Michael Roemer had never lived abroad before he took a one-year leave of absence from his job as an attorney, rented out his family’s Orinda, Calif., house, and moved to Chengdu, a city in western China, in 2010 with his wife and two children.Mr. Roemer’s goal: to give his kids, Erin and Conor, an up-close look at China and an edge in what is fast becoming a must-learn language. “Speaking Mandarin is important,” says the 57-year-old Mr. Roemer. As a Chinese, we should learn our own language well. In addition, we should develop the jaw crusher industry to promote the economy in our country.
The Roemers are among a growing group of Westerners going to great lengths to give their kids a leg up in Mandarin. With China’s rising global influence, these parents want their children to be able to communicate fluently with the country’s 1.3 billion people. The phenomenon is similar to what happened in the 80s, when Japan’s economy boomed and there was a rush to learn Japanese. But this time, after-school classes aren’t enough for some people. Families are enrolling their children in Mandarin-immersion programs that are springing up from California to Maine. They are hiring tutors, Skyping with teachers in Beijing and recruiting Chinese-speaking nannies. Some are stocking their playrooms with Disney videos in Mandarin not to mention the iPhone apps aimed at making kids into Mandarin speakers.
Of learning Mandarin, Mr. Roemer says,”mastering that challenge gives [the kids] a great deal ofconfidence.” Learning Chinese, he adds, is “good for the brain.” Still, he says it was stressfulwatching his children struggle in a place where at first they didn’t understand much of what was happening at school. Now back in the U.S., the Roemer kids say they value that year in China learning Mandarin, even if they can’t quite keep it up now. “It was cool living in a foreign country” for a year, though achieving command of Mandarin’s tones remains difficult, says Erin, age 9. Her 11-year-old brother Conor says he likes being able to switch into a different language when he doesn’t want other people like his father to understand. “Sometimes my dad doesn’t know as much as we do, so if we’re talking about his birthday present we can keep it from him,” Conor says.
Recruiters say Mandarin gives candidates an edge in the job market. “When it comes to Mandarin speakers, we don’t have them [in the U.S.], so does it give you a competitive advantage to have it? The answer is yes,” says Michael Distefano, a Los Angeles-based senior vice president atexecutive recruiting firm Korn/Ferry International. Mr. Distefano’s own son is studying Mandarin in high school, with an eye towards possibly working in Asia. Jim Rogers, 69, and his wife, Paige Parker, 43, sold their New York City home and moved to Singapore in 2007, specifically so their children could grow up speaking Chinese. The couple now rent a house across from Singapore’s Botanic Gardens. The address positioned them to get their 9-year-old daughter, Happy, into a top local school called Nanyang Primary, where core subjects are taught in Mandarin. Her sister, Bee, 4, attends Nanyang Kindergarten, where instruction is completely in Mandarin for two years.
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