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Rising demand for language skills drives Tampa Chinese school to offer summer program

Penny Yang teaches Chinese at the Florida Chinese Cultural Center in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Jul. 9

TAMPA — Penny Yang uses a jumping game during the school year to help her 6-year-old students learn Chinese vocabulary.

She sets a path of words on the ground and the students compete to reach the end. The movement keeps them engaged.

This summer, for the first time, Yang and the Tampa Bay Chinese School will keep their students leaping forward with the language by offering classes twice a week through August.

A growing demand to learn Chinese is extending the school year for an institution founded more than two decades ago with just 10 students. The Chinese School now has more than 200 students, classes for every grade level and extracurriculars such as dance and art. The operators of the not-for-proft school say it's the largest in the Tampa Bay area.

The focus this summer is on the spoken language of the world's most populous country.

"They have to talk," said principal Xingang Cai. "The only way to learn how to speak is to open your mouth."

There was a time when most students at the school were of Chinese heritage, but now, they include people planning to travel to China, children whose parents want them to learn Chinese, even a karate instructor who wants to communicate better with students and parents, Cai said.

There is no suggested skill level or age limit for the summer program, but Cai expects most come with at least a minimal experience in the Chinese language. The program will also offer some cultural education. Teacher Yang will introduce students to Beijing, where she once lived, and to Shanghai, as well as to tourist attractions like the Great Wall and the funerary collection known as the terracotta warriors. Cai, the school's new principal, spearheaded the new summer program. He takes over from his wife, Liusha Li.

The school serves as a community for many of those involved. Several of the teachers have their own children attending.

"It's my first language," Yang said. "When you go to the Chinese school and you're teaching Chinese, you feel like it's kind of your home."

The summer classes started Monday and run through Aug. 16, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. each Monday and Wednesday at the Florida Chinese Culture Center, 13367 56th St. North in Tampa. The cost of the summer program is $20 to $30 per week.

During the school year, the Chinese School offers two 90-minute classes each Sunday at the University of South Florida.

Reading and writing Chinese requires mastering its characters. Unlike English, Chinese isn't phonetic, meaning the written form of the language isn't based on the way words sound. The writing system also presents a challenge for students. First grade is especially difficult, Yang said, because students must use two books.

But Chinese School isn't all about studying.

During Chinese New Year, for example, the class follows traditions like making lanterns and handing out red envelopes. Hong Wang just finished her first year of teaching third and fifth grade at the school. Her son Aaron is learning Chinese — not always with enthusiasm, but at least with the knowledge he can study among friends at the school.

One highlight for Wang was seeing her students perform a song, complete with choreography, called "learn to meow."

Yang has noticed that as the number of students has grown at the school, they also seem more disciplined.

"I think the parents encourage their kids to learn," she said, "which makes a big difference."

Contact Amanda Zhou at azhou@tampabay.com. Follow @amondozhou.

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