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.
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.
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.
But is simply having a native speaker in the house enough to ensure fluency?
Ms. Tang, the Stockes' au pair, says it's not that simple. The boy's comprehension and command of the Chinese names for myriad animals and colors is good, but he loses interest when she speaks longer sentences. She thinks it will be easier to get him to respond in Chinese after a few years. After all, he's only a toddler.
Still, daily contact with a native speaker is better for kids than simply sitting in a classroom or listening to language tapes, experts say.
"Phonologically they have a huge advantage," says Suzanne Flynn, professor of linguistics and language acquisition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, of children with a Chinese speaker at home. This is especially true when it comes to mimicking the complex sounds of a tonal language like Chinese.
But parents must understand that just one year with an au pair is unlikely to produce miracles. Complete bilingual fluency demands a commitment to immersion until the age of 10 or 12, Dr. Flynn says.
But parents who want to introduce their children to the Chinese language this way face another hurdle: Finding a Chinese au pair isn't always easy.
"It's not impossible to get a visa, but not as easy as [if the au pair were from] Scandinavia or somewhere else in Europe." She says that in order for a candidate to obtain a visa, she has to prove to US authorities that she's from a family that has significant economic ties to China.
This has caused some American families to be disappointed after enduring the lengthy process of choosing an au pair, says Helen Young, president of USAuPair. When their candidate's visa gets rejected, they have to start again from scratch.
The college-educated, career-oriented Xu (the Drakes' au pair in Minnesota) hopes that her rapidly improving English skills, which she says are in high demand back home, will boost her long-term career prospects in an increasingly competitive Chinese job market.
"It's not hard to get a job in China, but it's not easy to get a good job," she says.
Christy Liu, 23, a Chinese au pair now spending a year in Maryland, also cites learning English as the main draw of the job.
"If I wasn't an au pair, it would be expensive to come to the US as a student," she says. "It's cheaper to come as an au pair, and also you can get paid."
Ms. Woehl, of AuPairCare, expects American demand to continue to rise. As for prospective au pairs, "You could recruit an unlimited number of Chinese for this program," she says.