WILLIAMSBURG — As a cluster of toddlers climbed on pink and blue mats, their teacher Micky Wu kicked off one of the first classes of the fall with a book filled with colorful cats.
"Meow!" the kids, as young as 18 months, squealed, and then began responding to Wu's questions as she paused between pages.
But if you didn't speak Mandarin, you wouldn't understand a word.
"This is the perfect age for them to learn — the earlier the better," Wu said of her Mandarin Chinese language sessions, which she offers weekly at the Center for Performance Research space on Manhattan Avenue in her program My Mini Hands.
"They feel like they're in a playgroup, it's not just a traditional classroom," she said of the early-learn classes that use music, art and interactive storytelling to teach the language.
Wu's pupils, including kids with one Chinese parent and those with no familial connection to the country, hail mainly from Williamsburg and Greenpoint, she said. The kids' parents and babysitters agreed that the students were getting a linguistic leg-up by starting Mandarin at such early ages.
"Sebastian's mother wants him to learn as many languages as possible," Clarita Aguilar, the child's full-time nanny, said of the 2-year-old's enrollment in the classes. "Neither of his parents are Chinese or speak Mandarin... but he's at the age where he's absorbing everything. Thursdays are our Mandarin days."
For Karin Travaglione — a Hong Kong native who has lived in America since she was 16 and married an Italian-American man — sending her children to My Mini Hands both exposes them to their roots and serves a practical purpose in the business world, she explained.
"I wanted them to have someone else who speaks Chinese with them and for them to be around other kids speaking Chinese," said Travaglione, who has sent her 5-year-old, Daniella, to classes the past two years and just enrolled her 2-year-old daughter, Yisheem, in the program.
"My husband and I are also both in banking, and we know businesses are becoming more global," she said of the benefits of knowing Mandarin over other languages. "A lot of people recognize Chinese is becoming more important for the business world."
As for Wu — a Taiwan native who also started off in banking when she arrived to the United States nine years ago — the light bulb went off to start a baby Mandarin program when she had her own child six years ago.
"I had taught elementary school Mandarin in Japan," said Wu, "and when I had my own kid, I got inspired to start my own business here."