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Learning Chinese the Skype way

Skype is rapidly turning into the classroom of the 21st century. Aside from videophone, it also checks spelling on the digital whiteboard


A computer user in Hong Kong looks at an image of online Mandarin teacher Lily Huang at her home on Hainan Province, China, on Tuesday. Huang teaches students across the globe via Skype, the Internet telephony system that allows people to communicate for free across the world, often using Webcams.


London-based stand-up comedian Tommy Campbell's iPod is packed with recordings made by a mother-of-one who lives in China's southernmost province of Hainan.

The two have never met, but every week they spend three hours in each other's company, as Tommy struggles to form the distinctive tones and sounds of Mandarin Chinese.

Lily Huang is Tommy's Mandarin teacher. Rather than pay exorbitant prices for a UK-based face-to-face tutor or hide in the back of the class at night school, Tommy can take Lily's lessons in the comfort and privacy of his own home via the Internet, direct from China.

Lily teaches students across the globe via Skype, the Internet telephony system that allows people to communicate for free across the world, often using Web cams.

The videophone service was set up in 2003 by two Scandinavian entrepreneurs and sold to Ebay in September 2005 for US$4.1 billion. It is now available in 27 languages. Asia reportedly represents 30 percent of its 171 million subscribers and has become its fastest growing market.

Such is the strength of the technology that a broadband connection means the 34-year-old from the island's capital city of Haikou can meet the huge demand for Mandarin teachers in countries as far away as the US, New Zealand and Malaysia, something that would have been impossible even five years ago.

"Most of my students are very busy. They have no time to go to classes and they want to work from home, where they can be very relaxed," said Huang, who is a qualified English teacher and previously taught in Chinese schools.

"If you sit in a class with many students and just one tutor, the student cannot talk too much, you cannot practice that much, but [with Skype lessons] he or she can talk as much as he or she wants," she said.

Huang is also able to undercut private tutors in the West.

Such is the dearth of qualified Mandarin teachers in Britain that they can easily charge US$150 an hour, and even more for business clients.

Huang's lessons cost around US$20 an hour, which her students pay via PayPal, the online banking service.

She says it's a good income in China, and affords her the flexibility to stay at home and look after her six-year-old son.

Huang's husband came up with the idea of using the Internet for lessons a year ago and she tentatively started putting her details on a few expat Web sites.

She also set up a page on the social networking site Myspace, which is where Tommy found her after a simple Google search for private Mandarin tutors.

"Learning a new language takes a tremendous amount of confidence and having the stability to learn at home makes things a lot easier," the 28-year-old comic said.

"A lot of teachers don't feel comfortable coming to your home so they arrange a `neutral' place to meet. It sounds like a bad blind date, but I once took Spanish lessons where the teacher wanted to meet in a coffee shop. Try sitting in Starbucks struggling to make all these new sounds without looking like a right jackass," he said.

While Tommy took the class for the challenge of learning a new language -- he plays gigs across the world -- Huang's students range from people who want to learn for business, to a second generation Chinese expat who wanted to learn how to communicate with relatives in Taiwan.

Eric Atherton, who has run companies providing components for the oil industry, lives in the rural English county of Oxfordshire and, reluctant to attend classes, could not find any private Mandarin tutors locally.

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