This is a challenging topic that defies one simple answer. The selection of a teacher and school for yourself or your child is a highly personal quest; one that must take into consideration your individual goals, needs, and background.
Therein lies the rub. When you talk with a school administrator or teacher, are they asking about your goals, needs and background? Or, are they telling you about their individual skills, methodology, track record or materials?
Your needs are central
In order to choose the best program to meet your needs, you must first examine what those needs are and recognize that they will change over time. Some of the most important questions to ask yourself:
Where will you use Mandarin; in which social, academic or professional circumstance and environment?
Where will your children use Mandarin?
Are your goals for yourself and your children age and developmentally appropriate?
Finally, are those goals realistic?
Be an active learner
In order to learn a language you need to be more than a passive learner in the process. You need to take an active role in determining what you will learn, when you will learn it, and if you are satisfied with the progress you are making.
The burden for accomplishing those goals lies not only with the instructor, but with you. Have you chosen the environment that is best suited to help you meet those goals?
If not, you have the opportunity and the right to seek a different environment and or teacher.
Use the goal setting process to identify not only your goals but to think about your strengths and weaknesses. What do you know about the way you learn?
If you have never studied another language you can still identify how you learn most effectively. Do you learn by listening (an auditory learner), by reading or seeing pictures (a visual learner), by moving and acting out (a kinesthetic learner). Knowing the learning styles that help you process new information can allow you to work toward your strengths and your teacher to deliver content in a way that best works for you.
There are many different learning style inventories available; the most basic divide the process of learning into the 3 categories listed above (auditory, visual, kinesthetic). Other inventories (multiple intelligences) broaden the categories to include music, environment, interpersonal/social learning among the styles. It is helpful to understand your personal or child's learning styles.
The balance between the different styles will change over time as a student matures and succeeds in different challenges. Young children will shift from functioning as predominantly auditory learners to a blend of two or more dominant styles. Repeat the learning style inventories every few years to help tune your learning and keep your teachers informed.
In the next part, we're going to look at what to do after you have identified how you learn and set medium and long term goals, namely to make contact with a teacher and a school.