Many of her students learn about Gamst Berg from her podcasts. They are drawn by her creativity and passion for Cantonese and her unorthodox methods. “She’s energetic, outgoing and crazy, but in a good way,” says one of her students, Megan Choy.
Choy graduated in the United States and is now a doctor at a private clinic. She has lessons with Berg once a week. They sit at a dim sum restaurant and study the Chinese menu word by word. When Choy fails to recognise a character, Berg makes wild gestures and draws graphics to remind her.
The courses are customised to students’ preferences and abilities. “Everybody has the same ability to learn a language. [Be] methodical, do exercises, learn by heart,” she says, because that helps you memorise simple and daily conversations.
Gamst Berg believes there are two elements that make her courses so successful – being fun and practical. She considers what students need in different situations and makes lessons out of them. Gamst Berg often conducts her lessons in restaurants. “That’s my classroom because it’s real life situation with waiters,” she says. The students also gain great satisfaction after successfully ordering in Cantonese.
From her 16 years of teaching in Hong Kong, she observes that many Hong Kong people assume language learning should be boring in order to be effective. This is something she completely disagrees with and so she puts a lot of effort into coming up with funny plots and materials for her videos. Humour has become her signature; it distinguishes her from other Cantonese teachers. “If it’s interesting and funny, then people will watch it and learn. I take this humorous approach seriously,” says Gamst Berg, who actually taught herself the language in her early thirties.
Gamst Berg came to China in 1988 in her late twenties. She left Norway to escape the cold and dark and boarded the Trans-Siberian train with the aim of ending up in Australia. She arrived in Beijing after 12 days on the train but once she got off, she decided within 20 seconds that she wanted to stay there for the rest of her life.
She says she was stunned by the beauty of the city, recalling that it was like stepping into a black and white photo without any modern ugliness like commercial billboards and fast food chains.
Unfortunately, after five months, her visa expired twice and she could not get another one. Public security officials suggested she try Hong Kong. She eventually settled here so that she could visit mainland China whenever she wanted.