Mandarin classes blossom

For some, the language is heritage. For others, it's just cool to learn.

By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 24, 2007

TAMPA - When Helen Mann visited relatives in China last year, she felt lost amid the sea of Mandarin speakers.

So she made a vow to herself: "The next time I go to China, I want to surprise my family and speak to them in Mandarin," said Mann, a 54-year-old registered nurse.

Mann and her 21-year-old daughter, Brittany, recently signed up for language classes offered by the Tampa Bay Chinese School, one of the area's largest programs.

Mother and daughter drive from their Spring Hill home each Sunday for two hours of instruction. They're joined by about 10 others, mainly non-native Chinese, all wanting to learn a different language later in life.

The Tampa Bay Chinese School, which meets on the University of South Florida campus, for years has been the place that parents from China sent their Americanized kids to learn about Chinese language, customs and culture.

There are close to 6,000 Chinese-Americans living in the Tampa Bay area, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

This semester, the school added an adult program to meet the demands of the non-Chinese community.

"Interest in learning Chinese has jumped recently, I guess due to the rapid economic growth and enormous business opportunities in China," said Jia Wang, the school's principal. "Mandarin is the business language of the future."

Mandarin, the official language in the Chinese mainland, also is spoken in places such as Singapore and Malaysia. The school recognizes that it is much easier to learn another language at a young age, so it offers instruction for non-Chinese children, too.

Patricia Epstein, a registered nurse in Tampa Palms, enrolled her three children, ages 11, 8 and 5. Epstein, who is Jamaican and whose husband is Jewish, chose Mandarin after reading about its growing popularity.

"A second language is only going to help them," said Epstein, who sat in on a class and admitted it is quite difficult to learn another language as an adult. "I wish they had this when I was younger."

Her son Jordan, 11, recently learned how to say the parts of the body in Mandarin.

"It's pretty fun," he said. "I'm learning something. That's the good part."

About 15 percent of the students are non-Chinese, said Wang, the principal. Students are divided by their age and skill level. As they sit in classrooms, some of their parents wait downstairs doing something decidedly American - learning how to line dance to Chinese country music.

The school also offers SAT English preparation instruction and art classes. Students come from as far away as Lakeland and New Port Richey.

It's a far cry from 1997, when the school began with just a few families who met at each other's homes. Today, 14 teachers lead the instruction for the children, who range in age from 3 to 16. They use textbooks that come from China - simplified versions of schoolbooks that students there use.

"It's a lot easier than the curriculum in China," Wang said.

In the adult class, the teacher, Chunhua Cao, 26, assures her students that Mandarin is easier to learn than English.

For instance, Mandarin speakers do not read calendar years like "two thousand seven." Instead, they say er ling ling qi, which is two, zero, zero, seven.

Numbers also are used in the days of the week, which have names based on a numerical sequence. Monday would be one, Tuesday would be two.

"It's not like Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, which I don't know where it comes from," Cao said. "Mandarin is very easy. You will see."

One student chuckled: "I guess I gotta learn the numbers."

Wang hopes that the Chinese School, which is a nonprofit, will raise enough money to build classrooms and a community center in five years. There is a similar program in Clearwater and a new one in Pasco County, Wang said, although they are both on smaller scales.

For children whose parents were born in China, the classes offer a chance to brush up on Mandarin.

"They are surrounded by English in school and on TV," Angie Ng said of her 7-year-old daughter, Kristen, and 5-year-old son, Kelvin. "I accept it and I understand it, but I want them to feel just as comfortable speaking Chinese."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at 813 269-5312 or nguyen@sptimes.com.



Learn Mandarin

Adult language classes cost $450 a semester. Classes meet onSundays for two hours and the semester runs 16 weeks. For ages 3 to 16, classes are $120 and run 90 minutes. For more information, call the Tampa Bay Chinese School at (813) 786-8210 or visit tampabaychineseschool.com.