Can Your Toddler Speak Chinese?

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Sharon Huang was working in New York City and living in New Jersey when she began looking around for a immersion program for her soon-to-be born twins.

“I knew there were some out there, but I realized there wasn’t one in New Jersey,” she said. “I thought with becoming such an important language, there must be other parents who feel this way.”

She was right. Bilingual Buds, the school she founded, is not only a popular and growing school in New Jersey, but the demand has been so high that a branch is opening on the Upper West Side, in a new space in the Riverside South complex on Riverside Boulevard.

Students at the New Jersey Bilingual Buds school. Founder Sharon Huang (inset) plans to open a New York City outpost in November.

Students at the New Jersey Bilingual Buds school.

When her boys were 8 months old, Huang left her job in business to pursue the school full time. Bilingual Buds opened in 2005 at her home in Maplewood, N.J., with one teacher and two small classes of five children each.

The makeup was diverse, and consisted of a variety of families who did not speak Chinese in their own homes but who wanted their kids to speak the language. The program attracted those with Chinese heritage, adoptive parents with Chinese kids and non-Chinese families who were interested in the culture and language. Soon there were enough students to move in to rented space in a church in Livingston, N.J.

In 2006, Bilingual Buds moved again, to an even larger space in Summit, N.J., which now has a preschool and after school program. Combined, the facility serves more than 100 students.

The school just expanded through 1st grade, and Huang intends to continue growing until she adds a 3rd grade class. The Mandarin teachers are a group of native Chinese speakers with educational backgrounds, either in linguistic or early childhood . Students attending the full-time preschool and early elementary grades learn English language arts and math from native English speaking teachers. Students enrolled in the preschool and early elementary grades learn all the subjects, from science, art, music and physical , in Chinese, and math and language arts in both languages. Teaching the “high-interest” hands on subjects in Mandarin is incredibly helpful, Huang said, because it helps students learn more obscure vocabulary, and they also associate the language with joy and exploration. The faculty gets extensive training on the school’s educational methods, and learns how to work with the different age groups.

Interest from across the Hudson has percolated for a number of years.

“Over time, I’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from New York parents asking, ‘When are you coming to New York?’” Huang said. “I used to live on the Upper West Side and I love that neighborhood, so I’ve been keeping tabs. The area has ‘mommy and me’ programs, but not five-day-a-week immersion, which is what you need to have the foundations for fluency.”

Bilingual Bids is currently renovating a four-room space at 180 Riverside Boulevard, which has easy access to a playground, the river and a quiet residential neighborhood. The program already runs several classes in the neighborhood—at New York Kids Club and Barnes and Noble. This fall, families can sign up for “mommy and me” classes for children ages 1 to 3, preschool for children ages 2 and a half to 5 and an after-school program four days a week for children ages 5 to 10. The facility is currently scheduled to open in November, as the space is still under construction.

Huang thinks the advantages of bilingual education will appeal to a city crowd.

“If you introduce languages earlier, they’re more open about the world, so if you’re traveling somewhere with different toilets, food, it doesn’t bother them,” she said. “They’re flexible, which means the kids are accepting.”

Ellen Bialystok, a Canadian professor who has done breakthrough research on how bilingual education advances and strengthens children’s cognitive development, is slated to deliver a presentation on Saturday, Nov. 14. Families who are interested in the Bilingual Buds program can call 212-787-8088, or come to an open house on Saturday, Nov. 7 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Applications are available online at www.bilingualbuds.com.

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