle when it comes to learning a new language, Bardaro is a worthy general.


In 2008, Bardaro came to Shanghai from Switzerland, where he had worked in HR training and recruitment. His story of assimilation is essential to Mandalingua’s ethos. And it is one that most – not least of all, myself – can relate to. It begins with the same question each of asks immediately after getting off the plane: what is the best way to learn Mandarin?


After his arrival, Bardaro first enrolled in a private school teaching Mandarin. He was disappointed in his slow start, so he jumped to a more intensive university program. A year later, he was still struggling to learn the language. His refrain of “Why can’t I pick up this language?” began to grate; the excitement began to wane. Luckily though, this was about the time he met a teacher with which he finally felt a significant connection. The Mandarin was still coming slowly, but at least now he had someone with whom to discuss his problems.


They worked together to personalize Bardaro’s learning experience. By emphasizing questions like, “Where is Chinese easy?” strategies began to emerge. Yes, traditional introductory items like mastering the tones, memorizing short phrases or recognizing characters are important, but for Westerners with little-to-no exposure to the language, those can be lengthy, troublesome undertakings. On the other hand, Mandarin’s grammar is quite a bit easier to comprehend and digest. Unlike the Romance languages, Mandarin has no conjugations or complicated tenses or precise word phrasing. Why not start with the grammar then?


Bardaro and his teacher sought out a book that began with this approach. They had no luck finding one. In fact, after assessing quite a few unsuccessful books, they noticed significant problems that were repeated time and again. It wasn’t long before they realized that they would need to develop their own books to pursue this idea. Mandalingua was born.


That was in March 2010. Today, Mandalingua occupies a roomy office suite on the sixth floor of the Gang Tai Plaza just off People’s Square Park. There are thirteen glassed-in classrooms and multiple full-time teachers. Bardaro and his two business partners are there, too. As students enter the suite, Bardaro instinctively sweeps in to say hello. He is bubbling with excitement, talkative and a notch beyond empathetic. It’s infectious. If entering students aren’t energized for their lesson when they step through the front door, they are heading in the right direction by the time they reach the classroom.


The Mandalingua teaching method and accompanying texts book were built from the ground up. Bardaro and his teachers first aim to instill confidence in students, building a foundation of enthusiasm and aplomb in what can often be an embarrassing pursuit during the early days of mispronunciation and elementary sentences. They teach to students’ strengths, often beginning with easy grammar and expanding outwards.


The books are also crafted to be foreigner-centric – they abide by the Common European framework of references of languages – and they include plenty of reference signals so that one can move back and forth through the textbooks with ease. Being “foreigner-centric,” however, is not a cure-all. An Australian with quite a bit of exposure to Chinese culture will learn very differently than a Greek trekking into the country for the first time. Student learning methods vary greatly, no matter where they are from. This is why Bardaro insists on tailor-made programs for each and every student. Those who like to work in groups, work in groups. Those who are more private are offered one-on-one lessons. Can you read Chinese characters rather well, but still struggle with writing them? Well then, they will craft a program emphasizing writing. The printed books may be stagnant, but that doesn’t mean you are locked into learning them from cover to cover.


When building his school, Bardaro also established the Mandalingua Teaching Training Center. He decided to hire a slew of full-time teachers – with impressive benefit packages – instead of employing a rotating series of pay-per-lesson freelancers. Since they weren’t worrying about their next gig, his teachers would enliven the Mandalingua method, experimenting with different variations on each theme and evolving the process to better suit the students. They workshop new ideas, discuss how to better serve individuals and teach each other lessons they learned in the classroom. In essence, it’s a school’s school. The teachers are learning as much as the students. Besides, if the students are investing their time and money in the school to learn, then the teachers should be providing them with the highest returns possible.


Near the end of our conversation, Bardaro leaned in and explained with a 2/4 stroke that landed between sentences, “We don’t teach Chinese in order to earn money. We teach Chinese is easy to learn.” Then, he sat back with a content gusto. Mandalingua is not only convinced they can teach you Mandarin, they truly believe it will be an easy and enjoyable process. It’s just up to you to take the first step.


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