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How is immersion defined?

September 19, 2016


UPDATE: I’ve gotten a lot of emails from parents at schools that offer Mandarin instruction around the country, asking about the distinction between immersion and Mandarin classes.

First off, these are called FLES (Foreign Language in Elementary School) in education jargon, in case you run into the term.

There are a couple of requirement for a school to be considered true immersion. They include:

  • 50% of the instructional day taught in Mandarin
  • Actual subjects taught in Mandarin, as opposed to simply learning Mandarin
  • (Generally) academic subjects taught in Chinese as opposed to more soft subjects such as art and music.

The confusion seems to come in because today languages are taught very differently from how they were the most of us were in high school. Teachers don’t speak English in class, they only speak the “target” language (Spanish, French, Chinese, etc.) and do a lot of acting out and emphasis to get ideas across.

Several parents said their school told them their kids were getting immersion because the “teachers never speak English in class.”

But that’s actually just how all language should be taught today, and how they are taught in schools with strong language instruction.

Immersion involves being taught IN Chinese. So learning math in Chinese, or social studies or science IN Chinese.

There are several schools around the country that teach a couple of classes in Chinese, or some blend of Chinese and English, equalling about 30 to 40% of the school day. However I don’t include them on my list as I’m sticking to the 50% rule.  Which isn’t a dig at those schools, I’m sure they’re excellent. It’s just that I write about immersion and that’s the level most academics agree to.

I’ve got a call in to the head of the New York International School to find out more about their program.


I keep a sharp eye out for new Mandarin immersion schools to add to my list of Mandarin immersion programs here.

I found one today I thought was new to the list, but I’m in a quandary about it. It’s called the New York International School. The website calls it an immersion school, but says that students “spend approximately 60% of their time learning in English, and 40% in the second language of their choice. Parents will be able to choose between Spanish or Mandarin Chinese.”

By all academic definitions, an immersion program in the elementary years is 50% or more of the academic day spent in the “target language,” which in our case means Mandarin.

Currently 66% of Mandarin immersion schools in the United States are 50/50, while the rest offer more than 60% – with the vast majority of those beginning with 80% or even 90% of the day in Mandarin in Kindergarten and 1st grade, then tapering down to 50/50 by 5th grade.

So 40% is not immersion. The school also says students can come in with any Chinese ability because they’re placed in “leveled language classes according to their proficiency, enabling new students with differing knowledge of Spanish or Chinese to enroll in any grade.”

You can’t be teaching a 4th grader math in Chinese if they don’t speak Chinese. Well, actually, you can. We do it to immigrant kids all the time in U.S. schools. But I can’t imagine private school parents being thrilled with the outcome.

The school’s workaround appears to be that it doesn’t teach academic subjects in Chinese. From its website, actual academic subjects are taught in English, but music, art and technology are taught in Chinese. It also has a Spanish track which offers those subjects in Spanish.

Again, the definition of immersion is that you don’t just teach Chinese, you teach in Chinese. So you teach math, but the teacher speaks only Chinese in the classroom, or you teach science and the teacher only uses Chinese. It’s not clear to me that music and art count.

I’ve kept other schools off the list because they don’t offer 50% of the day in Chinese.

Does anyone know about this school? I’ll try to give them a call and find out what they offer. I also can’t tell when they were founded or whether they teach traditional or simplified characters.

Granted, I’m a stickler for this stuff, but hey, it’s a Mandarin immersion blog so where else are you going to find that level of focus? And I’m worried that “immersion” is becoming a popular education buzz word and is being applied to schools that aren’t actually immersion.

Happy Moon Festival!

September 16, 2016


Parents with kids in Mandarin immersion programs probably noticed that this week involved a lot of talk about the Moon Festival, moon cakes and probably some poetry.

For folks who didn’t grow up in families that celebrated what’s properly called the Mid-Autumn Festival, here’s a little background on what your little darlings have been up to.

The Moon Festival is a traditional celebration held on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month in the Chinese calendar, when the moon is at its fullest and brightest of the year.

Here are some notes from my friend Jeff Bissell, the head of the Chinese American International School in San Francisco:

The Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, like American Thanksgiving, is held in part to celebrate the harvest. There are different variations of the story behind this festival, most of which involve the mythical archer Houyi后羿visiting his beautiful wife Chang’e嫦娥, the Goddess of the Moon once a year on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, when the moon is full. As with Thanksgiving, families try to reunite on this day, and there is much symbolism surrounding the full moon. The moon is round, and the circle it forms is symbolic of the family uniting together for a meal called tuán yuán fàn 团圆饭or “reunion dinner.” The three Chinese characters literally mean “round circular meal,” evoking the image of the moon. Families sit around round tables and eat moon cakes, which are also round (although nowadays you can find square ones, and ones made of ice cream). If the circle is incomplete (i.e., if a family member is away) then families say that they can at least look at the same round moon and think of their distant family members, who are looking at the same moon-and then the circle is completed.

Nowadays, Chinese exchange billions (literally) of lyrical text messages on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, all expressing wishes that they could be together with their distant friends and family. I’ve received hundreds of such messages from friends, all displaying clever uses of Chinese characters expressing “circle,” “round,” and “completion.”

The other part of the Moon Festival is the giving and eating of moon cakes. These are hockey puck-sized treats that consist of a thin pastry coating over a disk of (generally) sweet red bean paste or lotus seed paste. Lotus seed paste is very sweet and something like the Chinese equivalent of marzipan. Inside most moon cake is a single, hard-cooked, salted yolk from a duck egg. The saltiness of the yolk contrasts nicely with the sweetness of the filling, or at least it does for me. Some moon cakes feature two yolks, which seems like too much for me but your taste may vary. But perhaps more importantly in a culture enamored of symbolism in food, the egg yolk is thought to look like the full, round moon. Moon cakes are cut into thin wedges and typically served with tea.


You can watch a nice video about them being made by hand on Slate, here.

and here are some fun videos of machine-made moon cakes



Moon cakes have become an important present to give during the weeks around the Moon Festival. Go into any Asian supermarket and you’ll find the front of the store piled high with stacks of different types and price points, depending on the quality and how fancy the packaging is. While sweet red bean paste and lotus seed paste are the most common, you’ll also find nut-filled, pineapple and melon (these are vile, I’m just warning you.) There are also smaller silver dollar-sized moon cakes that are more single serving.

Sometimes instead of handing out boxes of moon cakes people will give gift certificates for a box out instead. Last year when we were having work done on our house by a Chinese contractor he gave us these, the first time I’d run into it but I’m now told it’s pretty common.

The Moon Festival has been celebrated at least as far back as the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD). In a culture that still reveres poetry and the ability to memorize and recite it, one of the best-known poems of all is a poem about just that. At some point in your child’s Chinese career they will memorize some Tang Dynasty poems (a high point for poetry) and one or more of them will be by the famous poet Li Bai 李白 (701-762). In fact maybe they already have learned this one, ask!

“Thoughts on a Quiet Night” (Jìng yè sī 静夜思)







Jìng yè sī

Chuáng qián míng yuè guāng,

Yí shì dì shàng shuāng

Jŭ tóu wàng míng yuè

Dĭ tóu sī gù xiāng


Thoughts on a Quiet Night

Before my bed the moon shines brightly,

I suspect there is frost on the ground,

I raise my head and gaze at the moon,

I lower my head and think longingly of my home.


Here’s another bit of poetry from Jeff Bissell:

When family members cannot return home for the feast, it is common to say that no matter how far away they are, they can look at the same moon and remember one another. One of the most well-known and eloquent expression of this sentiment is in a poem written by the Song Dynasty scholar Su Shi 苏轼 (1037-1101 CE). Su wrote the poem to express how much he missed his brother on the evening of the Mid-Autumn Festival. The last lines of the poem read:



Dàn yuàn rén cháng jiŭ

Qiān lĭ gong chán juān

I hope we are blessed with longevity

And although thousands of miles apart, we may still share the moon’s beauty

In 2016 the fullest moon fell on September 15. But people will be celebrating all weekend as they gather with family and friends to sip tea and eat moon cakes. Join them in this more than thousand year old tradition and celebrate with your family.

A sad story from Charlotte

September 13, 2016

Normally I post positive stories about Mandarin immersion. But this is so heartbreaking. A young Mandarin immersion teacher in North Carolina was shot in during a robbery. The community is rallying to help bring her family from China to say good-bye to her before she’s taken off life support. My prayers go out to the family and the community at Kensington Elementary.

Elementary school teacher shot during attempted robbery

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department has confirmed a mandarin-language immersion teacher at Kensington Elementary school was shot by a robber Friday night.

Police say the shooting took place on the 100 block of East Park Avenue in Charlotte’s busy SouthEnd neighborhood at 11:33 p.m. Friday after the victim was getting into a vehicle.

Upon arrival, officers located Ruijuan Guo, suffering from a gunshot wound. Guo was transported to Carolinas Medical Center with life-threatening injuries.

The police report states Guo, her boyfriend and friend were preparing to get into their car when they were approached by the suspect. The suspect pulled a gun on them and asked for the boyfriend’s wallet. The police report stated he could not get his wallet out of his pocket fast enough so the suspect shot his girlfriend in the head and then ran off.

The police reports states the robber got away with the man’s wallet, which contained his driver’s license, social security card and $900 in mixed bills.

The Kensington Elementary School posted Sunday on their Facebook page saying, “As many of you may have heard, one of our Mandarin teachers, Miss Guo has been hospitalized since Friday night with life-threatening injuries. As a show of love and support, we are encouraging all of our students and staff to wear purple this week, which is Miss Guo’s favorite color, and bring in sunflowers, her favorite flower.

“I mean the dads out in the line today, they were all in purple, teachers in purple, kids in purple. It’s just a great community and were just showing support,” said Hope Morris, whose daughter attends Kensington Elementary.

Please read more here.

Here’s a Go Fund Me link for the family.

Here’s how NOT to run an immersion program

September 10, 2016

Hint: Don’t have a theoretical “first come, first served” enrollment process but really let the principal pick and choose who gets to attend, resulting in almost entirely white classes while Black and Hispanic families mysteriously never get in.

Selection process at Forest Hills saw lack of minorities in popular school program

WILMINGTON, Delaware  — Anna Lee was not surprised when she walked into a meeting for Forest Hills Elementary’s Spanish Immersion Program and found the room filled with white faces.

“I had it on my radar already that the program was relatively segregated because I know people who have older kids there,” Lee said. “It wasn’t exactly a revelation.”

She counted three Hispanic parents –- including her husband -– and two black parents among the roughly 45 people in the school’s auditorium.

During that meeting, Lee recalled, Forest Hill’s principal, Deborah Greenwood, was asked how students would be chosen. The principal told attendees she wasn’t sure yet.

Please read more here.

Get your school’s new parents ready for Mandarin immersion

September 8, 2016

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As incoming Kinder parents begin to think about how this Mandarin immersion thing they’ve signed up for is actually going to work, many programs around the nation are getting them a copy of A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion as a one-stop reading guide to language immersion.

Both schools and parent associations have purchased copies for their new parents, or as a sale item to support their programs. The books can be purchased in bulk much more cheaply than buying them through Amazon.

As a parent of two daughters who’ve been in Mandarin immersion programs at two different schools for a total of 17 years now, I wrote A Parent’s Guide as the how-to manual that I wished I’d had when we started this process.

Many schools have found that by giving copies of the book to parents early on (sometimes even before school starts) they can spend more time building a great school and less time explaining the nuts and bolts of immersion. Informed parents, teachers tell me, are calmer and more empowered parents.

A Parent’s Guide covers:

• How immersion works in the classroom
• The benefits of bilingualism for the brain
• Chinese 101 for immersion parents
• The academic possibilities immersion opens to students
• Chinese literacy issues
• The six types of Mandarin immersion families
• Why schools offer immersion
• How parents can turbo-charge their children’s Chinese

What the experts are saying:
   “Weise combines journalistic writing talents with a longstanding interest in Chinese language learning to offer current and prospective parents an engaging and informative guide to Mandarin immersion education in the U.S. This handbook serves as an excellent resource– chock full of news and information about how to get the most from your child’s Mandarin immersion experience.”
     Dr. Tara W. Fortune, Director, Immersion Projects, Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota
   “If you’d like to understand the dynamics of Chinese immersion education, look no further. Beth Weise is a prescient and astute guide through this often confusing and misunderstood world. Her book is required reading for parents, administrators, and practitioners–a major contribution to the field.”
     Chris Livaccari, Chinese Program Director, International School of the Peninsula, Palo Alto, California
   “This book addresses issues of concern not only to parents but anyone involved in Chinese language education. It provides amazingly complete information and statistics about Chinese immersion programs. Painfully honest, it tells us about school and school district politics surrounding the implementation of these programs. Weise’s insights make it a must-have guidebook for anyone interested in Chinese immersion.”
     Dr. Christy Lao, Professor of Education and expert on second language acquisition at San Francisco State University, California
So here’s the deal for schools:

If you order 25 or more books, I can have them dropped shipped to your school for $12 a copy. If you order 50 or more they go down to $11 a copy. And, as one program did, if you buy 100 they go down to $10 per book.

Some PTAs have bought them and then sold them at the regular price of $18.95 as a fund raiser as well.

If your school is interested, please contact me at weise (at) well (dot) com


Vancouver BC looks to Edmonton with jealousy when it comes to Mandarin immersion

September 6, 2016

A great overview of Canada’s Mandarin immersion landscape. It’s remarkable that 43% of the greater Vancouver area in British Columbia is Asian-Canadian, and yet it has only three small program. Edmonton, in Alberta, by contrast has a vibrant and large immersion program.

Also check out the stories at the end by the dad whose daughter speaks Mandarin and how it helped her get jobs, even in high school. A good one to tell the kids!


Metro Vancouver losing competitiveness due to lack of language immersion programs


Bing Thom and Loretta Kong still remember when Kong interviewed for a position with the renowned Vancouver-based architect’s firm in 2007.

“She spoke English, Mandarin and Cantonese,” said Thom, adding that was a key reason for hiring the young architect. “Loretta studied Chinese history and was immersed in the culture.”

Kong, now an associate with Shape Architecture in Vancouver, is a product of the extensive bilingual-immersion programs in Edmonton schools. Kong took half of her elementary and high-school classes in Mandarin Chinese.

“I do remember him being very surprised,” she recalled of the meeting with Thom. “It did impress him that a smaller centre like Edmonton had a program like this for more than 20 years.”

Since 1984, the Alberta capital has offered one of the largest Mandarin Chinese programs in Canada, with 2,009 students enrolled in 13 schools. It is the school district’s second-most-popular bilingual-immersion program, behind French with 3,703 student. What’s more, Edmonton also has 1,335 students in its Arabic program, in addition to having comparable programs for German, Hebrew, Spanish, Ukrainian and American Sign Language.

By comparison, Metro school, serving a much larger population, have about 500 students in total in immersion Mandarin programs.

As the school year starts, some parents are again demanding that B.C. — Canada’s gateway to the Pacific — should be doing more to increase foreign-language competency among students. The alternative, they say, is an increasingly uncompetitive workforce, especially when compared to graduates of programs like Edmonton’s.

Please read more here.

Placement of middle school programs always seems to be an issue

September 2, 2016
The issues faced by this successful program in Orange County, Calif. are mirrored by many programs when they reach middle school, where things become less clear cut and placement looms large. No word yet on where the program will land. – Beth

CUSD Board Votes to Reconsider Mandarin immersion Program Policy

The  Board of Trustees will reconsider this fall the district’s Mandarin Immersion Program (MIP) policy, including the program’s feeder pattern, which trustees previously approved in April.On April 13, the board voted 5-2 to approve the program’s pathway from Marian Bergeson Elementary School to Niguel Hills. Two trustees requested the middle school location be reconsidered, pointing to about $1 million in renovations that would need to be completed in order to house the program at Niguel Hills Middle School.

Please read more here.