American students would benefit from learning about the Chinese culture and getting a foundation in Mandarin, the administrators say. It is spoken by nearly 1 billion people, making it a vital language to know for global communication, they point out.

According to the U.S. State Department's Foreign Service Institute, Chinese is an exceptionally difficult language to learn and requires more than 2,000 hours of study by a native English speaker to reach general proficiency. It is top-rated for difficulty as Category V along with Arabic, Japanese and Korean.

Liu, who teaches second-year students at the school, said Chinese pronunciation is definitely hard to master.

"But young children have a sharp ear and are very good at pronouncing the sounds and words," she said. "They learn by repeating and repeating."

A classroom setting is the best learning environment for children, Liu added.

"Parents have to push them a little bit and they may have to give up a lot of activities to come here," she said. "But we make it fun for them."

Tracy Crockett, an African-American parent whose 6-year-old son, Nicholas, is in Liu's class, said she has learned some Chinese as she helps him with his homework.

"Nicholas was reading 'The Cat in the Hat' at 18 months and has a high IQ and a propensity for language," said the Owings Mills resident.

"I enrolled him here because I want him to be ready for a global economy," she said, adding that sacrificing free time on Sunday afternoons to learn Chinese has been worthwhile.

Running the Chinese Language School takes commitment from students, parents and teachers alike, said Harry Chou, an information technology consultant.

"There are 2,000 characters to be learned and it can be intimidating, to be honest," he said. "We find ways to make it not tedious."

The school offers lessons in writing both conventional and simplified Chinese characters and parents can choose their children's course of study, he explained.

The preface of the second-year workbook titled "Living Mandarin" states that while the Chinese language has 3,000 frequently used characters, young children can build a foundation on 100 basic characters.

Cattleya Meers, whose son 7-year-old, Connor, is in his second year at the school, said she feels that learning the Chinese language and studying the culture is extremely important.

"He really needs to learn because it will help him in the future," said Meers, who can speak Cantonese and whose husband is Caucasian. "One of my cousins took Chinese for nine years and told me he hated it with every fiber of his being at the time but was really glad he did it later on in life."

One idea the school is working on to bolster enrollment is arranging with the Baltimore County Board of Education to award credits to high school students who take classes at the Chinese Language School, Henry said.

So important is the school's mission to its leaders that tuition costs have not been raised in over 10 years, said Grace Lee Chou.

"The board didn't want an increase because they didn't want cost to be a barrier for anyone," she explained.

"Our PTA is really devoted to our mission and we have super volunteers," she said. "The kids can't do this without the expertise and strength of community members."

For more information on the Chinese Language School of Baltimore, which meets Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m. during the school year, go to chineseschoolbaltimore.org.