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Why Parents, and Schools, choose Mandarin immersion

April 9, 2012

Ten months ago I sat down to quickly write up some thoughts I’d had about the differing motivations parents had for choosing Mandarin immersion, with the idea that  understanding those motivations might lessen some tensions we felt in our program. That quick email grew into the 7,000 word essay I’m posting here.

It’s also launched me into a book project, The Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion, which I hope to complete this summer. To that end I’ll be attending the National Chinese Language Conference in Washington D.C. this week, to interview the leaders in Chinese immersion about how it works and what parents need to know. If you’re attending the conference, please look me up and say hi.

The essay below is my own take on how Mandarin immersion programs work. Clearly others will have different viewpoints and I look forward to hearing those to deepen my understanding of how these programs are unfolding worldwide. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments and criticisms.

Many thanks,

Beth Weise


Why schools and parents choose Mandarin immersion programs

By Elizabeth Weise

I don’t speak Mandarin, but my daughters do. That’s because for the past five years they’ve been in a San Francisco public school program in which Mandarin is the main language of instruction. It hasn’t been perfect, but they are bilingual in ways that they would never have been had they tried to learn Chinese in high school or college. They speak without accents and understand the grammar of the language as native speakers do. My girls and tens of thousands of other elementary-school students across the United States are part of a growing educational trend toward immersion schools as the magnet schools of this decade.

I’ve spent half a decade (with at least another five years to go) immersed in this immersion experience. I’ve spent scores of hours in innumerable meetings, playground discussions after drop-off, and e-mail list meltdowns. It has become clear to me that the reasons I chose Mandarin immersion aren’t necessarily the reasons the parents I’m talking to did. Even my reasons aren’t the same as everyone else in my family.

These differences have caused friction in our school community at times, because often people presume (as I once did) that we’ve all got the same expectations for our kids. And if it’s happening at our school, I expect it’s happening at others as well. Each month brings news of new schools, most of them public but a few private, launching a Mandarin immersion program. That’s a lot of children walking into their first day of Kindergarten to 你好 (nǐhǎo) instead of hello, and an increasing number of 8th graders learning about the 元素周期表 (yuánsù zhōuqī biǎo) instead of the Periodic Table of Elements.

I’ve written this essay to try to put into words what seems to me to be the main motivations I see among Mandarin immersion families. It’s my hope that, by sharing what I’ve gleaned, those of us taking this journey with our kids might avoid some of the misunderstandings that seem to come up and get on with the business of supporting our children and our schools.

I offer these thoughts not as an expert, but simply as a mom who’s been living this for five years. I come with my own perspectives and background. I’m white but I studied Mandarin in college and then worked in China as a tour guide and later at China Books and Periodicals in San Francisco. Sadly my Mandarin today is dreadful, as my beloved daughters would be all too quick to tell you.

What is immersion?

            Over the past 10 years, immersion schools have become hugely popular in school districts nationwide. They existed before that, but really have taken off recently. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, in 2011 there were 448 immersion schools nationwide. In 1971 there were three.

That’s schools that teach in another language, not teach another language. These programs are called immersion schools because students are immersed in the language. The method is simple: from the day five-year-olds walk into Kindergarten until they graduate in 5th or 8th or 12th grade, they spend between half and 100 percent of their day learning not in English, but in what educators call “the target language.” That means they learn math, science, social studies and other subjects in Chinese. The content is the same as what students in an English-only class would learn. But it’s in Mandarin. For example, when my daughters learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., what they heard and read about was actually 马丁路德·金, or Mǎdīng·lù dé·jīn.

By far the most common immersion language is Spanish, with hundreds of Spanish immersion elementary schools in almost every state of the union. But Mandarin Chinese is surging ahead as a popular immersion choice and is now the second most common immersion language taught in the United States. A quick list of reasons includes:

  • There are more families who speak Mandarin at home in the U.S. than there used to be and they want their children to be literate in the language
  • China looks like it may end up ruling the world
  • It’s one more way to give your kid a leg up in the job market
  • It’s a guaranteed academically demanding program.

Schools’ motivations

Before we get to why parents choose Mandarin, let’s start with why schools do. There are multiple reasons a school district might introduce immersion. At its heart it is a simple desire to give monolingual students (who either speak only Mandarin or only English) the chance to be bilingual, biliterate, and bicultural. But there are other reasons in play. For parents, understanding them can help explain something that often seems inexplicable: where these programs are placed.

In urban public-school districts, immersion programs do two things. First, they’re a way to address the needs of students who speak another language at home and are learning English. Second, they serve as a carrot to get middle-class families to send their children to schools with high minority populations in neighborhoods that they historically have not considered.

Families whose energy, tax dollars and fundraising abilities might have fled their urban school districts for the suburbs or private schools instead flood into schools with historically low test scores or falling enrollment. English-language learners benefit from better-resourced schools and programs that suddenly have a lot more families involved.

The idea of these language-focused schools or programs goes back to the national push for integration in the 1950s and 1960s, when white parents, for multiple reasons, began the long flight out of urban school districts. Starting in the early 1970s, school districts hit upon a new way to keep those families. They created ‘magnet’ programs that offered special features unavailable in regular schools, but the price of admission was sending your child to a school that had higher minority enrollment. Instead of busing children to schools that middle class families were avoiding, districts enticed them with alternative schools, ‘free schools’, science magnets, math magnets and arts magnets. It was a win-win system: school districts got more integrated schools, middle class families got programs they couldn’t get in their neighborhood schools, and struggling schools got an influx of resourced parents.

Language immersion actually began in Canada, with the first French immersion elementary school in Quebec in 1965. Beginning in the 1990s, partly because of a growing awareness in the United States that we might need to pay more attention to the rest of the world, a few school districts began to apply that same magnet model in a new way. The offered language fluency through immersion, most often in Spanish.

These schools served not just middle-class families looking for enrichment, but language communities who wanted their children to have academic-level reading and writing of their home languages as well as English. It’s one thing to speak Spanish or Mandarin or French with your mom and dad. It’s another thing to be able to write a report or read a novel in one of those languages. It was that level of fluency — academic fluency — that these programs offered to students who spoke those languages at home.

And there was an added plus: Researchers began to note that children going to bilingual schools did better academically, no matter what their family background or what language they spoke at home.

Why School Districts Choose Mandarin: Location, Economics and Social Engineering

As the trend grew, schools hoped that Mandarin would be the same kind of integrating force Spanish immersion is. It hasn’t quite turned out that way. There are almost no immersion schools in the country with a majority or even high minority of Mandarin-speaking students, so the goal of bringing non-Chinese speakers into majority Mandarin-speaking schools didn’t work.

Instead, districts have realized that Mandarin was a lot more like French in the United States, a prestige language that attracted middle- and upper-middle class non-Chinese speaking parents. So school districts began to place Mandarin immersion programs in schools that needed a boost in enrollment and parent engagement but didn’t have a large Chinese presence. Sometimes all-Mandarin schools are created, but often Mandarin programs are placed alongside English programs in so-called “dual strand” schools.

This can cause tension between the original school population and the new Mandarin program. Many schools struggle with how to allocate resources. The Mandarin program can sometimes feel it can’t “celebrate” its Chinese identity because that can be seen as entitled, invasive, and not respectful to the existing school and its students. The original program can feel overwhelmed by the new families in Mandarin, who can seem demanding and “entitled.” Finding a way to allow both to shine can be difficult.

My daughters’ school, Starr King Elementary in San Francisco, is an example of some of these tensions. It had low test scores and was on the San Francisco Unified School District’s closure list in 2005 because of sinking enrollment. The Mandarin immersion program, placed at the school in 2006, did exactly what the district hoped – it took a school that otherwise would have been closed and revitalized it with a strong group of active, eager parents.

But issues arose. As most immersion programs do, the district started in Kindergarten, adding two Mandarin immersion classes each year. The school also continued its GE, or general education strand as SFUSD calls its regular English language regular program, in addition to the Mandarin immersion strand. By the time the Mandarin program had built out to 5th grade in 2011-2012, over 65% of students were in the Mandarin program.

In the beginning years there was a feeling that no PTA monies could be spent on the Mandarin program because it left out the GE students. And there was a sense that any celebration of the Mandarin aspects of the school was somehow insensitive to the GE students, the majority of whom were African-American, Hispanic or Pacific Islander. As the number of students in the Mandarin program has increased, there’s been a willingness to celebrate that program as well, but it’s taken time, struggle and many, many long PTA and other meetings. And a full equilibrium hasn’t yet been reached.

In Los Angeles, a Mandarin immersion program was placed in 2010 in Broadway Elementary, a school in a neighborhood that had been drug- and gang-ridden (though that was changing). Enrollment had fallen so low the LA Unified School District told the principal, Susan Wang, she’d have to be in charge of two schools because Broadway didn’t have enough students to afford her. The Taiwanese-born Wang instead founded a Mandarin immersion program there. By 2011, its second year, there was so much demand that they filled four Kindergarten classes of Mandarin students.

Some of the families not in the Mandarin program, however, have felt they’re being pushed out of their school. The LA Unified School District will have to make a difficult decision in the coming years about whether it ends the GE program at Broadway and turns it into an all-Mandarin program or moves the Mandarin program to another school. There simply isn’t enough room for both.

Not that immersion always goes into struggling schools. Thriving schools, both urban and suburban, public and private, also make the choice for Mandarin. These districts tend to already offer multiple educational options for families. For them, Mandarin immersion is a sought-after plus that their parents are asking for. The first public Mandarin immersion program in the country, at Potomac Elementary in Montgomery County, Md., a very affluent community, was very much for that reason.

Private schools, too, go for Mandarin because some parents considered it a must-have language in today’s world. Avenues: The World School, a private, for-profit school opening in Manhattan in the fall of 2012, will offer Mandarin immersion for $38,000 a year.

In Utah, it’s about building the best possible workforce for the 21st century, says Gregg Roberts, World Languages & Dual Immersion Specialist for the Utah State Office of Education. The state has a huge and growing dual-immersion program statewide in multiple languages. Beginning next year it will have 25 Mandarin Chinese Dual immersion schools with enrollment of 4,000 students. So far the state’s most advanced class in Mandarin Chinese will be begin 4th grade in 2012-13.

When the Speaking in Tongues documentary film blog asked him in 2011 the reason why Utah had gone all-out for immersion, Roberts answered “Economics, economics, economics! Utah is a small state, so for our economic survival and the national security of our country we MUST educate students who are multilingual. In these tough budget times, the only reason why the State Legislature continues to fund this program, while all others have been cut or reduced, is because this program is tied directly to the future economic development of Utah.”

Not all high-performing school districts are receptive to Mandarin immersion. Their thought is that they’re already good, so there’s no need to offer anything on top of that. Montclair, New Jersey was the site of a bruising battle in 2011-2012 over establishing a Mandarin immersion charter school there. The charter was rejected after vigorous opposition from some parents and the school district. Montclair Patch, an online newsletter covering the area, wrote this on Feb. 3, 2012:

The application was rejected for the second time last month when eight urban charters were approved while no suburban charters were given the green light. Both Governor Christie and NJ State Acting Education Commissioner Christopher Cerf have made comments indicating their view that charter schools are appropriate for struggling urban districts, not suburban districts deemed successful.

The same issue came up in Palo Alto, Calif., when a Mandarin immersion program was first proposed. Parents crowded meetings to say that it wasn’t fair that only some students would get Mandarin, depending on what school they got into. They wanted an hour of Mandarin for every child rather than immersion. Opponents won the first round but a Palo Alto immersion program finally opened in 2007 at Ohlone Elementary School. After the original objections, the project ended up not being controversial at all.

Lau compliance

For some school districts with many Chinese immigrant students, there are other reasons to introduce Mandarin. In these districts there’s hope that it can help aid their Chinese-speaking English language learners, or ELLs.

This isn’t just something districts want to do: they’re required to do so by law. A landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1974, Lau vs. Nichols required schools to create an “equal access plan” to support English learners. It requires schools to identify students who are learning English, design programs to meet their needs, and use appropriate English-as-a-second-language, bilingual personnel, or both.

By creating classrooms composed of 50% English-speaking and 50% Chinese-speaking students, a school district can do two things at once – provide home-language instruction to Chinese speakers and thereby comply with their federally mandated Lau plan, and provide a “value-added” program for middle-class families that will bring them to poorly resourced schools.

It’s a model that’s worked well for Spanish immersion in some districts. Unfortunately, this hasn’t been the huge draw for newly arrived Chinese speakers as it had been hoped. In part it’s because many new immigrants from China speak a Chinese dialect other than Mandarin at home. In China education is conducted in Mandarin, and most adults educated in China are fluent in Mandarin, no matter what dialect they speak at home. But their children in the U.S. aren’t, because they didn’t go to school in China.

Under the Lau plan, it appears that only children who have Mandarin as their home language can legally be served by the Mandarin immersion program, so it wouldn’t work for a Cantonese-speaking child, for example.

In addition, at least in San Francisco and Los Angeles, a significant number of immigrant families thus far are more concerned about making sure their children learn English, and fear that Mandarin immersion could impair that. Mandarin immersion programs, moreover, tend to be placed in low-performing schools, often in low-income neighborhoods, both of which can be off-putting to some recent Chinese immigrants for whom prestige and high test scores are culturally important. So the draw has not been as strong as the school districts hoped.

It does appear that as the programs become more popular, test scores at the schools rise, and the schools they are in gain prestige in the community, some of the hesitation goes away. Long term it’s unclear how this will play out.

What parents want

What schools want isn’t always the same as what parents want. Or perhaps it’s clearer to say that all parents have different expectations and desires about what they hope their children will learn. After spending five years as a parent in the Mandarin immersion world, I’ve seen parent motivations break down into five broad categories. Note that I don’t say families, because often a single family will have one parent in one group, the other in another.

Actually, that’s too simple. Many people have one, two, three or all four sets of desires and expectations within them. But let’s start with what I’ve come to call

The Five Types of Parents:

  • Pioneer
  • Chinese
  • Heritage
  • 21st Century
  • Academic

Of course no one family, or person, can be encompassed by a single word. Immersion families come with wildly differing expectations, desires and demands and a sometimes fevered mix of the five types. For example, I consider myself a 21st Century/Academic/Pioneer parent. My wife’s more 21st Century/Academic. Our daughters’ dad is definitely Heritage/Academic. Thankfully our children, 周情 and 周忆、are just good kids who do their homework and only complain a little bit when we make them read books over the phone to their Mandarin-speaking grandmother or tell them they can watch any TV they want — as long as it’s in Mandarin.

Understanding what motivates parents to have their kids in these programs can, I hope, go a long way toward calming the tensions that now and again rise up in these programs. Which is why I offer up these archetypes, not as monolithic but just a quick gloss.


Chinese parents

These are parents who speak Mandarin or another Chinese dialect with their children at home. Some are from China and Taiwan, some are second-generation immigrants. They want their children to grow up being able to read and write Chinese.

These families tend to push for higher standards in Mandarin and have greater expectations about where their children will end up in terms of how much Chinese they read and write. These parents sometimes pull their kids from immersion programs if they feel the level of academic performance is not high enough – whether in English or in Chinese.

One area of tension is that Mandarin immersion students in the United States tend to read and write several grade levels below their counterparts in China. By 5th grade students might only be reading at the level of a 2nd grade student in China. A 3rd grader from our school who recently moved to Beijing tested in with 1st grade reading abilities in a Chinese school, for example.

That desire for greater literacy stems in part from these parents’ realization that if their children can read interesting material they’ll stay engaged and interested in the language. But it goes deeper than that. In Chinese, more so than many languages, written language is directly connected to culture. China retains strong links to literature and poetry from its classical period. Well-educated adults and children are presumed to know by heart multiple poems, telling a story and making a point that is etched on the heart of those who memorized them. These parents want to ensure that their children share those emotions, which only exists for them in Chinese and cannot truly be translated into English.

As one mom trying to explain put it,

“Imagine moving to and raising your children in China. As they matured you would want them to read classic American literature that you loved growing up, literature that shaped you. But then you discover that their English vocabulary is too limited to be able to read it, and you find a gulf between you and your child you hadn’t expected.”

To overcome this, parents in programs with longer histories tend to reach a point where they begin to want to move the needle a bit. In San Francisco, Cupertino and Portland, Chinese-speaking parents have pushed hard on school districts to add more rigor to the Chinese curriculum. They are more comfortable with demanding harder schoolwork, including more homework, a longer school day and more repetition, than many American parents and school districts seem to be.

Another difference is one of class. Many Mandarinspeaking families who come to the United States are college-educated professionals. They haven’t necessarily moved due to financial need or political persecution, but out of a desire for a more global sense of belonging. These parents have no reason to accept just what is given to them – if a program that is not up to their standards they demand it be improved.

As one mom (who speaks three languages fluently) said of her daughter

“I don’t feel her Chinese language achievement is where it should and could be after six years in the program. It is no secret that the way to get the kids to read and enjoy reading Chinese more is build up their vocabularies so they can read more. I feel the curriculum is not rigorous enough. For example, I feel the kids can handle more than one word a day starting from Kindergarten. If we can up the requirement by 20% each year, the accumulative effect in six years will be quite substantial.

In addition if the requirement for reading and writing is also upped by 10 to 20%, our kids are more likely to be able to read, write, speak more fluently. I know it won’t be easy for some kids and families. But we have to believe that our kids can do better, with a lot of our support, of course. They do live up to our expectations – (especially) if those expectations come from the teachers and not from their nagging moms.”

Another mom who also moved from an immersion school in the U.S. to China was able to enroll her children in a Chinese school and has seen close-up and personal exactly how hard Chinese students have to work to read at the levels they do.

“I’ve witnessed my kids’ Chinese grow exponentially since coming to China. I also realized not every American would feel comfortable subjecting their kids to such volume of memorization. In order for this to work, you have to sign on to the whole package. There’s no shortcut, your kids just have to study a lot harder and memorize a lot of Chinese phrases and characters. Chinese education also tends to emphasize achievement and competitiveness.”

That’s not always palatable in an American setting, some programs find. And it’s not only an American phenomenon, says Jianqui Wang, one of the founding parents of the Deutsch-Chinesischen Grundschule, a Mandarin immersion public school launched in 2011 at Planetarium Elementary School in Berlin, Germany.

Wang says there’s been tension between the German and Chinese educational styles among parents. Chinese families want higher levels of Chinese because the language is part of their culture. But German parents are against pushing kids too hard. They say ‘It should be fun, we don’t need too much pressure.’ But we’ll find a way to balance both,” she says.

Some Chinese immigrant parents are first and foremost concerned with their children learning to speak, read and write English well. This can mean that there are surprisingly few recent immigrants in Mandarin immersion programs – much to the distress of school districts that hope in part to use these programs to serve the needs of English language learners as much as Spanish immersion programs serve Spanish-speaking children.

Though there’s evidence from French and Spanish immersion programs that students who arrive speaking only French or Spanish emerge from immersion programs fully fluent in both languages, many parents in this situation aren’t willing to take a chance with their children’s educational future. And so far there’s not a lot of data on how kids do in immersion programs for character-based languages like Chinese.

Some of these families figure that they’re better off putting their children in English-only schools so their English is taken care of, and then signing them up for Saturday Chinese school to make sure they learn to read and write Chinese. There is some research showing these students don’t achieve the same level of Chinese proficiency, but Saturday schools have a long and strong history in the Chinese American community.

Finally, there is a small, outlier group in this cohort – non-Chinese parents who learned Mandarin in college or from working in China and who want their children to speak it. Their issues tend to be similar in some ways to the Mandarin-speaking Chinese parents: they want their children to attain a high level of spoken and written Chinese. Depending on how good their Mandarin is, they can be pleased or disappointed with the level achieved by their children.

An interesting counterpoint, however, is provided by the numerous expat parents in China who say that it’s almost impossible to find truly bilingual schools that teach both Chinese and English well. Most international schools only provide an hour of Chinese a day and students don’t learn much. Chinese public schools don’t do well teaching English. So at least a few families have reported that their children have learned more Chinese attending an immersion school in the United States than they did living in China. Immersion schools are beginning to emerge in China but they’re still rare, and of course very expensive.

Heritage parents

Heritage speakers are American-born Chinese or biracial parents who may or may not retain spoken Chinese at home, but who want to pass down to their children the language and culture of their heritage. Given shifting patterns of Chinese immigration to the United States, these families may speak or have spoken either Taishanese, Cantonese, Mandarin, Taiwanese or another Chinese dialect. But while in a few cities Cantonese immersion is a possibility, these parents see the growing strength of China, where Mandarin is the national language, and figure it’s a better language for their children to learn. The written language is identical for both dialects.

In addition, a fairly large percentage of these parents were subjected to Saturday Chinese School as children, which, in the words of one parent, “taught me to hate China and all things Chinese.” Generally taught in very traditional formats by parent volunteers, and taking up every Saturday, these schools are remembered by many parents with dislike (in some cases outright hatred.) So while they want their kids to learn Chinese, they’re not willing to put them through that.

Some of these parents feel more comfortable in English than in Chinese, and regret that they did not maintain the language of their parents or grandparents and want to ensure their own children are not only able to speak to relatives but understand their culture and customs. Going to school with kids learning together also seems a lot more effective and fun to them than going to school on Saturday.

This group also includes a lot of children from biracial families, where one parent is of Chinese or mixed Chinese background and one is not. That is an added attraction as many parents say that they’re happy to have a school where being bicultural is the norm.

One mom said, “in general, heritage speakers have high expectations that their child’s Chinese will be ‘better than theirs,’ but given their firsthand knowledge of how difficult it is to maintain a second language, even with fluent parents, they tend to be a bit more forgiving.”

The final Chinese group consists of children adopted from China. In 1991, China loosened laws regarding international adoptions to address the problem of children, often girls, abandoned because of the national one-child policy. Between that year and 2010, 66,630 Chinese children were adopted by U.S. families, 90% of them girls, according to the U.S. Department of State. Many of these families have sought out Mandarin immersion schools to give their children the opportunity to maintain a strong connection with their birth country and culture.

In Portland, Ore., the creation of one of the nation’s oldest Mandarin immersion programs was championed almost entirely by families with girls from China, says Gary Rydout, chair of ShuRen, the non-profit that supports the program. “It did not come out of the Chinese immigrant or Chinese-American community here in Portland, it came out of the adoption community,” says Rydout, the father of two daughters who were born in China. In his oldest daughter’s class, “one-third of the students were adopted.”

These children and families have their own needs. At times, teachers can inadvertently not honor the ways these families have come into being, for example by asking “Where are you from?” without the expectation that it’s a complex question to answer for a five- or six-year-old born in China but raised in American. Having students create family trees is a common way to teach Chinese words for various family members, but it has to be approached thoughtfully.

Education for students about adoption is also important. Some families have reported that classmates have told their girls “you’re lucky because if you had stayed in China, you would have died.” Other children demand “Who’s your real mom?” when they see a fellow student with Chinese features being picked up at school by a non-Chinese parent.

21st Century parents  

These are the families who get written about and marveled over in the media. “WOW! White and Black Kids Speak Chinese!” is how one mom described the seemingly unending series of articles about her son’s class, which always seemed to feature photos of her blond son and an African-American classmate.

While they make for enticing headlines, these families actually make up a surprisingly large portion of students in Mandarin immersion programs, especially in parts of the country where there are few Chinese families. They come from every race and socio-economic group, but have no connection to China. For them, Chinese is about opportunity. They see China’s extraordinary rise to power over the past 20 years, realize that Chinese is the most spoken language on the planet (with more than one billion speakers) and figure having their children grow up with near-native fluency can’t be a bad thing.

For these families, Mandarin is a ‘value-added’ to their child’s education. They realize their children may never set foot in China, but see speaking a second language as a value in and of itself, and know that Chinese is an important world language that will only become more important as we enter further into the 21st century. For some but not all, their expectations for how fluent their children will be in Chinese are often lower than parents who speak Mandarin or who have connections to the language.

These parents also tend to be very involved in their children’s education and treasure time spent with their kids as they discover and learn. They can sometimes feel disconnected when the child is learning in a language they can’t understand. Not being able to measure their child’s academic progress can make them anxious, and having little or no control over their schools is also difficult. Especially if the child is struggling academically, these parents become very concerned because they cannot themselves help their child.

There’s also a realization once students really begin to hone in on characters as to just how much old-fashioned sweat it takes to master hundreds of characters as they learn to read and write Chinese. One mom said, “Learning characters requires a lot of rote repetition which is anathema to more liberal styles of learning.”

Academic parents

This is the group that surprises many school administrators, and sometimes confounds parents in the other groups. In most programs there are a substantial minority of parents with kids in Mandarin immersion who couldn’t care less about Chinese. Instead, they have chosen the Mandarin immersion program simply because they expect it to be a strong, rigorous academic program. It could be teaching Latin or German or French for all they care.

For them, Mandarin immersion is a proxy for other things they want in a school:

  • It is a way of insuring that their children are in a program that is educationally demanding and rigorous. Mandarin is not an easy language to learn and because it requires memorizing several thousand characters, it takes lots of work to become literate.
  • It is a way to insure their children are in school with students whose families are committed to education, no matter what their socioeconomic status. As one parent put it, “nobody puts their kid in Mandarin immersion by mistake.”

Mandarin immersion is also a proxy for gifted and talented education (called GATE in many districts.) Especially in public school systems where there are few academically high-achieving schools or where GATE classes are no longer funded, Mandarin immersion programs are a proxy for rigor and difficulty.

The gifted/immersion link has been explicit in a few places. In Australia in the 1980s French immersion schools were first proposed as a way to provide a challenge for gifted students. In San Francisco, the District’s GATE coordinator specifically told parents that with no funding for GATE programs in elementary school, they should consider putting their kids in immersion programs instead because it would provide a challenging academic environment.

In San Mateo, Calif., Mandarin classes were first offered in the District’s GATE magnet school in 2004. In 2007-2008 it launched a Mandarin immersion program for Kindergarteners. The school’s web site states: “Mandarin Immersion and GATE are natural, complimentary programs at College Park Elementary. Students apply critical thinking, problem solving and advance vocabulary development in both languages and across all disciplines.”

What’s different about these parents is they don’t have the attachment to Chinese that the other three groups can have. One father said he was “happy if his kid was exposed to Mandarin,” which was heresy to Mandarin-language families whose only reason for choosing the program was to teach the children to fluently read and write Chinese.

According to some school administrators this is also the group most likely to drop out of Mandarin immersion programs “due to concerns about the quantity and quality of the English provided in the Mandarin immersion program,” because the fact that their kids are also learning Mandarin isn’t enough of a motivator that they’re willing to accept lower English standards, as one administrator put it.

Pioneer families

            Like the elusive ‘fifth tone’ in Mandarin, there’s actually another, transitory, group: the pioneer families. I hesitate to term this a ‘group’ because they’re generally fairly short-lived in programs, but in many schools the initial pioneer families in Mandarin programs are different from the classes that come after them. They’re more motivated by the Chinese. “Mandarin or die” is how one mom put it – “Anywhere they put our program, that’s where we’re going to school.”

For these families, Mandarin is the single most important reason they choose a program. They’re willing to take a perceived educational risk on a new program, with new teachers and a new curriculum, in an often underperforming school. They tend to be made up of more white, Asian-American and mixed families because as discussed many Chinese families aren’t comfortable in the kind of urban and often inner-city schools where these programs often are placed.

This can lead to some interesting cultural issues as the program matures. These pioneer families put so much blood, sweat and tears into building the new program from the ground up that it can be difficult to hear newcomers criticize what’s been created. One email exchange I remember had a long-time immersion parent saying “Don’t they realize how much we’ve accomplished!” when a new family demanded that standards be tightened and blithely said that the level of Chinese at the school was “useless” and “pitiful.”

Pioneer families want their hard work acknowledged, not to be attacked for not having done enough.

A mixing pot with some big shoes to fill

I’m using a deliberately mixed metaphor because as you can see, it’s a mixed bag in Mandarin immersion. Here are some of the issues that that have come up at various schools at various times:

  • Chinese-speaking parents can sometimes feel the Mandarin portion of the education isn’t rigorous enough and that the students aren’t expected to become nearly fluent enough.
  • Many Chinese-speaking parents feel the reading levels attained by immersion students are too low and that more emphasis needs to be placed on learning more characters so students can read more interesting material (creating a positive feedback-loop for learning more Chinese.)
  • Chinese and Heritage families can have strongly differing views on whether Traditional characters (used in Taiwan, Hong Kong and in many immigrant communities) should be used or Simplified (used in China, Singapore and at many U.S. colleges now.) There’s also a fight between those who want to use pinyin (the Romanization system favored in China) and those who prefer bopomofo, more common in Taiwan. Though overall simplified and pinyin are becoming most common.
  • Some non-Chinese parents can be culturally insensitive of the expectations and desires many Chinese parents have for their children, which they dismiss as ‘tiger-parenting.’
  • On the other hand, some non-Chinese parents feel they’re excluded from decision-making because they’re not considered ‘culturally competent’ to make any comments about their children’s schooling because they’re not culturally or linguistically connected to Chinese.
  • Some heritage parents feel that the history of injustices against Chinese and Asian Americans in the United States is ignored in their schools. Especially in urban school districts where the problems faced by African-Americans and Latinos are championed, the very real history of discrimination and violence against Chinese in the U.S. is rarely taught.
  • Parents whose families were formed through adoption from China can often feel that teachers don’t take into account the feelings of their children, especially when it comes to heritage and family tree issues.
  • Academic parents can feel that there’s too much time and emphasis on Chinese (which freaks out the other three groups).
  • Those who do not speak Mandarin at home, which is currently the majority of the families, don’t feel like there is enough support provided by the school. Many parents who believe Mandarin is a priority supplement with tutors at home which creates inequality in the class room.
  • Since most students currently do not speak Mandarin at home, there is debate over whether to change this from an immersion model to a Mandarin as a second language model with more overt teaching of grammar and sentence patterns and encouragement of conversational spoken Chinese.

Making it all work

There are multiple motivations on all sides here. Like all aspects of education, it’s a balancing act. The reality on the ground can be different for each child, each parent, each classroom, each teacher, and each principal.

In San Francisco, beginning in the fall of 2012 our Mandarin immersion program will be in three different buildings: Starr King Elementary, Jose Ortega Elementary, and Aptos Middle School.

We are “three schools, one program” to use the motto of 金山中文教育协会, the Jinshan Mandarin Education Association, a non-profit created by parents to support our Mandarin program. We have hundreds of families, each of which send their children to school every day with many of the same hopes but a few differences. As we negotiate the build-out of our program here in San Francisco we’ve begun to realize that the stances of other parents are easier to understand if you know their motivations for choosing Mandarin immersion in the first place.

It is my hope that these insights, which I’ve gained by speaking to parents, teachers and administrators across the nation and internationally, might be helpful. I look forward to hearing the experience of other parents and programs whose voices can help deepen our understanding of immersion programs. I don’t mean to say these are the only motivations that exist, but they helped me understand the feelings of other families both at our school and at schools nationwide.

I strongly believe that immersion is a ‘win-win’ for parents, students, schools and districts – though like every living thing it needs to change and adapt as new circumstances arise.

And each time I listen to my daughters chatter away in Mandarin on the phone with their 奶奶 or Nainai, I am so profoundly grateful for the opportunity to learn Mandarin offered by the San Francisco Unified School District.


Elizabeth (Beth) Weise considers herself a 21st Century/Academic/Pioneer parent. She’d like to thank the many, many parents, teachers and administrators who talked to her for this essay, and the readers who so deeply enriched it, including Scott, Kendall, LyLy, Stacey, Elaine, Calvin, Patti, Claudia, Peter, Susan, Greg, Jian, Marcia, Carol and others.

She was one of the founding parents of San Francisco’s 金山中文教育协会, the Jinshan Mandarin Education Association.

Weise writes the MIPC blog at and working on a book to be released this fall, Mandarin Immersion: A Parents Guide.

She can be reached at and welcomes suggestions and insights both for this essay and for her book.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 9, 2012 9:31 am

    This is going to be a great book. I can hardly wait to read it!

  2. Minghui permalink
    April 9, 2012 5:44 pm

    Well done! Perhaps thinking about parents’ differing motivations will help tensions at our school. It definitely helps me understand some of the curious comments from parents who don’t seem to want high academic standards for Mandarin. Thanks for this and I look forward to the book.

  3. Grace Liu permalink
    April 10, 2012 10:56 am

    Thanks for writing this. This is a thoughtful piece that can further better understanding between the different groups so that they can work better together to further their goals.

    I am of the camp that want advanced Chinese vocabulary introduced to my children as early as possible. I have an anecdote to explain my motivation. I have a friend whose child is very advanced in his English capabilities and I have always marveled at it. Once, when the family was at our place for a playdate, I noticed the child asking the mom to read a difficult book. What surprised me is that the mother proceeded to read the book as is. Before this occurence, I would either avoid reading a difficult book to my child, or if I did read it, I would summarize or pick out the easier to understand parts. Since then, I have changed my tactic and I will read the difficult books word for word. I also went ahead and bought books in Chinese at levels several grades above my children’s capabilities and read from them. For example, I bought children’s encyclopedias and read from them and now that I see how my children respond, I see that the books aren’t too difficult for them afterall. Of course I do the same with English books as well.

    I think children are natural learners and will adjust to the environment we create for them. If we provide an enriched language environment for them by reading and communicating in advanced vocabularies, they will naturally pick up the advanced vocabularies and improve their language capabilties better.

    Maybe instead of expressing the objectives in terms of how many Chinese characters the children should recognize by a certain point, express the objectives in terms of the kind of books they can understand and enjoy by a certain age. Instead of expressing objectives in terms of how many Chinese characters children should write by a certain age, express objectives in terms of the kind of speeches they can deliver and the type of essays they can write by a certain age.

    I think back on how I learned English as a second language when I was young. I remember reading lots of books and using the dictionary constantly to look up words – that is how I learned vocabulary. I remember having to write research reports and through having to accomplish that goal, I learned how to write essays and use the appropriate vocabulary to convey my thoughts. It seems to me that vocabulary is a natural byproduct of what you attain as you further your reading comprehension and written/oral communication skills.

  4. Eileen Drapiza permalink
    April 19, 2012 3:10 pm

    I appreciated this article, thank you for taking the time to research and write about it, as well as to share from your personal experience. I think identifying the many motivations parents might have is a good first step and helps us move toward an understanding of what makes the Mandarin immersion experience such a complex undertaking. Mandarin immersion is clearly about so much more than language learning.

    I have been observing — though our own experience of having a child (in Kindergarten) start a Mandarin immersion program — and asking myself if having a school forum to speak about different expectations and cultural differences might be a healthy dialog to have, and wondering how to start one. Sometimes these differing cultural expectations are at play, but not identified, not openly talked about. And perhaps cultural bias is so difficult to talk about because it is so easily taken for granted — it’s very hard to speak about frames of reference or cultural filters until one sees them as precisely that.

    While I want a language immersion program for my child, I am also aware that we are not necessarily attempting to raise her with hopes of plugging her in to a Chinese educational system. For families who might move back and forth between the U.S. and China, or Chinese parents who come from having experienced a highly competitive educational system, perhaps expectations for their child’s education might be different. However, there are those of us who hope that our child’s higher education will be completed in this country and depending on the eventual chosen field of study or personal interests, living abroad will be a choice at some point down the line — not in the near future.

    I do see having native Mandarin speaking teachers a boon to my child’s education, but I do bristle at the notion that she might inadvertently be taught Chinese cultural values that do align with her current life, or that culture clashes between parent and teacher might be taking place on a daily basis that we have no opportunity to flesh out and understand.

    Ironically it is my daughter’s cultural heritage that has played a role in her coming to be a part of our non-Chinese family, and of her having to learn Mandarin outside her country of origin! (Yes, we are an adoptive family, our daughter is from China). Supporting our her in continuing to learn Mandarin (it was her first language, after all) is very important, but so is the fact of her adoption and her now American multicultural life. It is a very different set of factors that bring us to the Mandarin immersion table. We may represent a small percentage of families as described, but it occurs to me that adopted children from China are not made global citizens by virtue of speaking Chinese. They are already global citizens by virtue of being who they are.

    Instilling a sense of ethnic pride in my child is a joy because it is the foundation for a healthy sense of identity and I hope that her sense of loss (which is great for someone so young) is never intensified at her school because of insensitive lessons or thoughtless assignments. I do hope for and expect sensitivity with regard to this at my child’s school.

  5. Eileen Drapiza permalink
    April 19, 2012 6:27 pm

    Correction to previous posting para. 4, which should read: “…cultural values that do not align with her current life…”

  6. May 1, 2012 10:22 am

    Thank you. This is a great piece to get a sense of the development of Mandarin immersion. How important it is to be aware of and respect different group of people and their different need? If only we have this level of analysis in other social issue we would have much more productive civil discourse.

    On my part I’d like to add a little perspective. If the Chinese education method is so good in fostering achievement why don’t we just emulate them or just send our children to schools in China? Having been brought up in a Chinese school myself I want to let people know we also have concern of our own. First and foremost is the concern on inadequate English skill. Beyond this, Chinese community are also very aware of the limitation of memorization and drilling in education. Their kid may do well in examinations, but they often have problem adapting their skill in a new situation to solve a different problem. Growing up in a structured environment also make them more passive and feel disadvantaged compare to their more creative and assertive Western counterpart.

    For this reason, some privileged parents may send their kid to the West for education to escape the so call “feeding duck” education system and to better prepare them for the 21st century workplace. What irony this is? Clearly there is no panacea.


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