Chris Stellato did not begin learning to speak Mandarin until he was 21 years old and by then, it was like trying to grow taller.
Today, the Cleveland native and Northwest Side resident teaches Mandarin to, among others, toddlers. For them, getting taller and acquiring even a complex language like the Chinese dialect is as easy as falling down.
Stellato, 31, founded the Columbus School of Chinese in 2010.
"It's one of these great opportunities for kids at a very young age to learn Chinese, but that will inevitably be the most useful second language when they're my age," Stellato said recently.
"Mandarin is a variety of Chinese spoken mainly in China, Taiwan and Singapore by about 1.3 billion people," according to omniglot.com, an online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. "It is the main language of government, the media and education in China and Taiwan and one of the four official languages in Singapore."
Chris Kramer sends her daughter, Natalie -- whom the Clintonville resident and her husband, Eric, adopted from China in January -- to the Columbus School of Chinese.
Natalie will turn 3 in October.
She's part of a pilot program at the school to see if children that young can sit still long enough to learn the language.
"We were assuming that she was speaking Mandarin and thought it would be helpful if she heard her native tongue," Chris Kramer said.
As it turned out, Natalie is from a part of China where one of a plethora of dialects is spoken, but the Kramers decided to stick with the school for her.
"We thought culturally it would be really great for her, but also, China is set to become the No. 1 economy in the world shortly, I think before Obama is out of office, so that would be a potentially useful language for her to learn," Chris Kramer said.
"English and Chinese is the best combination that you could have when these children are my age," Stellato said.
"She is just picking it up so well," Kramer said of Natalie. "She can imitate the sounds way better than I can.
"Mandarin is such a different language from English," Kramer added. "You can have the same word pronounced four different ways and it means different things. I'm finally starting to hear the differences, but in English, we don't have things like that.
"She's also soaking up English like a sponge," Kramer said of her daughter. "It took her about a month to where she was really understanding what we were saying in English.
"Her English is coming along incredibly well, and she seems to understand that English is the language around her, but she also seems to understand that when she goes to Chinese school, that's Chinese time."
After graduating from high school in the Cleveland area, Stellato attended Miami University.
He was interested in East Asian philosophy, although he wound up with a degree in comparative religions. He took Chinese as a minor.
"Chinese is kind of classified as a truly foreign language," Stellato said. "There are no cultural references that are very familiar to us in America ... and there's also a basic difference in the language.
"Every single syllable has a tone pitch that you need to be paying attention to. You have to develop all new muscles in your mouth. Just all around it is a difficult language, even for the Chinese."
Upon graduating from Miami, Stellato moved to China and studied there for several years before returning to the United States and enrolling in the Chinese Flagship Program at Ohio State University, part of an effort on the part of the federal government to produce more Americans who speak the languages of nations significant on the international scene, not only Chinese but also Farsi and Arabic.
Stellato returned to China to write his master's thesis, which was a biography of a traditional street musician.
Often asked to give lessons in Mandarin, Stellato said he started work toward a doctorate, but wasn't attracted to academia, and decided to launch the limited liability school of which he is now president.
"It took off from there," he said.
Stellato, Terry Chai and Seth Wiener, his colleagues at the Columbus School of Chinese, which has classroom space on Old Henderson Road, also are the principals of Sino-American Business Consulting. They launched that enterprise to help people interested in doing business in or with China avoid making embarrassing cultural faux pas.
For example, something as seemingly simple as exchanging business cards for the Chinese involves an almost scripted ceremony of gestures and dialogue.
"You have to understand the Chinese and what their behaviors are," Stellato said.
Kramer said Natalie has so much fun at the Columbus School of Chinese that her middle child, Oliver, a native of Cambodia, asked if he could learn Mandarin, too.
"It's just been so enjoyable for both my kids," Kramer said. "You couldn't necessarily think that language lessons would be fun, but they are."