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Real immersion: Learning Chinese at Keats in Kunming

One of the best ways to learn Chinese is to join a Chinese language program in China. One of the key players in this field is Keats School in Kunming. They facilitate Chinese classes, accommodation, events and much more. I talked to the co-founder of Keats School Zier Liu (刘子尔) and asked her why students keep returning every year and how Keats adepts to the present Covid-situation.

In the realm of Chinese language education Keats is a household name. How did you start out?  

Keats School was founded in 2004 in Kunming. At that time, there was no Chinese language school in Kunming. Many foreign friends wanted to learn Chinese but had no luck to study at a professional language school. The founder Mrs. Xue Feng used to be a doctor in the First Provincial Hospital of Yunnan and then quit her job to start Keats School. I joined her in 2013, after I competed my bachelor studies at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The biggest challenge we had was how to create efficient methods for westerners to learn Chinese in an easy and fun way. Many students are intimidated when learning Chinese as they tend to think it is the most difficult language in the world. After years of research and development, we finally got what we want. Many students like our interactive and efficient ways of teaching and they keep coming back to Keats every year.

There are many Chinese language programs for foreigners in China. What does make Keats stand out?

Keats School has the most professional Chinese teaching team in Kunming. We also have developed our own in-house Learn-Repeat-Recognize-Produce (known as LRRP) learning methodology, which includes many methods that help students learn practical Chinese fast.

All of our Chinese classes are carefully prepared and delivered by certified Chinese teachers. The teaching team will review the learning content and collect feedback from students on a regular basis. This ensures that every student can enjoy the Chinese class at a comfortable pace and learn efficiently.

In terms of operation scale, as of 2021, our headquarters in Kunming owns 53 single dorm rooms with private bathrooms, gym, cafeteria, and 60 classrooms with computers in the school building.

We believe that students not only need professional Chinese teachers but also a Chinese language immersion environment. Therefore, we organize all kinds of activities with Chinese people outside of classrooms, so that you can practice your Chinese with your Chinese language partners.

What sort of qualifications do your teachers require?

When we select teachers, the teachers must have either 教师资格证 (teacher license required at a public school issued by the government) or 国际汉语教师资格证 (Certificate for Teachers of Chinese to Speakers of Other Languages issued by the Confucius Institute). This is just the very basic and intro requirement for the interview. If one passes the interview, the candidate has to take the training at Keats and learn to use Keats methods. Only by passing the training selection, the candidate can officially become a Keats teacher. The teachers will also be evaluated by the students to make sure that the student is satisfied with the progress made.

Kunming is probably not on top of the list for most people who want to join a Chinese language program in China. Why should learners of Chinese come to Kunming?

Kunming is the capital city of Yunnan province. Reputable as the “Eternal Spring City”, Kunming has the mildest climate in China, allowing you to escape the scorching heat during summer and the bitter coldness in winter. There are countless cultural and natural touring attractions for you to experience after your Chinese classes or during the weekends and holiday.

Unlike other major Chinese cities, Kunming is a city where you enjoy a slow-paced life while maintaining modern convenience. Since it is a less well-known Chinese city with fewer international people, Kunming offers more chances for language learners to practice speaking Chinese with locals during their stay.

Though Kunming is not as developed as Beijing and Shanghai, it is still easy to reach in terms of transportation. Kunming is already considered the transportation hub of Southwest China and is working hard to become the international transportation hub of Southeast Asia too. Kunming boasts the fifth largest international airport in China, making it convenient to fly in and out from this lovely city to different corners of the world.

Famous for the diversity of plants and animals, Kunming is the home for The Conference of the Parties (COP 15), which is a United Nations environment program.

Kunming has cleaner air than Beijing and Shanghai and is an ideal place for a comfortable stay.

Due to the pandemic visiting China from abroad can be difficult. What do people who want to come Kunming and join one of your Chinese language programs need to know?

The Chinese border is only partially open to international people at the moment. We’re still waiting for a policy-update regarding international students. We would suggest to pay close attention to the updates from your local Chinese Embassy to find out when you can hand in a student visa application. We would be happy to provide the invitation letter and other required documents to facilitate your visa application. We also post regular updates on our blog.

Since last year, Chinese people have pretty much been living a normal life and are back to work. Vaccination programs are proceeding here as well and it is estimated that 80% of the Chinese population will complete their COVID-19 vaccination by the end of this year. All Keats teachers and staffs have completed their COVID-19 vaccinations and only a few infections cases have been reported in Kunming in the past half year, so you don’t have to worry about your safety when learning in Kunming. Keats School has also prepared an emergency plan to take care of the students in case that there is a breakout or lockdown.

What’s the best time to come to Kunming?

Many students choose to study at our school during summer and winter vacations. It is mainly due to the mild climate weather of Kunming. Besides the weather elements, many students choose to study at our school during touring season as well (from June to September, December to next May).

Yunnan province, where Kunming is located, is the most popular touring destination in China. Not only for its amazing landscapes, varying from tropical forests to snow-capped mountains, but also for its abundant ethnic minority group cultures.  All these destinations can be reached conveniently from Kunming.

Yunnan is a large province that is home to 25 different ethnic minority groups. Therefore, the ethnic minority festivals time – Songkran Festival for example – is also a very popular period of learning. Many students choose to study at Keats before the festival and fly from Kunming to Xishuangbanna to enjoy the water celebration.

What about the local Kunming dialect? Is it very different from Standard Mandarin?

The Kunming dialect, which belongs to the northern dialect family, is quite similar to Mandarin. China is a vast country where you will hear various dialects from north to south. But Kunming dialect is definitely simple to understand. Most people you meet in Kunming can speak standard Mandarin: excellent for practicing Mandarin on the street or in a restaurant.

You offer courses not only in Kunming but in several locations. Can you tell me more about that?

Keats School has set up a few branch schools in different locations such as Lijiang, Dali, Xishuangbanna, Jingmai Tea Mountain, Jianshui, Yuanyang, Tengchong and Puzhehei. Our students can combine different locations in one program to experience different parts of Yunnan.

Which Chinese programs do you offer?

We have 8 major Chinese programs available currently:

Which program is the most popular and why?

The Intensive one-on-one Chinese Classes, the Small Group Chinese Class, the HSK Test Preparation Course and Online Chinese lessons have been the most popular ones since 2004, because by following these programs students can really boost their Chinese proficiency.

The Intensive one-on-one Chinese Classes offer the most immersive Chinese language experience. You can choose to study one-on-one with a certified Mandarin teacher for 4 hours per day or 6 hours per day. The course content will be completely customized according to your level and your goals. It is the fastest way to improve your Chinese.

If you are looking for a budget-friendly program in China, then the Small Group Chinese Classes at Keats is the best option. The price is low, but you can still enjoy personal attention in class with no more than 5 students. The Small Group Chinese Classes are lasting for 4 hours per day, with levels from new HSK 1 to new HSK 9.

As Chinese language is getting popular, we have seen a huge increase in the need of taking the HSK test. It is required to enter a Chinese university and to work for Chinese companies. By doing research in helping students pass the HSK test led by Keats head teachers, Keats maintains a 94% passing rate with 42% of all Keats students taking the HSK Test Preparation Course.

What about online courses?

Because of the pandemic more and more students start to take online Chinese lessons with Keats. The added value is that you can learn Chinese anytime and anywhere. We offer online Chinese lessons 24/7 to fit your schedule. You can decide when to take the lessons and how many hours of lessons you would like to buy. You can even start with a 5-hour package. At this moment, the online lessons are delivered one-on-one. The small group online lessons are coming soon.

Which Chinese language level do I need if I want to join one of your programs? What if I’m a (almost) complete beginner?

There is no minimal requirement of language level for enrolling in Keats Language programs. No matter which level you are in, beginner or advanced learner, we can always provide an appropriate learning schedule for you, based on your current language level and learning goals.

If you’re a complete beginner, your teacher will start with basic content such as Pinyin and standard pronunciation to help you lay a solid foundation before you can move to the next stage.

What does a typical study week look like?

According to your learning plan, you will attend Chinese classes from Monday to Friday, 4 to 6 hours per day. Aside from the Chinese class, you will enjoy a series of Chinese cultural activities and events organized by Keats School.

Free language exchange will be held on Monday and Wednesday evening (only offered in Kunming). You will be able to practice what you have learned in the classroom in real-life situations with native speakers.

Every Tuesday is movie night or drama night at Keats; Every Thursday, a cultural night will be organized with cultural activities or DIY classes such as Chinese mahjong, Chinese tea tasting, dumplings making, Chinese paper cutting, Chinese painting, etc.

Every Friday night is snack night where you and your Chinese friends will try local snacks.

On weekends, you can sign up for the free Saturday excursion with a Keats Chinese teacher and your Chinese language partners. By joining the excursion, you can make the most out of your time by sightseeing and learning at the same time.

You mentioned Chinese language partners…?

Yes, we also facilitate language exchanges and can match you up with a native Chinese speaker. Keats has an English school which has many English learners who are eager to learn English and make friends with foreigners. We organize language exchange activities every week.

If I were to plan a two-month study visit in Kunming and maybe some of the other locations you offer, what would the costs be (rough estimation)?

Taking the Intensive one-on-one Chinese classes as example, the price of a 8-week study varies in different locations. The prices listed below include one-on-one lessons and accommodation for your reference:

How can you combine different locations in one program to experience different parts of Yunnan? Can I change location every week for example?

The multi-location option is currently only offered for the intensive one-on-one Chinese program. You can choose to study at different locations with a duration that fits your schedule.

For example, you are planning to study at Keats for 8 weeks, you can study in Kunming for 4 weeks and study in Dali for 2 weeks, and study in Lijiang for 2 weeks or even spend 1 week at each location. You can decide how many weeks you want to spend at each location and then combine them together.

It is completely customized and flexible. You can let us know which locations you’re interested in and what cultural activities or classes you would like to join. We will also recommend to you the best time of visiting and duration of staying at different locations. Aside from learning, if you need any assistance with a local touring trip, we would be happy to arrange it for you as well. 

What do students value the most about their experience with Keats?

Keats welcomes 40% returning students each year and many of them come to study at Keats every year. What keeps them coming back? It must be the Chinese course quality and school facilities. The Keats teaching team is always dedicated to delivering the best Chinese class for students. No matter what level you have and what your learning goals are, Keats School will accommodate the learning schedule to help you achieve them. Well-furnished dorm room and well-organized school facilities bring every Keats students the warmth of home. Keats Team also provides thoughtful service and assistance for students in both aspects of study and life. This ensures that you will enjoy a hassle-free learning time at Keats School.

I noticed that one of your former students is Ruben Terlou who made several, successful documentaries about China. Are there other “famous” ex-Keats students?

Yes, Ruben studied at Keats and we admire his films as well. I think we do have many great students. Each year, Keats attracts a lot of top-level people in their fields. Most Keats students are gap-year students, university students, PhDs, lawyers, doctors, professors, entrepreneurs, teachers, tour guides, managers, IT developers, scientists, government clerks, photographers and artists etc. The language environment at Keats is not only immersive but also academic. All students who come to study at Keats are really serious about learning Chinese and their progress, so they want to spend their time in a professional Chinese school. But they are all low-key people and very humble.

What are your plans for the future?

Keats School will keep working hard on providing the best Chinese language and culture programs for our students. Now the NEW HSK has been launched, we have redesigned our HSK Test preparation course accordingly as well. To offer more destinations in China as options for learning, we will set up more branch locations in other Chinese cities where students can enjoy relaxing cultural immersion and also efficient Chinese courses. At Keats School, we aim not only to help students learn the Chinese language, but also to help students find their potential for the Chinese language and Chinese culture.

Everyone has a dream, Keats also has a dream. Keats’ core value is to make your dream come true, so Keats offers the most affordable immersion Chinese language programs. Every student is a milestone to Keats because we are one step closer to make our dream come true.

Where can people who are interested read reviews and find out more about you?

You are welcome to find more about Keats School and other students’ stories and experience in Kunming on our website. You can learn about other students’ experience with the Intensive One-on-one Chinese course here or here (for students’ experience with the Small Group Chinese Classes) or simply contact us directly.

I hoped you enjoyed this interview with 刘子尔 from Keats school! If you have any thoughts or questions feel free to leave a comment down below.

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