Mandarin Chinese Grows Across New York City

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chinese characters
Zeus Abdiwijaya, flickr

Students of All Ages Tap Into the Language's Benefits

In recent years, more and more New Yorker’s have picked up studying Mandarin Chinese. And those learning the language are as diverse as the city itself.

But for all the students, the goal is to become proficient in the world’s most spoken language. The city’s interest in the language has created a competitive market for instruction, all the way down to Mandarin immersion programs catering to preschoolers. For the boys and girls at Bilingual Buds on Manhattan's Upper West Side, daily lessons and activities are conducted entirely in Mandarin.

Each morning, students at Bilingual Buds shuffle into the classroom and take their place on the carpet. The instructor leads this giggling group of three year olds in a review of the night’s homework. The students had to learn how to communicate hair color in Mandarin. This morning, the students are asked to identify a classmate with blonde locks.

The students hail from all different backgrounds. Parent, Earle Carr, says Mandarin connects his three year old son Francis to his Chinese heritage. He says Mandarin also fosters a better understanding of China’s global presence.

“China impacts so many different facets of life, that I think kids who have an opportunity to speak Chinese will be very well prepared for the global community,” Carr said.

The surging interest in Mandarin is not unlike the short-lived popularity of Japanese in the early 90’s, when people saw it as the language of technology. Chris Livacarri, Director of Education and Chinese Language Initiatives at the Asia Society, says Mandarin is in a unique position to benefit from that Japanese craze of the past.

“What I try to tell Chinese teachers, and administrators, is look at the Japanese case, and learn from it. So that it doesn’t really matter whether or not China’s economic of political growth continues, even if China isn’t as important as it is now, say in ten years from now, your program will still be there, so that students, parents and communities, will still want it,” suggested Livacarri.

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Mandarin programs in US schools grew by two-hundred percent between 2005 and 2008. The East West School of International Studies in Flushing, Queens has been offering Mandarin since the public school opened in 2006. Under the direction of Principal Ben Sherman, the school’s Mandarin program has evolved, and even sends students to China for free each summer through a grant by the Confucius Institute. For Principal Sherman, Mandarin is an essential piece of the school’s philosophy.

“Clearly the economic future of the planet lies in Asia, in China, India, and we felt that the kids needed to be prepared for that future by learning one of those languages,” said Principal Sherman.

For 10th grader Arobi Hanif, Mandarin has become a part of her life since she began studying five years ago, both in and out of the classroom.

“I watch a lot of Chinese dramas, and I listen to a lot of Chinese songs, and that helps with the pronunciations, and with the characters I try to write them as much as I can,” Hanif said.

The interest in Mandarin in New York City isn’t just limited to Pre-K through 12. A growing number of business professionals are also taking up the language. In Manhattan’s Financial District, students at Wall Street Chinese trade their big desks for little desks, and are instructed by founder Helen Hanying to turn off their English brains. While some students come to Helen for introductory lessons, others come to polish their existing skills. For Nick Mahon, who works in international finance at HSBC, Mandarin is key.

“I mean I work in finance, and have a desire to go back to Asia at some point to work again, and when I did work in China, it was obviously very complementary. The business I work in is global, so it’s definitely a leg up I would say,” said Mahon.

Mahon has since returned to China on business, and is putting his language skills to good use. And Asia Society’s Chris Livacarri says, "There is no doubt that the nation will need many more speakers of Chinese as the U.S.-China relationship continues to grow in importance."

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