Mastering Mandarin: How Inchin Closer is enabling professionals and students to learn one of the world’s most popular languages
We have all tried to learn a foreign language only to realise that if we don’t practise it or live in a region where it is spoken regularly, we end up forgetting it. Inchin Closer, a premium Mandarin language and cultural institute, created a voiced-based AI app, Inchin, to tackle this problem for those learning Mandarin Chinese.
The app, available for download on both android and iOS phones, helps those wanting to learn Mandarin Chinese practise it through interactive stories. "The interactive stories enable learners to practise speaking and reading Mandarin in various situations and creating an engaging and interactive experience for students," says Nazia Vasi, Founder, CEO of Inchin Closer.
The Inchin app was developed to celebrate 10 years of Inchin Closer, a Mumbai-based company run by two women entrepreneurs — one Indian and the other Chinese — both of whom have lived, worked and travelled to the two countries. Inchin's USP is that it has created its own curriculum for Indian professionals wanting to learn Mandarin by using practical and conversational techniques. Another advantage of using the app is that only native Chinese teachers teach the language, so that students can learn authentic Mandarin with all cultural nuances. A highlight of the app is that all Inchin Closer’s classes are certified by the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) system — an international certification in Mandarin.
An authentic and practical experience to learning Mandarin
Inchin allows a learner to grasp the three critical skills — listening, reading and writing — that are important for anyone to be fluent in a language. Unlike other language learning apps, the Inchin Closer app uses interactive stories and places the user in different situations to enable contextual learning. “To put it simply, the app does not just help you learn a complex language like Mandarin, but also shows you how to apply it in actual conversations. Learning through situations has proved to help students retain 80% more vocabulary than rote learning,” shares Nazia.
A key feature of the app is that the words a user learns through the stories are added to their word bank, so they can later refer to it to check pronunciation and meanings. Interestingly, it doesn’t grade users, but analyses their performance based on their pronunciation, fluency and accuracy. Hence, it helps users gauge their improvement. Users also get to see their past performance and track their progress, as well as compare their progress with other learners. “We plan to apply the data from the app to personalise our classroom teaching,” Nazia says of future plans for integrating the app with her classes.
The integration and analysis of big data from the app to help a student sharpen weaker skills in class is cutting edge. This flipped classroom model is why Inchin Closer is known as India's premium Mandarin language institute. Nazia shares that only a few language courses worldwide offer such an innovative, comprehensive and data-driven approach to learning a language. “It will be interesting to see how Inchin can further integrate big data from the app into the courses in the future.”
Inchin has been designed in collaboration with teachers, learners, behavioural experts, developers and designers. The curriculum has been designed by collecting inputs from international students studying in China as well as native language experts, thereby amalgamating cultural nuances from the perspectives of both native as well as non-native speakers. Such inputs are extremely critical while learning a language like Mandarin where the language and culture share an intrinsic connection, explains Nazia. “Native speakers are able to contextualise the language by sharing context, experiences and insights on the Chinese culture, which makes it easier to learn the language. They are able to bring in an authenticity to the learning experience, which cannot be replicated. Non-native speakers are able to bring out situations and cultural nuances which a native Chinese might take for granted, but are important to understand for non-native speakers,” shares Nazia.
How the curriculum is at core of Inchin Closer’s USP
For the last 10+ years, offline courses have been at the heart of Inchin Closer’s offerings. Together with native Chinese teachers, the language learning institute offers courses for beginners, and intermediate and expert-level courses to align with the requirements for various age groups and industries. In addition to learning how to speak Chinese, all Inchin Closer classes teach students Chinese characters, Chinese calligraphy and facts about the Chinese language, which helps them understand the country’s culture and business etiquette better.
The curriculum, irrespective of the levels, are designed in-house and reflect everyday situations that Indians are likely to find themselves in while living in or travelling to China. The situations range from ordering vegetarian cuisine in restaurants to bargaining while shopping on the streets to negotiating a business deal. “The curriculum enables a very practical understanding of Mandarin and helps people apply the learnings in actual situations,” shares the founder.
The teaching techniques that are used are also an extension of the curriculum. One of the techniques that is extensively used is role play. This the founder says helps the students learn the language better. “They take the learnings from the classrooms and apply it to actual situations.” This focus on applicability is Inchin Closer’s USP. This curriculum periodically goes through iterations to reflect the evolving dynamics. Nazia shares that over the past 10 years, the curriculum has undergone five revisions.
A global outlook
In March 2020, amidst the pandemic, Inchin Closer launched its online classes. While the launch coincided with the national lockdown following the COVID-19 outbreak, she says the restrictions were not the primary reason for launching the online classes. “I knew online classes are the future,” she says. She had researched and studied international models of global education businesses and also consulted and worked with a few intermittently. “So, I knew how to teach online and was well aware of what it takes to transition from an offline curriculum and offline teaching techniques to an online medium. We had already started the preparations to launch online classes.”
The launch of the Inchin app and the online classes aligns with Inchin Closer’s plan to go global. The company is looking to expand to English-speaking geographies and those which have sizable expat populations like Dubai and Singapore. Nazia is excited about driving Inchin Closer’s growth story 2.0. “Mandarin is the language of the future,” she says signing off.