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A leg up on learning Chinese

One of the latest trends in American child care is Chinese au pairs.

By Matthew RuslingCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2008

Fun and learning: Lili Xu, an au pair from China, teaches 3-year-old Natalie Drake and her 5-year-old brother, Luke, who live in Minnesota, how to read and write Chinese. The children’s Chinese mother wants them to be exposed to her culture.

Dawn Villella/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

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Once, French was the common tongue of diplomacy and commerce in an era of European world dominance. Then English took its place. As China expands its influence, many believe that Mandarin might one day become the new language of commerce.

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Not least among these believers are American parents who are acting on their convictions by hiring au pairs from China to care for their children.

"I thought it would be very useful for him to be exposed to Chinese at an early age," Joseph Stocke, the managing director of an investment group in Chester County, Pa., says of his 2-year-old son. "I would at least like to give him the opportunity to leverage the language in the future."

So far the strategy is working. After only six months of being cared for by Wei Tang, a 25-year-old woman from Qingdao, China, whom Mr. Stocke found through Cultural Au Pair of Cambridge, Mass., the boy can already understand basic Chinese commands and recite numbers and greetings, his dad says.

That's what many parents hope for.

Au Pair in America in Stamford, Conn., has seen inquiries about and requests for Chinese au pairs surge from zero to around 4,000 since 2004.

And that's true all across the country. "Being on the Pacific Rim here, we see a tremendous interest in Mandarin," says Helen Young, president of USAuPair Inc., in Lake Oswego, Ore. She adds that the popularity of au pairs from China has also been boosted by the increasing numbers of American parents who've adopted Chinese children.

Li Drake, a Chinese native raising two children in Minnesota with an American husband, had another reason for looking for an au pair from China: She didn't want her children to miss out on their cultural heritage. "Because I am Chinese, my husband and I wanted the kids to keep exposed to the language and culture," she says. Ms. Drake's children know some Chinese, but English is the main language spoken at home.

The Drakes arranged to host Lili Xu, a 24-year-old from Da Lian, China, through Cultural Care Au Pair Ms. Xu says that the children's listening and speaking skills have seen marked improvement since her arrival nearly six months ago. They can recite several poems and songs in Chinese and respond in Chinese when she initiates conversation in that language.