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.
"I have done a bit of business in China and I already recognized that not being able to speak Chinese was [adding to the difficulty] in establishing and building relations with customers," he said.
"The other driver was that I wanted to do something completely different and had never been much good at languages," he added
Again, Atherton found Huang via Google after steering clear of more formal Chinese language tutors online, but he admits the technology also appealed.
"As soon as I came across the possibility I thought I have got to try this because it makes so much sense -- and it works," he said.
"Although you don't have someone in the room with you, face to face, you are actually talking to someone in China right now, that is the compensation," he added
As well as the videophone, Skype also provides a chat facility where Huang's students can check the spelling of the words and a digital whiteboard, where she can draw characters.
Huang now works approximately 20 hours a week preparing for and tutoring her students, but she admits that her reliance on technology is a built-in vulnerability.
In December, a strong earthquake struck off the coast of Taiwan ripping through the undersea Internet cables, crippling services across southeast Asia.
Skype relies on a good connection to transfer smooth images and sound, but the entire Internet into China was debilitated for the following four weeks -- and so was Huang's teaching business.
"If the Internet cuts off we can do nothing. Last month, after the Taiwan earthquake I was going crazy. The Internet itself is the only thing that is difficult," she said.
Huang tailors her classes to each student individually, sending an outline of the next lesson the day before.
After the lesson she sends, or "Skypes," an MP3 recording of the new material that was covered.
"At the end of each lesson she'll ask me what I'd like to learn next time, she'll then compile the material based on my desires," Tommy added.
"It's very important to have this freedom. A lot of teachers will restrict you to a textbook, which is too rigid. I want to know how to do things a bit more rock n' roll. Where is the post office? Who cares. Teach me how to how to get a beer after hours."
TWO CASES: The five allegedly conspired with conglomerates, threatening the nation’s governance and subverting the rules of ethical conduct, a deputy chief prosecutor said Taipei prosecutors yesterday charged three legislators and one former lawmaker with contravening the Anti-Corruption Act (貪污治罪條例) in a case linked to former Pacific Distribution Investment Co (太平洋流通) chairman Lee Heng-lung’s (李恆隆) battle with the Far Eastern Group (遠東集團) over ownership of the Pacific SOGO Department Store (太平洋崇光百貨) chain, while independent Legislator Chao Cheng-yu (趙正宇) was indicted in a separate case involving two funeral services companies and a plot of land in a national park. Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators Chen Chao-ming (陳超明) and Sufin Siluko (廖國棟), Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Legislator Su Chen-ching (蘇震清) and former New Power Party legislator
Swedish Member of Parliament Hampus Hagman is pushing for changing the name of the nation’s trade office in Taipei to signal improved relations with “Asia’s perhaps foremost democracy.” Hagman on Wednesday last week proposed renaming the Swedish Trade and Invest Council to “Sweden’s Office in Taipei,” following similar changes by other nations. The Swedish Trade and Invest Council, part of Business Sweden, is owned by the Swedish government and Swedish industry. Taiwan and Sweden share important values such as respect for democracy, human rights, the rule of law and freedom of speech, Hagman said in the motion, adding that the two nations
PENGHU INSPECTION: Taiwan cannot let its enemies strut around in its airspace, Tsai said, one day after a Chinese spokesman denied a median line exists in the Taiwan Strait Following China’s assertion on Monday that there is no “median line” in the Taiwan Strait, President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) yesterday pledged to defend the nation’s airspace during a visit to an air force base in Penghu, saying that Taiwan cannot allow others to flex their military muscle in its territorial airspace. Tsai praised the “heroic performance” of the pilots of the Indigenous Defense Fighters who have been intercepting Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force planes in recent days. “I have a lot of confidence in you. As soldiers of the Republic of China [ROC], how could we let enemies strut
EFFICIENCY: The rules for Philippine arrivals were revised after 17.6% of arrivals with symptoms tested positive, compared with 0.7% of those with no symptoms Starting today, Chinese spouses who hold a reunion permit can apply to enter Taiwan and travelers without symptoms from the Philippines do not need to be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival, but are to be tested after a 14-day quarantine, the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) said yesterday. Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads the center, said that from today, Chinese who are married to a Taiwanese citizen and hold a reunion permit can apply to the National Immigration Agency for entry into Taiwan. Chinese who are married to a foreign national and hold an accompanied reunion permit