Pre-schoolers dive into Chinese

AUSTIN (KXAN) – At first glance, the class of five American preschoolers at a Central Austin school appears quite normal. But listen carefully and you suddenly notice that these English-speaking kids are happily babbling away in Mandarin Chinese.

The School is called, Chinese with Meggie , and founder/director Meggie Chou says her students come by the skill easily.

“Just like they are at home,” said Chou, “when they start to speak, they copy whatever sound they hear. For them, they don’t know this is another language; this is just different sounds.

“You know, Mommy say, ‘Apple;’ Miss Meggie say, ‘Pingqua.’

“Of course,” Chou added, “working with young children, you need a very special connection with them so they trust you and they feel comfortable and they want to communicate with you. That’s how it starts.”

Chou’s journey

It started much differently for Chou, however. Thirteen years ago, the Taiwan native arrived in the United States speaking not a lick of English. She enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago and earned an undergraduate degree in metal work there while she also learned to speak the American lingo.

Then she headed for Austin and collected a master’s degree at the University of Texas . Along the way, friends would ask her to teach their children to speak Chinese. That led to referrals to Austin high-tech companies that wanted some of their employees to learn the language.

“People in America, they are very aware of China’s growing importance in the world,” said Chou, “especially in a high-tech city like Austin. People in Austin are very aware of this.

The companies constantly need to send their people to China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, you know, those countries. There’s just a big need for them to at least know how to travel.

“They go there,” Chou said, “and they know how to (have) simple, basic conversation with the people over there and also increase their opportunities maybe in their own career.

“They go to China, and, you know, speak a little bit of Chinese, maybe in a meeting, and everybody is, ‘Wow, big boss is here and shows a little respect. All start to relax and have communication and they feel like that’s worth it to do.”

The school

But while Chou turned her attention to the grownups, the clamor from parents to teach their kids continued. So, she established her school in a campus that houses several other instructional programs at East 41st and Red River in Austin.

Now five teachers, most of them from mainland China, ride herd over 140 kids in small and lively classes.

“It’s not just about learning a language,” said Chou. “It’s about the whole experience. We believe it’s very important for their brain development. It’s kind of like exercising your muscle. It’s very good to receive all different signals.”

The past

But what prompted the children’s parents to steer them to Chou in the first place? For some, it involved the past.

“I’m from Argentina,” said Augustina Kunik. “I moved here when I was two years-old. My parents moved here to do the master’s program at the law school here.”

So Kunik grew up in the university’s married student housing, home to young families from all over the world.

“So I’m very familiar,” she said, “with all the different languages and as a kid, I grew up, you know, even speaking Japanese, Korean, everything…So now I think it’s important for kids to learn other languages and be exposed to other cultures and everything.”

Teresa Macron, though, had just the opposite experience.

“I grew up,” she said, “in a very small town in Indiana of around 7,000 people and wasn’t really exposed to too much other languages, just English.

“My father was bilingual with German, but he said to my brother, ‘You’re an American; you need to speak English,’ and he wouldn’t speak to us in German at all.

“And it became a huge disadvantage when I went to UT, which is how I came to Austin, because I didn’t know how to speak German or any other language and I did very poorly in Spanish because I didn’t have that background.

“So,” Macron said, “I felt like if I wanted my children to be able to be multi-lingual, I needed to start them early. That’s why I started them with Chinese and they also do Spanish.”

The present

A third parent, McHughson Chambers, finds his inspiration for his daughter’s Chinese language schooling in the present.

“In a global economy,” he offered, “I just think it’s a fun thing to have, for a child to be able to have access to that part of the world.”

But all three of the adults are also looking ahead.

The future

“China is a huge powerhouse,” said Kunik, “and I think that everybody is starting to realize it’s a big advantage to have a language or to know the culture, even for business reasons.

“The job market is so competitive, too, that I think that if you have several different languages, it’s kind of the upper hand.”

Indeed, Macron has seen that up close through the experiences of some of her friends.

“You know,” she said, “’I can’t get a job because I don’t speak