Growing up, Carol Cunningham dreaded Sundays.

While her friends enjoyed their downtime, the daughter of immigrant parents was herded off to weekly Mandarin language classes. She resisted having to do the extra homework, tests and projects, and stopped attending the lessons at the beginning of high school. “I remember my mom telling me, ‘You’re going to regret not learning when you have the opportunity,'” she recalled.

It wasn’t until later that Cunningham, who now has two young sons, discovered the truth in her mother’s prediction. Although the Menlo Park resident can recognize characters and speak Mandarin without the trace of an accent, her vocabulary is frustratingly limited and she cannot read or write the language proficiently.

“I see my own kids and how effortless it is for them [to speak Mandarin],” Cunningham said. “I’m not forcing them. We’re not sitting down at the kitchen table and writing characters or practicing strokes or using flashcards. They speak as a native speaker would, and that’s just by me providing them with an immersive environment through conversation, what they listen to in the car and the TV they watch.”

Drawing on her personal experiences, Cunningham began to spearhead an effort about 1½ years ago to introduce a program in the Menlo Park City School District in which the core curriculum would be taught in the Mandarin language.

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