Skip to content

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.



No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: