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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.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Jessica X. permalink
    September 28, 2016 6:18 pm

    Hi Elizabeth,

    As an immersion teacher, I am also aware of the confusion parents have towards different types of program. There is a very wide of choices there: immersion, 50/50, 90/10, one-way, two-way, second language, etc. In the end, parents care about how student’s language proficiency level varies from those programs. I believe different types of language programs serve for different needs, target student groups, and their focus differ. While a lot of parents want their kids to master another language, others simply want their kids to maintain heritage languages or transition to English. I agree with you that immersion program should teach subject in the target language. Like Tara Fortune and Diane Tedick pointed out in their book, immersion programs should be “content-driven” and “language-attentive”. They also mentioned 50% rule that is teaching subject at least 50% of the day in immersion language.

    Parents need clear guidelines, definitions, outcomes, and expectations about the program before enrolling their kids into any language programs. I don’t like school using specific terms without understanding them and they can be misleading. Every type of program has its own strengths and short-comes. An good program for other kids maybe not fit for my kids.

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