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Little Learners Put Their Minds to Mandarin

Times Staff Writer

For decades, English was the language the world needed to know. Now, with China on the march as a global economic force, researchers and forward-thinking parents in Southern California say Mandarin has emerged as the new “must learn” tongue.

That is why Jameson Mitrovich, just 3 years old, found himself Saturday morning at an open house for the new Los Angeles Chinese Cultural Center.

“He already knows English and Spanish,” Lisa Mitrovich said of her son, who since age 2 1/2 has taken Mandarin at an Encino school that recently ended its classes. “We thought that Chinese would be the most practical for when he grows up and gets into business.”

Mitrovich’s logic goes double for adoptive parents of girls and boys from China, many of whom seek to expose their children to the culture of their homeland and launch them on Chinese-language studies as early as possible.

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About a dozen children from China attended the open house with their parents, watching as a young instructor demonstrated ribbon dancing against a backdrop of colorful Chinese lanterns. As Chinese children’s songs played in the background, many of the children waved feather-bedecked fans or twirled as they held aloft bright yellow or red parasols.

Julie Zhu, the center’s founder and director, said she believes that the operation is the first of its kind in the greater Hollywood area. It will operate out of the Silver Lake Jewish Community Center, offering Saturday classes in Mandarin, brush painting, folk dancing, paper cutting, cooking and martial arts. Classes begin Sept. 10.

Zhu, who immigrated from Beijing 10 years ago, sees an untapped business opportunity in the hundreds of families in the region with children from China, particularly those whose 3- or 4-year-olds are too young for most other language programs.

She already runs an agency that locates nannies for adoptive families, and most of her early outreach for the cultural center has been to the adoption community. She herself is nanny to two children from China with white parents.

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Several parents in attendance said they were excited to have a school in the area because few alternatives are available. Jennifer Maile, whose son and daughter are from China and attend a Saturday Chinese school housed at Palms Middle School, said it “was hugely hard to find classes.”

Most schools in Southern California, she and her husband, Francis, learned, are run by people from Taiwan, who teach the written language differently from the way it is taught by people from mainland China.

“The more programs there are, the better,” she said.

Natalie Kum of South Pasadena said she wanted her daughter Teryn, 3, to have the experience not only of learning Mandarin but also of being exposed to other children who were adopted.

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Zhu’s aim is to make learning about Chinese language and culture fun, whether for very young children or their parents, who also are encouraged to enroll. She has hired five other instructors, all of whom were born in China and have college degrees.

Qi Pang, who will teach brush painting, is a respected artist from Jilin province. He demonstrated his mastery of the ancient form by painting pandas and trees right before the children’s eyes.

None of the children at the open house got much past “xie xie” (thank you) or “zai jian” (goodbye), but it was a start toward learning what is, for nonnative speakers, one of the world’s most challenging languages.

“I feel very strongly she has to know it,” said Lilly Lee of her daughter Jacqueline Maatta, just shy of 3. Lee, who is Chinese American, speaks Cantonese but has hired a Mandarin-speaking caretaker for her youngster. Jacqueline already knows how to count to 10 in Mandarin and can identify Gummi Bears by color.

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Once these adopted children learn Mandarin, Lee said, “they’ll go back to China in a more powerful position to do what they need to do.... They will come back in business, sharper and smarter.”


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