Bridging language gap – Free Chinese lessons offered in Flushing New York

New Chinese immigrants to New York have long struggled to master the language of their new home. Now some of their English-speaking neighbors are trying to return the gesture.

Thanks to popular demand, free classes in Mandarin are being offered weekly at the community center in the Bland Houses projects in downtown Flushing, the center of the city’s largest Chinatown.

Donald Henton, 73, a retired MTA New York bus driver and longtime resident of the Bland Houses, said he broached the idea to Councilman John Liu (D-Flushing) one night at a local political fund-raiser.

“We were at this meeting, and everyone was speaking Chinese,” said Henton, who is on the advisory board for the Bland Houses Community Center.

“So I said, ‘Why don’t you get a class together so non-Asians can learn the language?’”

Liu approached Man-Li Kuo, a former Flushing resident who has been teaching Chinese language classes in her spare time for nearly 30 years.

Kuo volunteered to teach the classes, which will be held Wednesday evenings from 7:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. for 10 weeks, though Liu added that if interest is high, he will look into extending the classes. They are open to the entire community.

“Language is something to be embraced. It should not be a barrier to anyone,” said Liu.

Kuo, 51, who moved to New York from her native Taiwan in 1983, says it is critical for people of all walks of life to learn foreign languages.

Kuo holds a graduate degree in Chinese literature and has spent years teaching English to new immigrants as well as Chinese to Americans.

“We would very much like those people to learn Chinese and feel welcome when they’re in the Chinese community,” she said.

In addition to her day job as a federal government worker in Manhattan, she spends her Saturdays teaching Chinese language, dance and martial arts to Chinese adoptive children and their families in Long Island.

That effort grew out of demand from the growing number of American families who have adopted babies from China and want their children to remain in touch with their cultural roots.

Twice a year, she takes her “class” of about 50 families on a field trip to the Little China of downtown Flushing, where they visit stores, restaurants and a Buddhist temple.

Kuo doesn’t expect people to become fluent in the language after a 10-week course. “But even if they can just learn to say, ‘Hello’ when they go to the Chinese store, the salesclerk will treat them differently,” she said.

The first class, held last week in New York Flushing, drew about 45 people, who also learned some basic tai-chi during the break, said Henton.

“This brings better friendship among people in the community,” said Henton.

“My neighbors are Chinese, and it will be great to say hi to them in their language and learn Chinese.”

by R. SCHEIER courtsey

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