Chinese lessons at Chicago Public Library draw diverse crowd

Through the floor-to-ceiling windows in a contemporary building near the Cermak-Chinatown L train station on Monday afternoons, one can see more than a dozen people from different walks of life, trying to have conversations together.

Chicago’s new public library branch in Chinatown was remodeled and opened last August. Standing amid Chinese restaurants and residential apartments, this glass-and-steel structure has become a community center for Chinese-Americans and a language learning hot spot for Chicagoans of all ethnicities.

Si Chen, library manager at the Chinatown branch, started to teach Chinese beginner lessons four months after the library opened, thinking it would be good for children.

“There are a lot of kids go to Chinese schools to learn and practice Chinese, and I thought the lessons here would be a supplement to that,” Chen said.

When the classroom opened its door in January, the range of  learners came as a surprise to Chen.

“A lot more adults, Americans and early immigrants who speak Cantonese came to learn Mandarin,” she said.

Mandarin is the official language of China, standardized in 1955. Cantonese is a common dialect used in provinces in southern China and Hong Kong. Many immigrants came to the U.S. from these regions in the 1980s.

Gregory Clements, 62, an online publisher and educator, said he prefers to learn languages in public libraries. Clements is also taking Spanish lessons.

“Look what’s on the shelves — books,” said Clements, pointing to Chinese novels and dictionaries next to him. “We have all the knowledge sitting on the shelves.”

Chen said she is seeing more youth in her class since summer started. Among them are second-generation immigrants, known as ABC, American-Born Chinese, and American children who are interested in different cultures.

Jovi, 13, lives on the Southwest Side of Chicago and has been coming to the Chinatown library for Chen’s class since June.

“I just wanna be really diverse with languages,” Jovi said. “I want to learn different cultures, different languages around the world so that I can communicate with others.”

Others come to learn Chinese for business reasons. Hong Durandal, 26, is originally from Bolivia and now works for a wind energy company in Chicago. He said he wanted to learn the language to communicate with his colleagues overseas.

“It would help me a lot,” Durandal said. “We have a lot of officers in China. It’s pretty hard to not understand them.”

Clements said language is a key to improving not only business but political relationships.

“China is one of the major powers on the global scene,” said Clements, an entrepreneur himself. “I think we should have open dialogue and open relationships worldwide.”

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