I think I've mentioned I'm broke before, right? That means I don't have a lot of money to spend on fancy lessons to maintain or improve the knowledge of Mandarin I gained after 2 semesters of classroom instruction at ACC. So what's a poor, waiting-to-start-law-school student to do? I decided to turn to http://www.meetup.com/ to answer that question.
Aston International Academy has entrusted the flagship Mandarin program to the very capable Lia Yin. I did not attend the paid sessions of instruction, only the free workshop for beginner and intermediate students, so I cannot accurately comment on what the classroom experience entails. However, for Austin residents curious about learning Chinese, I can honestly recommend attending the beginners' section of the monthly workshop to get an introduction to Mandarin.
The Longwen Chinese Program (http://www.longwenchinese.com/) describes a pedagogical philosophy committed to imparting practical knowledge in verbal communication. It emphasizes small class sizes, exchanges between teacher and students, and teaching culturally sensitive conversational skills.
The free workshops are divided into 2 skill levels: beginner and intermediate. The beginner level is just that, for beginners. I elected to participate at this level because (1) I hadn't spoken Chinese in several weeks and (2) I'm a coward. I wasn't the only one; several other people also had strong backgrounds in Mandarin, most stronger than mine. But don't worry that the beginner section is too advanced. The session emphasized initials and finals as well as the 4 tones. That basically means we spent the whole 2 hours practicing syllable pronunciation. While I didn't go into their room, the intermediate group did seem to focus on having basic conversations, meaning words and full sentences were exchanged.
Lia Yin, who directed the beginner session, and all the people at Aston International Academy were incredibly nice. They even provided free drinks and snacks. And as a meetup group, a diverse group of people showed up. Overall, it was a great experience. If you want to try Mandarin before you buy, give this chance. The next session is Friday, July 16 at 6 PM.