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Reporting from the Early Childhood Chinese Immersion Forum in San Francisco

March 17, 2018

I’m attending the Early Childhood Chinese Immersion Forum in San Francisco today. I’ll be posting throughout the day.


Keynote speaker: Helena Curtain

How immersion benefits preschool kids


Helena Curtain speaking on early childhood immersion programs at the Early Childhood Chinese Immersion Forum at the Chinese American International School on March 17, 2018.

Remember that most children in the world are in immersion programs – because in two-thirds of the globe children go to school in a language different than the one they speak at home. Only one-third of children are schooled in the same language they speak at home.

The good news is that we know that whatever kids learn in one language transfers into another, it’s backed up by research.

Not only that, but there are 50 years of research saying that learning a second language will improve your native language.

In addition, people who’ve learned two languages have a much easier time learning a third language. They already intuitively understand the metalinguistic issues and instinctively know how to communicate using a new language.

The Advantages of an Early Start

Children who learn another language before age five us the same part of the brain to acquire that second language that they use to learn their mother tongue.

Starting language earlier gives you longer to get to an language advanced level. If studetns don’t start until high school they don’t have enough time to fully take the language in.

It’s also good to learn early, because of what Curtain calls “the easy and naturalness factor. Little kids don’t worry about are they saying it wrong! They’re still learning their first language, so it’s all new.”

Children also may not realize that they can understand the immersion language, but they do. Curtain told the story of talking with a Kindergarten student in a Spanish immersion classroom.

“Do you understand your teacher?” she asked?

“No, I don’t. But I do everything she tells me!” the child responded.

The phases of language learning:

  • The nonverbal silent period
    • It’s not just preschool children who go through this process. Everyone who’s learning a language goes through this.
  • The telegraphic and formulaic speech period.
    • “Me go. “Me hungry.” They can get their needs met but not much more.
  • Formulaic speech.
    • They have a phrase that they can repeat. “May I go to the bathroom?” “How are you today?”
  • Productive language.
    • When they’re actually able to create with language.

NOTE: Parents need to remember that students start out like babies or toddlers, speaking the new language very simply. “So it’s not fair for parents to expect that they can suddenly go to a Chinese restaurant and order as if they were an adult!

Caretaker speech – How teachers begin teaching students in the first years of immersion.

This involve

  • Simplified Vocabulary
  • Simplified Phonology
  • Exaggerated Pitch & Intonation and acting-out
  • Speaking to children as if they understand even when they don’t.
    • An example: Your two-year old says, “Wawa.” You respond, “Oh, you want water. Let’s get you a drink. There’s the water fountain. Isn’t that water good?”

Why teachers need to use Mandarin all the time and don’t speak English to students.

  • Learners need to access the target language through the target language, not through English.
  • If teachers speak the language 50% of the time, students are learning the language 50% of the time.
  • [Though if a child’s crying, you talk to them in English but you don’t do it in front of the other students. We’re not going to put the child’s social and emotional well-being at risk, of course.] 

    What if your child can’t get into an immersion preschool?

    Is not having access to an immersion preschool a problem? Not all areas have them, or in areas that do, not all students can get into them.

    Starting is better but it’s not a deal-breaker, Curtain told attendees. Programs for three-, four- and five-year-olds are not academic. They’re very concrete, hands-on, play-based and developmentally appropriate. So the students who come to it later aren’t missing out on academic learning. But preschool gives them a head start on the language.

    “But if you can’t get your kid into the program until they’re five, that’s still a very young age to get them started and just fine,” Curtain said.




First whole-school Mandarin immersion program to open in North Carolina

March 14, 2018

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In the fall of 2018 the East Voyager Academy will open in Charlotte, N.C. It will be the first whole-school Mandarin immersion school in the state, joining eight others.

The charter school is launching with Pre-K to Grade 4 for the 2018-2019 school year and will add a grade each year until Grade 8. It will use simplified characters and begin with a 75%/25% Mandarin to English ratio.

Just last month the new school’s Board of Trustees announced that Dr. Tim Murph would be its founding Principal. He has previously served as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, and executive director in numerous school districts, both traditional and charter.

Charlotte has one other school offering Mandarin immersion, Waddell Language Academy, which is a K – 5 magnet school which has four language immersion programs – Chinese, French, German or Japanese. The city also has Spanish K – 8 immersion programs at Collinswood Language Academy and Oaklawn Language Academy.

For more about East Voyager Academy, please see their website here.


Language immersion programs help Los Angeles stem outgoing tide: 12,000 students a year leave the school system

March 12, 2018

From the fabulous LA School Report blog (and oh how I wish we had a benefactor that could create something similar in San Francisco!) The pertinent paragraph is this one:

Of particular importance for a district struggling with persistent declining enrollment, 18 percent of the applications were for students not currently enrolled in LA Unified. The district is losing about 12,000 students a year as rising rents force families out of the city, birth rates decline, and growing numbers choose charter schools. Expanding its magnet and dual language programs is a key district strategy to retain and attract families.

Los Angeles is not the only school district facing falling enrollment. Clearly language immersion programs help bring families to a district. So it’s instructive to see how well that’s working in LA, and what barriers there are to them succeeding.

More families are applying for LAUSD’s choice programs, but some are frustrated with new unified enrollment system

View this story in Spanish

Esmeralda Fabián Romero | February 12, 2018

A record number of parents this year are trying to get into LA Unified’s magnet and dual-language programs, and for the first time, they were able to use a new unified enrollment system that simplifies the application process. District officials said most parents who used the online system gave positive feedback. But some parents encountered errors while others needed outside support to navigate it.

The new enrollment system allows parents to fill out a single online application for the 260 magnet schools and programs and the 132 dual language and bilingual programs, the district’s popular “choice” programs that allow students to attend an LA Unified school other than their neighborhood school. Independent charter schools in LA Unified were not included in the unified enrollment system.

Please read more here.

The tortuous job of balancing an Mandarin immersion program with district priorities

March 9, 2018

Mandarin immersion programs do many things: they teach Mandarin-speaking students English, English-speaking students Mandarin, serve as magnets to bring middle class families to high-poverty or low-test score schools and in some districts entice families to the district itself to fill empty school seats.

But balancing all those needs and desires is never easy. A case in point – Cambridge, Mass., which requires that schools mirror the socioeconomic makeup of the district as a whole. This has proven complex when higher proportion of families choosing Mandarin immersion are middle and upper-middle class.

The article below talks through some of the issues the program has faced and how difficult balancing the desires of the parents, the school and the district can be.

New tweak filling language immersion class: An urgent result of overlapping complexities

‘Internal transfers,’ school lottery changes, now a one-time seat filling

School Committee member confers with Cambridge Public Schools Chief Operating Officer Jim Maloney at a Jan. 16, 2018, meeting. (Photo: Ceilidh Yurenka)

A third recent tweak was made to elementary school Chinese Immersion program admission rules this week, and though the final School Committee vote was unanimous, it did not come without pushback from some members.

Running optional bilingual programs while balancing the requirements of Cambridge’s school choice lottery is a thorny process, as seen from time to time with the Spanish Amigos School, King Open School’s Portuguese Olá program and the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School’s Chinese Immersion Program. The programs have to balance native language levels with socioeconomic parity as managed by a “Controlled Choice” lottery, and in Cambridge, bilingual programs have proven more attractive to upper-income families. In addition, bilingual programs are considered off-limits for “mandatory assignments” – the assigning of schools if a family gets none of three lottery choices, letting the district improve socioeconomic balance in schools.

This combination of dynamics hampers the Chinese immersion program and families who want to attend. Immersion classrooms have waitlists of families wanting to register, but also empty seats, because the waitlists were made up of “paid lunch” families, while the empty seats were reserved for “free or reduced lunch” families to preserve socioeconomic balance resembling the district’s as a whole (about 39 percent free or reduced lunch, though that number has fallen from a more stable 49 percent a decade ago).

Please read more here.


And here’s a previous article about it.

Possible changes coming to North Carolina Mandarin immersion school

March 6, 2018

March 02, 2018 04:45 PM

Update to the full U.S. Mandarin immersion list – 7 new schools

March 2, 2018

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I spent some time last week going through all the emails and updates that have come in about various schools and input them all in to the master Mandarin immersion school list. I also spoke with several people in New York City about what schools there do and don’t offer Mandarin immersion and updated that list as well, which included deleting some public schools which no longer have MI programs.

As always, if you have updates or fixes, please email me, weise (at) well (dot) com.

The full list is available here.


Empower Charter School

in San Diego is a Spanish immersion program which is adding Mandarin, to become a trilingual immersion school (Spanish, Mandarin and English.)


Chapman Elementary school

in Gardena, Calif. in the Los Angeles Unified School District is launching a K – 5 Mandarin immersion program that will be combined with a STEAM (science technology engineering arts math) program.


Higley Mandarin Program

Coronado, Gilbert, Arizona

New parent website:


East Light Academy

Charleston SC

Opening in Fall 2018

Now has an address!


New address for East Link Mandarin Immersion Charter in South Carolina.

3550 Rutherford Road, Taylors, SC.


Atlanta International School in Atlanta, Ga.

Adding a Mandarin immersion program 2018-2019


The Peregrine School

Davis, Calif.

Adding a Mandarin immersion program 2018-2019


New address for the District of Columbia International School, 6 – 12 grades,

The Parks at Walter Reed, 1400 Main Drive NW, Washington, DC 20012.


Polis World School

New Mandarin immersion private school opening in Manhattan, potentially 2018-2019.



Flushing Heights PS 163 in New York City no longer offers a Mandarin immersion program.

Alfred Smith PS1 in Manhattan no longer offers a Mandarin immersion program. It may have been a bilingual program, but is no longer offered.

David Boody Intermediate School 228 in New York City. At one time it was on the list of schools the New York Dept. of Education said had a Mandarin immersion program, however there is nothing now on the school’s website that would indicate it has one.

Learn Mandarin Y’All! What Texas Families Show Us about Language Learning in the United States

February 27, 2018

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A guest post by Mary Field in San Antonio, Texas.*

I did a little bit of or back of the envelope math the other day, and I found that about half of my current Mandarin students speak Spanish at home with at least one parent. When I worked in Austin, I noticed a similar trend. Many of our students had family connections to China/Taiwan, but others did not. Many of these students also spoke a language other than English at home, but it was not Mandarin.

It probably seems obvious that many people want to learn (or want their children to learn) Mandarin because of a family connection to the language. And yet we had so many families who spoke languages other than English at home. It was common to hear Thai, Korean, Spanish and other languages at pick up. These families seemed to push back against the idea that “everyone speaks English anyway” and invested in learning more languages, rather than sticking with the home language plus English.

Most Mandarin immersion programs advertise themselves as teaching children a second language. In many communities with Mandarin immersion programs**, it is assumed that children come from English-speaking homes and they will build their Mandarin knowledge entirely through this program.

In three years of looking at these programs, I have never come across any parent literature that says “Yeah, it is probably a good idea if at least one parent can speak some Chinese.” In fact, they all say the opposite: families do not need any. They also do not explicitly encourage families who are already speaking a language other than English at home to apply for their programs.

Utah, the state with the highest percentage of dual language programs, does not require its programs’ English teachers to have an ESL endorsement. This is a clue about who they assume will enroll in their dual language programs. Despite this, if what I have seen over the past few years is not a fluke, then there really is a trend of families adding Mandarin as a third language for children who are already growing up bilingual.

If you look at this graph of Mandarin immersion programs in the United States, you will see that the line starts trending up during the late 90s and early 2000s. This was also around the time that California, Arizona and Massachusetts (1998, 2000 and 2002, respectively) passed their English-Only education laws.***

Looking back, Mandarin immersion programs look like they were ahead of the curve because they embraced linguistic diversity instead of fighting it.

In my experience in Texas, families are pushing for more languages, not fewer. They speak Spanish (or Korean or Turkish) at home, and want more languages at school. Thirty-five percent of Texans over the age of five speak a language other than English at home. Of these, 7 million speak Spanish.

In Bexar county (San Antonio), where I live, the percentage of the population that speaks Spanish at home is higher: 38%.****

These families want to participate in Mandarin programs, and that means for their kids, Mandarin will be a third language (or maybe a fourth!).

If my husband and I are fortunate enough to have children, we will be one of the many Texas families for whom language-learning at school means learning a third or fourth language. My husband is a native Spanish speaker from Mexico and I teach Mandarin. We may choose to add in French or Portuguese, or stick with Spanish, Mandarin and English.

In any case, our family won’t be made of English-monolinguals gaining bilingualism through a new immersion program. Like so many people around us, we are already a multilingual family.

Does the embrace of languages such as Mandarin by already bilingual families mean the end of the United States as an English-speaking country? Not likely.

Fears of a generation of young people growing up without English drove language education trends in the 1990s, as we have seen. Those fears were unfounded then, and still are today. What people who feel threatened by linguistic diversity do not take into account is the asymmetry of language.

If a group of Mandarin teachers in a Mandarin immersion program in Utah have a meeting with their principal, they will speak English. When bilingual children are on the playground in San Antonio with English monolinguals, they will speak English too.

The language of the group will always be the language of the monolingual person, even if there is only one of them. Language is asymmetrical, monolinguals have more power than they assume!

The State of Texas has a long history of multilingualism, hinted at by our history of having “six flags over Texas.” From my perspective, as an educator in the Mandarin language, our families want to keep it that way. They do not want to subtract languages by having schools be “English only” spaces, they want more languages. They speak Spanish, Korean, Turkish, Thai, and others at home – and they want their kids to learn Mandarin too.

Mary Field (梅丽) is the founder of Lotus Chinese Learning, an independent Chinese language school in San Antonio, Texas.


* The Mandarin Immersion Parents Council website welcomes guest postings by parents, teachers, administrators and students on topics about Mandarin immersion. Please email Beth Weise at if you’ve got something you’d like to have considered.

**I’m talking specifically about dual-language programs, not two-way dual-language programs. In a two-way dual language program (also called two-way immersion (TWI)), a class is made up of 50% English speakers and 50% native speakers of the target language. In a dual language program (also called one-way immersion), none of the students are expected to speak the target language at home, although some students surely do.

*** These laws have since been repealed in California and Massachusetts

****Source: American Community Survey 2009-2013