Mandarin lessons pave the road to riches
By Aventurina King

NEW YORK - "When a student is ready the teacher appears." This Buddhist proverb is a good starting point to describe what is rapidly becoming the world's most enthusiastic Chinese-language student: the United States.

For the past six years, the North American population has watched the relentless growth of China's domestic economy with a mixture of concern and fascination. Beginning in 2002, China became one of the United States' top three trading partners. In  2005 alone, 3,741 contracts were signed between US and Chinese companies. So with lucrative international deals being closed by the dozen, an increasing number of Americans are seeing top-dollar job openings in China. And to get there, they need to learn Mandarin, or putonghua ("common speech") as the national language is known in mainland China.

The US is ready, and Chinese-language teachers are appearing slowly but steadily. Chinese programs are gradually proliferating across the country's high schools. A simple "Mandarin" keyword search on Craigslist New York will pop up a plethora of postings offering private Chinese lessons. What's more, the glittering stories of teachers who have successfully mined the Mandarin seam could certainly create a strong following.

One of these success stories is that of Yao Zhang, the founder of Quick Mandarin ( During a recent interview, Zhang was comfortably seated in one of the classrooms of his private Mandarin school on the 63rd floor of the Empire State Building. This, however, is a long way from where he imagined himself being when he arrived in New York in the beginning of 2004.

After completing his undergraduate degree in China, Zhang went to France to pursue his studies at Science Politique. He received his diploma in international finance and flew off to work at the world's finance epicenter: Wall Street.

Giving private Mandarin lessons to friends of friends was at first a temporary occupation, designed to hold him over until he found a finance job. But this temporary solution gradually superseded Zhang's long-term plans. By January 2005, through word of mouth alone, enough individuals and companies had come to Zhang to justify renting a space in the Empire State Building to accommodate his burgeoning student body.

Zhang's students largely mirror the new Chinese twist on the American dream. "About 35-40% of the students are in the finance sector," said Zhang. "We have a lot of senior-level white-collars from very prominent companies; others are young professionals who are seeking to improve their opportunities. Their company might have a branch in China and they want to enter the race for a promotion abroad."

Other than the propitious economic climate, Quick Mandarin's success lies in Zhang's speedy refining of his Mandarin-teaching methods. He explained: "I developed a program in which people will learn to hold a conversation in less than 30 hours of Chinese lessons. I don't focus on grammar; from the first minute on, I make them [students] talk. In Chinese there is no masculine and feminine or verb conjugation, so it's possible to learn very fast."

And "fast" is the focus of the modern learner of Chinese. In the past, when English had the unchallenged monopoly over the term "lingua franca", learning a second language such as French or German was mainly a passport into cultural sophistication. At that time, learning Mandarin was an even more arcane endeavor reserved for highly ambitious literati. Reflecting this consumer pool, Chinese textbooks from that period focused on the written language and culture. Now, practical daily conversation in a business context, instead of the Chinese zodiac, is at the forefront of students' concerns.

But it isn't easy finding Chinese-language teachers who understand the importance of "fast" and "practical conversation". Ms Bai, a student in bilingual education at the Teachers College of Columbia University, explained that teachers of Chinese "still focus on grammar, on reading, and don't speak much. Chinese students focus mostly on getting good grades, so writing is more important for them. But in a job interview, you need to speak the language. In the United States, the focus is more on speaking."

Quick Mandarin's Zhang said: "It's hard to find good Chinese teachers, because teachers coming from China are very strict in their methods of teaching. Americans have a different way of learning - they like to actively learn through searching answers. But in China, it's different. The teacher will talk and then just give a lot of homework."

There is certainly no shortage of immigrants who speak and are willing to teach Chinese in the United States. But there is a shortage of qualified teachers, of native Chinese speakers who master the American method of teaching that Bai is learning. This shortage is so clearly felt that the Asia Society, an organization promoting cultural exchanges on both sides of the Pacific, has set up a program to help US schools find Mandarin teachers.

Demand for Mandarin instruction has blossomed among the very young, revealing a deficit in a different pool of qualified teaching professionals. A new wave of upper-class parents is frantically scouring Craigslist in search of Chinese nannies to shape their toddlers into native Chinese speakers.

"Many parents want their children to learn Chinese," said Anna Zhao, a Chinese native with extensive experience in teaching Mandarin to upper-class toddlers. "They say Chinese is going to be more important than French and Spanish, that it will help their children be able to find work in the future."

Zhao has a part-time job at a Goldman Sachs daycare center. The rest of her time is devoted mostly to parents who are unable to find the right Chinese nanny. "Since hiring a full-time Chinese teacher is very expensive, most of them start by searching for a Chinese nanny to speak Mandarin to their young children," Zhao said. "However, these nannies often have bad accents or they don't know how to teach." Most of the time, the nannies cannot speak English and the parents cannot understand them.

In these cases, the parents hire experienced teachers like Zhao to spend six to seven hours a week teaching their children. In other cases, American parents-to-be will learn Chinese merely to understand the non-English-speaking nanny later on.

Frequently, parents will sit in on Zhao's courses to learn to communicate with their children in Mandarin. She said: "The problem with only your child learning Chinese is that even when he is one or two years old, he will say phrases in Chinese, and if you don't respond to the child, he will associate speaking Chinese only with the teacher."

Outside of her part-time job at Goldman Sachs, Zhao has 11 Chinese students. "Five to seven people ask me every week for classes, but not everyone can fit in my schedule and I have to turn people down."

The teacher has appeared, but with a student as hungry for knowledge as the United States, many more will have to come.

Aventurina King is a freelance writer based in New York. She can be reached at

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