Start it early, start it full

They are so popular that some US schools have used lot­ter­ies to de­ter­mine who gets en­rolled. “They’’ are Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­grams, which in­te­grate teach­ing Chi­nese into ev­ery­day cur­ricu­lum, CAI CHUN­Y­ING re­ports from Wash­ing­ton.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

With Chi­nese Lu­nar New Year on Thurs­day, Aniya Car­ring­ton is busy per­fect­ing singing a Chi­nese song that she will per­form with her class­mates at her school to cel­e­brate the Year of the Ram.

The 6th-grader at Bal­ti­more In­ter­na­tional Academy, a K-8 public char­ter school, re­cently also helped a Chi­nese woman who could not speak English at an emer­gency room to com­mu­ni­cate with nurses and doc­tors dur­ing a visit to the place by Aniya with her fam­ily.

Aniya, who has been study­ing Chi­nese since kinder­garten, is among more than 20,000 stu­dents in the United States en­rolled in an in­creas­ingly popular pro­gram: Chi­nese im­mer­sion.

Sim­i­lar to the im­mer­sion pro­gram of other lan­guages such as French and Span­ish, Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­grams use Chi­nese (mostly Man­darin) to teach sub­jects such as math, science and so­cial stud­ies. Through the process, stu­dents not only learn their sub­jects but ac­quire the lan­guage at a rel­a­tively pro­fi­cient level.

In 2000 there were only nine el­e­men­tary and sec­ondary public and pri­vate schools in the US of­fer­ing Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­grams. The num­ber of pro­grams ex­ploded af­ter 2007, with an an­nual av­er­age in­crease of 18. And now there are 187 el­e­men­tary and sec­ondary schools in 27 US states and the Dis­trict of Columbia (DC) of­fer­ing Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­grams, with most at K-5 level, ac­cord­ing to the Man­darin Im­mer­sion Par­ents Coun­cil, a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion which tracks the num­ber of such pro­grams.

The pro­grams have be­come so popular that many schools run a lot­tery for en­roll­ment.

For ex­am­ple, Wash­ing­ton’s Yu Ying Public Char­ter School, the only Chi­nese im­mer­sion school in DC, which US First Lady Michelle Obama vis­ited and was im­pressed be­fore her trip to China last May, had more than 1,000 ap­pli­cants for about 20 open slots for the aca­demic year 2014-2015.

Lan­guage im­mer­sion is not for­eign to hu­man learn­ing. All chil­dren grow up learn­ing their na­tive lan­guage through im­mers­ing in the spo­ken en­vi­ron­ment pro­vided by their par­ents and com­mu­ni­ties. Re­search shows that im­mer­sion is one of the most ef­fec­tive ways to learn a lan­guage.

Eli Strauss-Reis, now a 9th-grader, started Man­darin im­mer­sion in kinder­garten at Po­tomac El­e­men­tary School, the first public school in the US to of­fer such a pro­gram in 1996, all the way through 5th grade. He has kept study­ing the lan­guage in mid­dle and high school.

“It re­ally is a great way to learn Chi­nese. In com­plete im­mer­sion, you stop think­ing in English and start think­ing in Chi­nese,” he told China Daily in an in­ter­view that started in Chi­nese with near-na­tive flu­ency. “You are not only study­ing the lan­guage, you are us­ing the lan­guage on a daily ba­sis. It’s a lot fun as well. You learn it nat­u­rally so you do not need to sit there writ­ing it or mem­o­riz­ing it.” Why Chi­nese im­mer­sion?

Myr­iam Met helped to launch the pro­gram at Po­tomac El­e­men­tary School while serv­ing as co­or­di­na­tor of for­eign lan­guage for Mont­gomery County Public School in Mary­land. Be­ing very much in­volved in Span­ish and French im­mer­sion pro­grams in other dis­tricts be­fore, Met ap­plied for a sim­i­lar one in Asian lan­guages upon learn­ing the US gov­ern­ment has grants to en­cour­age such projects.

“It is up to the school and par­ents’ choice to se­lect which Asian lan­guage to study and they picked Chi­nese for they think it is the lan­guage of 21st cen­tury,” said Met who later be­came the act­ing direc­tor of Na­tional For­eign Lan­guage Cen­ter and a soughtafter ex­pert in the im­mer­sion field.

The pro­gram proved to be very popular among par­ents so the county, an­swer­ing a par­ents’ pe­ti­tion, started an­other one at Col­lege Gar­den El­e­men­tary School in 2005.

Wash­ing­ton’s Yu Ying school, how­ever, did not start its im­mer­sion pro­gram with such ease.

When Mary Shaffner’s daugh­ter reached near-school age in DC, she found no school of­fered a Chi­ne­se­lan­guage learn­ing class, so she gath­ered sup­port from 10 like-minded par­ents, who all have per­sonal con­nec­tions with China, to launch a public char­ter Chi­nese im­mer­sion school from scratch, which is open to all chil­dren in the city.

Shaffner, who stud­ied Chi­nese and lived in China for a while, still re­mem­bers when the school pe­ti­tion reached the city’s public char­ter school board’s hear­ing in 2007 af­ter an oner­ous prepa­ra­tion process.

“They looked at me and said, `Who wants to learn Chi­nese any­way?’” Schaf­fer re­called. “About 100 par­ents in the au­di­ence, all dressed in Yu Ying T-shirts, stood up and said ‘ We do’.” The school was soon ap­proved. To­day it has be­come one of the “hottest” schools in DC.

Shaffner along with oth­ers launched a new mid­dle and high school — Dis­trict of Columbia In­ter­na­tional School — in 2014 so Yu Ying stu­dents can con­tinue learn­ing Chi­nese there upon grad­u­a­tion. A bene­fac­tor

Kona-Fa­cia Ne­pay, founder of Bal­ti­more In­ter­na­tional Academy (BIA) has a sim­i­lar story. She her­self is a bene­fac­tor of lan­guage im­mer­sion pro­gram. Ne­pay learned her French in im­mer­sion style in her na­tive coun­try Liberia, and the ex­pe­ri­ence was so amaz­ing to her that she later fin­ished her grad­u­ate stud­ies in France spe­cial­iz­ing in im­mer­sion teach­ing.

When she moved to Bal­ti­more, Ne­pay wanted her son to study French but found no school of­fered it. Ne­pay and her hus­band gath­ered sup­port from other par­ents and started BIA in 2007, of­fer­ing four lan­guages—Chi­nese, Span­ish, French and Rus­sian. The school added Ara­bic in last fall, be­com­ing the only one in the na­tion of­fer­ing im­mer­sion in five lan­guages.

Ne­pay said Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­grams in the US have grown so rapidly that they have al­most be­come “vogue”. “It’s now ev­ery­where,” she said. In re­cent years, BIA has had twice many ap­pli­cants that it could ac­cept for its Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­gram.

For par­ents, be­liev­ing in the power of for­eign lan­guage and the ad­van­tage their chil­dren can gain in the global job mar­ket of­ten plays a ma­jor role in their de­ci­sion to choose Chi­nese im­mer­sion.

“Go­ing to an early lan­guage im­mer­sion pro­gram gives them the op­por­tu­nity to use the part of the brain that they oth­er­wise will not use un­til later in life,” said Mi­randa, the mother of Aniya.

Mi­randa said it was Aniya’s fa­ther’s de­ci­sion to pick Chi­nese be­cause he saw China as a ris­ing power and has been see­ing the need for peo­ple who can speak Chi­nese and the growth of Chi­nese lan­guage in the US. Per­for­mance speaks

Even though in Chi­nese im­mer­sion classes many cur­ric­u­lar sub­jects are taught in Chi­nese, stu­dents still need to take stan­dard tests in English on var­i­ous sub­jects set by the states.

For out­siders and new par­ents, it is of­ten hard to imag­ine that an English-speak­ing stu­dent could mas­ter a sub­ject that is taught in an­other lan­guage.

Re­search, how­ever, has shown that stu­dents can in­deed learn con­cepts in one lan­guage and then uti­lize them in an­other. A test score is one of the best proofs. Ac­cord­ing to El­iz­a­beth Weise, au­thor of A Par­ent’s Guide to Man­darin Im­mer­sion, pre­sum­ably the most re­source­ful book in the field, cur­rent data show that Chi­nese im­mer­sion stu­dents not only score as good as their peers in a regular English track, they of­ten excel.

In­ter­views with ad­min­is­tra­tors and teach­ers in the greater Wash­ing­ton area in­volved in Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­grams also sug­gest that this out­come is uni­ver­sal among their stu­dents.

“It is com­mon for stu­dents to lag a bit be­hind their peers for the first a cou­ple of years while they are grasp­ing the ba­sic con­cepts of lan­guage and sub­jects. They, how­ever, do catch up steadily and of­ten sur­pass their peers in later years, rather no­tice­ably,” said Zhian Zhang, Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­gram direc­tor at Po­tomac El­e­men­tary School, which has both English-track class and Chi­nese im­mer­sion class through­out K-5 lev­els.

Re­search shows that im­mers­ing in a for­eign lan­guage stim­u­lates the brain, im­proves at­ten­tion, en­hances self con­trol and the abil­ity to deal with com­plex in­for­ma­tion, lead­ing to bet­ter aca­demic per­for­mance.

But Myr­iam Met, the im­mer­sion ex­pert, be­lieves the main rea­son may be teach­ing.

“In or­der for an im­mer­sion teacher to be ef­fec­tive with stu­dents learn­ing the lan­guage, they have to use a lot of teach­ing strate­gies that I think in the long run are sim­ply good teach­ing,” said Met.

Airry Zhang, Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­gram direc­tor at BIA who also teaches kinder­garten, agrees. She said their teach­ers have to work par­tic­u­larly hard to con­vert the re­quired con­cepts and skills in the com­mon English cur­ricu­lum to Chi­nese and then search for the best way to teach it. Jing­mei Shi, an as­sis­tant teacher in Zhang’s class and a for­mer uni­ver­sity teacher in China, be­lieves that the en­thu­si­asm she has seen among her stu­dents is mainly due to how they are taught the lan­guage and con­tent.

Ne­pay, founder of BIA, praised the nine teach­ers in her Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­gram as ex­tremely com­mit­ted. “We found the cul­ture of Chi­nese peo­ple lend them­selves to hard work and com­mit­ment. Our col­leagues in Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­gram are very co­he­sive, co­op­er­a­tive. They are team play­ers. They al­ways do things to­gether and they do it so ex­cel­lently,” she said. Do they re­ally learn Chi­nese?

Do stu­dents re­ally ac­quire Chi­nese at pro­fi­ciency level at the end of their sev­eral years’ com­mit­ment?

Chi­nese is not an easy lan­guage to learn for English speak­ers. Un­like French or Span­ish, there are no words in Chi­nese and English that share sim­i­lar mean­ing, spell­ing or pro­nun­ci­a­tion.

The US State Depart­ment’s For­eign Ser­vices In­sti­tute, which trains Amer­i­can diplo­mats, clas­si­fies Chi­nese as a Cat­e­gory III lan­guage which re­quires a na­tive English speaker on av­er­age 88 weeks of full-time ef­fort to achieve gen­eral pro­fi­ciency, while French and Span­ish only re­quire 24 weeks.

Bethanie Weitz, Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­gram co­or­di­na­tor at Col­lege Gar­den El­e­men­tary School in Mary­land, and Po­tomac El­e­men­tary School’s Zhang both said stu­dents’ lis­ten­ing abil­ity can of­ten achieve na­tive-like lev­els while their speak­ing and writ­ing skills usu­ally lag a bit be­hind. Due to their daily prac­tic­ing the lan­guage in aca­demic con­tent in­stead of a real life set­ting, their so­cial vo­cab­u­lary in Chi­nese is not as rich as some would hope. And this of­ten is the na­ture of an im­mer­sion pro­gram for any lan­guage.

But even with this limit, the lan­guage abil­ity that stu­dents gain in an im­mer­sion pro­gram is much bet­ter than if they have just a one-hour daily Chi­nese lan­guage les­son.

“Chil­dren are more suc­cess­ful than any­body ever would be­lieve what’s pos­si­ble,” said Met, who now works as con­sul­tant for var­i­ous aca­demic en­ti­ties and im­mer­sion pro­grams. “They re­ally ac­quire the lan­guage and are able to com­mu­ni­cate it. We are still work­ing on some of the best ways to teach and some of the best ma­te­ri­als we can use. We just want to be even more suc­cess­ful than we are now.”

Par­ents are of­ten a very im­por­tant part of that suc­cess. Choos­ing a Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­gram of­ten means ex­tra work at home to keep chil­dren on track.

“I know go­ing to an im­mer­sion pro­gram is a sac­ri­fice for us. We, how­ever, feel very strongly about school and our in­volve­ment. So, tak­ing on that re­spon­si­bil­ity is some­thing we al­ready know we are go­ing to do,” said Mi­randa, mother of Aniya.

“It does re­quire a lot of in­volve­ment from the par­ents. It was a big part of my kids grow­ing up,” said Kit, mother of Eli. She said when Eli was lit­tle, she would only hire baby-sit­ters who spoke Chi­nese or Span­ish. She played Chi­nese TV at home and put on Chi­nese-lan­guage au­dios or videos when driv­ing the chil­dren in the car.

Kit also has sent Eli and his broth­ers to a Chi­nese im­mer­sion camp run by Con­cor­dia Lan­guage Vil­lage in Min­nesota al­most ev­ery sum­mer. Eli also went to Mid­dle­bury Col­lege, a renowned lan­guage-teach­ing school in Ver­mont, for its pro­gram for high school chil­dren. She also hired pri­vate tu­tors to help Eli.

“If you want your kids to re­ally speak the lan­guage well, you re­ally need to do some­thing out­side of the pro­gram,” she said.

Eli still learns Chi­nese at his high school with a one-hour Chi­nese les­son ev­ery day. He said the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents who started with him in kinder­garten are still ac­tively learn­ing Chi­nese. Many of them went to China in 5th grade on a trip or­ga­nized by the school.

Although Eli hasn’t de­cided what he wants to do in the fu­ture, he said that he en­vi­sions a ca­reer in which Chi­nese will be a very ac­tive part of his job. “I will be very dis­ap­pointed if I do not do that,” he said. “I re­ally en­joy us­ing it and I re­ally en­joy go­ing to China.”

What Mi­randa says she en­joys the most is when she and her two daugh­ters par­tic­i­pate in Chi­nese cul­tural events, us­ing what they have learned.

“The kids were re­ally in­volved. They looked for ways to get out there to show­case that there is this school and they are grow­ing and learn­ing and do­ing well. All the par­ents were amazed when see­ing them. It is a beau­ti­ful thing,” said Mi­randa. Ma­jor events

With con­tin­u­ing cul­tural ex­changes among the US and China and a large Chi­nese-Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion in the greater Wash­ing­ton area, the school has had many op­por­tu­ni­ties to be part of some ma­jor events, in­clud­ing wel­com­ing Chi­nese pres­i­dent Hu Jin­tao’s state visit to the US in 2011.

“Learn­ing about an­other cul­ture helps them to ap­pre­ci­ate not just other cul­ture, but their own. They are more aware that peo­ple are dif­fer­ent and can em­brace a va­ri­ety of cul­tures and re­li­gions, it re­ally broad­ens their minds,” Mi­randa said.

Ne­pay, the BIA founder, said this kind of ex­tracur­ric­u­lar event re­ally mo­ti­vate her stu­dents and is a very im­por­tant part of what makes the Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­gram at her school spe­cial. “Now other pro­grams were mo­ti­vated to reach out and do the same,” she said.

Mi­randa is al­ready think­ing about how to keep up Aniya’s learn­ing Chi­nese af­ter grad­u­at­ing from BIA. She said the pro­gram has opened up so many pos­si­bil­i­ties for her daugh­ters.

“You do not have to be doc­tors or vet­eri­nar­i­ans. You can be an am­bas­sador, a me­di­a­tor, an in­ter­preter. This just opens up a whole world that is not avail­able for me when I grew up,” she said. “I look back and think about be­ing so ner­vous send­ing her (to the school), and I looked at them grow­ing and blos­som­ing, I am so glad that we took the chance.’’ Con­tact the writer at charlenecai@


Stu­dents from the Chi­nese im­mer­sion pro­gram at the Col­lege Gar­den El­e­men­tary School per­form in Chi­nese the song cel­e­bra­tion event at Lake­for­est Mall in Gaithers­burg, Mary­land, last Fe­bru­ary.

dur­ing a Chi­nese New Year


Teacher Xiao Chen helps a stu­dent prac­tice math con­cepts and ques­tions taught in Chi­nese at a 3rd grade Chi­nese im­mer­sion class at Bal­ti­more In­ter­na­tional Academy in Jan­uary.

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