Sishu: UCL graduate uses psychoanalysis to transform Chinese language learning
After becoming the most popular teacher in a Chinese school Sisi Lin transformed her unique teaching methodology into a one-of-a-kind business.
20 November 2018
While Sisi Lin was studying for her Master’s in Psychoanalytic Developmental Psychology at UCL – run with the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families – she also took a part-time job as a Mandarin teacher at an established Chinese school in London. She noticed how traditional teaching methodologies didn’t engage the children.
Inspired to incorporate psychoanalytic ideas learned from her Master’s degree into the classroom, Sisi developed a new methodology based on the reasons language develops in the first place – to satisfy human needs. Babies cry to communicate hunger, thirst or discomfort – and their parents become attuned to each cry. As children grow and have to communicate with a wider circle of people, crying isn’t a sufficient way of communicating. And so they learn words that have a shared meaning with the people in their environment.
Sisi believed learning a second language should be based on the same principles. She created a teaching methodology based on real experiences that resonated with her pupils, instead of relying too heavily on textbooks and flashcards. She quickly became the most popular teacher in the Chinese school.
Creating a language business
Sisi approached UCL Innovation & Enterprise for advice about turning her idea into a business. As well as gaining help to extend her stay in the UK via a Tier 1 (Graduate Entrepreneur) Visa, Sisi received UCL funding, attended business workshops and regularly met a dedicated business adviser. As a result, Sisi was able to set up her business, SiShu, from UCL’s business incubator for startups – the Hatchery.
Using Sisi’s teaching methodology, the language school emphasises experiential learning and building relationships with pupils and their families. Every SiShu teacher learns each child’s likes and dislikes, hobbies and favourite colours, and phones them during the week in between classes to have a conversation in Mandarin. The children go on monthly trips to learn vocabulary and sentence structure through engaging everyday learning, they take part in London’s annual Chinese New Year celebrations and they mark seasonal events through cooking, crafts and songs.
Sisi Lin said: “Building strong relationships between students and teachers and taking part in cultural events helps children build a sense of belonging of having a shared language. It’s a feeling of community much like the one at UCL Innovation & Enterprise – and I couldn’t have given these children such opportunities through my business without them.”
Youngest language success stories in the UK
Pupils of SiShu consistently score in the top percentile of students passing the Youth Chinese Test (YCT) – the international standardised Chinese test for language proficiency. SiShu has the youngest students in the UK passing the test with top marks, including a three-year-old. Since the test is designed for older children, Sisi persuaded YCT organisers to make SiShu an official branch test centre, recognising that comfort in an environment affects children’s ability to communicate.
SiShu is making Mandarin more readily available to a wider community, who are embracing the growing popularity of Chinese languages. As a result, 90% of SiShu’s students are from non-Chinese backgrounds. Sisi has also been recognised for her contribution to furthering Chinese culture in the UK by winning the 2017 Big Ben Award.
In the next five years, she intends on expanding the business by creating a dedicated learning centre and increasing her range of teaching materials, including textbooks that can be consumed in small doses and apps the whole family can enjoy.
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