Mandarin classes rise in popularity in Carrboro, Chapel Hill

Zach Fong (left) and Tianlu Redmon meet for Mandarin class at CHICLE on Sunday afternoons. Before class, Zach would study the vocabulary, listen to the dialogues online, read them out loud and memorize them. (Staff photo by Sophie Wu)
Zach Fong (left) and Tianlu Redmon meet for Mandarin class at CHICLE on Sunday afternoons. Before class, Zach would study the vocabulary, listen to the dialogues online, read them out loud and memorize them. (Staff photo by Sophie Wu)

Zach Fong is studying his vocabulary flashcards, figuring out how words are pronounced and writing down the characters on a piece of paper.

This is part of Zach’s Mandarin study routine — one hour a day, five days a week. It may not sound like much, but for an 11-year-old, it takes self-motivation, self-discipline and of course, a mother who helps him with drills.

“I felt like I’m getting somewhere,” Zach said.

Laura Manigrasso Fong, Zach’s mother, home-schools her children and expects them to learn a foreign language. Fong said even though her in-laws are from China, her husband does not speak any Chinese.

“I always knew even before I had kids that I wanted them to keep their heritage,” Fong said.

Fong and her son have tried different courses and materials. Zach studied at the Cary Chinese School for a semester, but he couldn’t catch up completely with more advanced students whose parents often spoke Chinese at home.

That’s what took them to the Chapel Hill Institute of Cultural and Language Education, located on the third floor above the Weaver Street Market in Carrboro.

“We decided to go more of a tutor route, and that’s what brought us here,” Fong said.

CHICLE opened in 1999 to teach Spanish to the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community, in response to a surge of Hispanic populations and an interest in the culture, said Perla Saitz, program director and co-owner of CHICLE.

“We want people to feel at home here,” said Saitz.

With Spanish programs as its backbone, the school also teaches a dozen European and Asian languages to children and adults, offering private classes as well as small classes consisting of between three and eight students.

“We accommodate class schedules to the students. Here you get a lot of personalized attention. We know the students by names,” said Saitz, a Mexico City native who has taught Spanish at CHICLE since 2001. She took over the business from its previous owner last year.

CHICLE started teaching Asian languages five years ago in response to a higher concentration of Asian populations in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro community than most other towns and cities in the state.

Perla Saitz (left), co-owner and Spanish teacher, and Sara Biondi, office manager and teacher of Japanese at CHICLE, said they both love their jobs. Saitz said that being the owner entails a lot of responsibility, which adds another layer of worries as well as satisfaction. (Staff photo by Sophie Wu)
Perla Saitz (left), co-owner and Spanish teacher, and Sara Biondi, office manager and teacher of Japanese at CHICLE, said they both love their jobs. Saitz said that being the owner entails a lot of responsibility, which adds another layer of worries as well as satisfaction. (Staff photo by Sophie Wu)

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, almost 12 percent of Chapel Hill’s population and 8 percent of Carrboro’s identify as Asian — compared to only 2.2 percent of North Carolina.

Saitz said the school is in a good position to meet the demands for a wide variety of languages because it can capitalize on trained language teachers coming from UNC-Chapel Hill.

Zach takes a private Mandarin class at CHICLE for an hour on Sunday afternoons with his tutor, Tianlu Redmon.

Hailing from China, Redmon, 26, said she focuses on making sure her students get the tones and pronunciations right.

She said children are more sensitive to sounds and are able to distinguish tones and pronunciations better than adults. But children have more problems with sentence patterns.

“It’s pretty easy for me to understand and speak, but it’s really just the grammar that gets me stumped,” Zach said.

Mac Stringer, 14, who has been studying with Redmon at CHICLE for two years, said Chinese is easy in that it has no verb conjugation, but it is sometimes hard for him to connect words he hears with actual characters.

Along with the private class, Mac also takes an online Mandarin course offered by his high school.

“By the end of the school year, I hope I can get to a sufficient level to go to a Mandarin immersion camp in Beijing in the summer,” he said.

Redmon also teaches a medical Mandarin course at the School of Medicine at UNC-Chapel Hill once a week. The course is designed to offer future physicians the language skills needed to care for Mandarin-speaking patients.

The patient-doctor dynamic can dramatically change if they can speak just a few phrases of the same language, Saitz said.

“It’s always a pleasant surprise for teachers that students take initiative to study and improve themselves,” Redmon said.

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Author of the article

Sophie is a UNC-CH first-year master's degree graduate student from Taipei, Taiwan. She is serving as a writer-photographer for the Carrboro Commons.