Mandarin Immersion Education: Our Family's Experience

Bamboo raft on the Li River, Yangshuo
Bamboo raft on the Li River, Yangshuo | Source

When we enrolled our daughter in a Mandarin immersion charter school five years ago, no one in our family could speak a word of Chinese. We have no family connections or ancestral roots in China; and in fact, we’d never even been to China—or anywhere else in Asia, for that matter. You might wonder, then, why we chose to send our daughter to a Mandarin immersion school … and what our experience has been like, now that we’re five years in.

Why Mandarin Immersion?

Our family’s reasons for choosing Mandarin immersion aren’t particularly unique. There are more than one billion Mandarin speakers in the world today. China is one of the world’s largest economies, and it’s reasonable to think that Mandarin speakers might have an advantage in the workplace. In addition, China is increasingly influential in terms of global politics and environmental impacts, and a deep cultural knowledge seems important in terms of building connections and finding solutions.

Truth be told, any language immersion program would have been appealing to us. Spanish is another great language spoken by millions worldwide (with many of them concentrated right here in our native California), but even a more esoteric language would have been worth considering, too.

Studies suggest that bilingual speakers have enhanced brain function that may affect cognition, attention, executive function, creativity, and could even stave off dementia later in life. Other studies suggest that being bilingual may train the brain to better assimilate math and music.

So, when we heard about a new start-up Mandarin immersion charter school opening near our home, we jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t want their child to become a hyper-creative, musically minded, bilingual mathematician/super-genius? (Well, one can always dream, right?)

Turns out, we’re not alone. In recent years demand for language immersion programs in this country has increased dramatically. Looking specifically at Mandarin, we learn that the first immersion school in the U.S. opened in San Francisco in 1981, but it wasn’t for another 10 years that the second program appeared (just across the bay, in Emeryville, Calif.). After that, a few more schools opened up here and there, but it wasn’t until 2007 that the frenzy began. As of 2013, there were 147 Mandarin immersion programs across the country.

Exponential Growth of Mandarin Immersion in the U.S.


Year One, Part I: The First Few Weeks

My husband and I steeled ourselves for what we expected would be a rough transition for our daughter, who was entering 1st grade at the time. Would she feel anxious and upset not to understand anything the teacher was saying? How would she know where to hang up her coat, when to line up, or even where the bathroom was located? Every subject would now be taught in Mandarin (with the single exception of English class). Perhaps she would never learn addition and subtraction. Surely she’d be hopelessly lost as the teacher led the class through the bean sprout experiment. How would she understand the legend of Chang’e flying up to the moon during the Mid-Autumn Festival? And how on earth would she follow the instructions in P.E.?

Contrary to all of our dire predictions, the first few weeks of school were surprisingly smooth. Our daughter seemed bemused by the strangeness of it all; she came home every day like an anthropologist in the field, sharing dispatches over the dinner table of incomprehensible events. Somehow the language barrier didn’t seem to bother her, and almost immediately, glimmers of understanding began to emerge.

After her second day of school she came home and drew a Chinese character on a piece of paper. I told her it was beautiful and asked what it meant. She shrugged, tossed an “I don’t know” over her shoulder, and ran off to play in the other room.

A few days later she woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom. She popped her head into our room on her way back to bed and announced, “Mommy! Daddy! I know how to say ‘apple’ in Chinese. It’s ‘ping guo’!”

Meanwhile, her two Mandarin-speaking carpool-mates were doing their part to bring her up to speed: they were diligently giving her a crash course in Mandarin potty-talk (which definitely cranked up the giggle-meter in the backseat).

"Mommy! Daddy! I know how to say 'apple' in Chinese!"
"Mommy! Daddy! I know how to say 'apple' in Chinese!" | Source

Year One, Part II: The Hard Months

The bemusement of the first few weeks soon gave way, however, to feelings of frustration and being overwhelmed. Our daughter began to tire of the whole anthropological experiment and took to asking why she couldn’t just go to “regular” (English) school. We gave her answers about the importance of China in the world today, and how wonderful learning a foreign language was for her brain—but of course, none of our responses satisfied her very much.

She grumbled as she practiced her Chinese characters at the kitchen table, and she griped as she yanked on her uniform in the mornings. Over and over, she asked us to explain why she had to go to this crazy school where nothing made sense. And no matter what we said, her eyes told us she wasn’t at all convinced.

Meanwhile, my husband and I began to wonder if perhaps we should reconsider this whole project. We’d told ourselves over the summer we’d give this a one-year trial, but what if we were subjecting our child to irreversible emotional damage by force-marching her every day to this school? Sure, immersion education might be fantastic for other kids, but what if it just wasn’t the right fit for our particular child?

A light bulb moment: "Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'We need to have peace and equality.'"
A light bulb moment: "Martin Luther King Jr. said, 'We need to have peace and equality.'" | Source

Year One, Part III: Light Bulb Moments

We muddled our way through the next couple of months, and suddenly it was time for winter break. Lighting Hanukkah candles with one set of grandparents and opening Christmas gifts with the other set, we tried not to talk too much about school. We had a two-week break ahead of us. Maybe we should embrace the unstructured time, the family time, the time for all of our minds to just … relax.

I can’t tell you that anything we did over the break had any impact over what happened next—I assume the outcome would have been the same regardless. All I can say is that when school started up again in January, things seemed somehow different. The grumbling and complaining began to wane. In the tub one evening she delivered what sounded like a Chinese lecture to her bath toys. Another day she came home and proudly showed me her Martin Luther King Jr. picture, explaining that not only had she understood the teacher’s directions but she’d also been able to write a couple of characters that hadn’t even been written up on the board. And at our parent-teacher conference we learned that our daughter had begun helping some of the other students who were still having some trouble understanding.

Was it possible that our family’s experiment with Mandarin immersion was actually working?

Fast Forward: Five Years Down the Road

Today our daughter is in 6th grade. She speaks, reads, and writes Mandarin—and she loves her school. (Mostly what she loves about school is seeing her friends and hula-hooping during recess, but she says the academic part is good, too.) When I ask her now whether she thinks it was a good idea for us to send her to an immersion school she unhesitatingly says yes. She likes seeing the reaction people have when she tells them she speaks Chinese. She laughs, “They always ask me to say something in Chinese, but I never know what to say because I know a kabillion words!” She likes knowing another language, and she thinks it’s cool that she could go to China and communicate with the people there.

Speaking of going to China, our family traveled there for the first time just a few months ago. From camping on the Great Wall to admiring giant pandas at a Chengdu sanctuary; from hiking the terraced rice paddies in Longsheng to pole-rafting down a jade green river in Yangshuo; from eating Tibetan food by the deep blue lakes of Jiuzhaigou to ascending to the 100th-floor observation deck of the Shanghai Financial Center—we loved it all. But the highlight of our trip? Without a doubt it was seeing our daughter communicate with local Chinese people. Seeing that she could understand, and be understood, by the locals seemed nothing short of miraculous.

Our hope for our daughter is that she continues to appreciate the gift she’s received. It’s the gift of understanding a culture that’s not her own, and it’s a gift that opens up a world of opportunity and connection. Who knows where those opportunities will lead?

Our daughter orders breakfast from a street vendor in Chengdu
Our daughter orders breakfast from a street vendor in Chengdu | Source

Further Reading

There are many great articles out there about the benefits of bilingualism. Here is a sampling about the connection between being bilingual and the following topics:

  • General cognition - This study, by a professor at Northwestern University, was published in the journal Cerebrum.
  • Attention: Written by a professor at York University (Canada), this article appeared in the journal Developmental Science.
  • Executive function: This is an abstract from the International Journal of Bilingualism. The author is a professor at the University of Washington.
  • Creativity: This is another abstract from the International Journal of Bilingualism. This study was conducted by a professor at the University of Haifa (Israel).
  • Math: This is a lay article, written by a former astrophysicist, that was published in the Pacific Standard.
  • Music: This is another study from Northwestern University. This article was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
  • Staving off dementia later in life: The lead author of this study is a neurologist at Nizam's Institute of Medical Sciences, Hyderabad (India). The study was co-authored with seven other medical doctors and holders of other advanced degrees, and it was published in the journal Neurology.

I'd also like to mention Elizabeth Weise's excellent website, Mandarin Immersion Parents Council, which I've come across often over the years. It contains a wealth of information about all things related to Mandarin immersion education in this country, as well as abroad. I've never met Ms. Weise, but I understand that she lives just across the Bay in San Francisco, and that she's very involved at an immersion school there.

Your thoughts...

If you were considering language immersion for your child, which language would you choose?

  • Mandarin
  • Spanish
  • Cantonese
  • French
  • German
  • Japanese
  • Other
See results without voting

© 2016 Devra Nelson

Comments 4 comments

VirginiaLynne profile image

VirginiaLynne 6 weeks ago from United States

Hi Devra! We don't have the option of an immersion school but did give our two oldest an online Mandarin program which was approved by our school district for high school credit. My husband and I studied Mandarin on our own for several years using a number of different methods I've written about here on HubPages. We then took a 7 week trip to China on our own. My oldest later went back to work in an orphanage for a summer. She is now an International Studies major with a focus on Chinese. However, without your daughter's experience, she is still struggling to learn. She hopes to go to China for a couple of years after graduation to work and really get fluent. My son is not really interested in pursuing language but he definitely wants to return to China (as do our other 3 children). Thanks for telling all about your experiences!

Devra Nelson profile image

Devra Nelson 5 weeks ago Author

Thanks so much for your comment, Virginia. You're right that immersion education isn't an option for many families -- whether it's because there are no schools nearby, they're too expensive, or admission is too competitive. Our family feels incredibly fortunate to have won a lottery slot in this particular school, which is located only one town away and is free (no tuition). I love hearing about your family's commitment to the Mandarin language. How incredible that your oldest child spent a summer working at a Chinese orphanage... and that she's now an international studies major with a focus on Chinese! And even though you say your other children aren't as interested in pursuing Mandarin language studies, it's fantastic that they're interested in Chinese culture and travel. Every bit of exposure to cultures that are not their own helps prepare them to become citizens of our increasingly interconnected world.

SheilaMilne profile image

SheilaMilne 4 weeks ago from Kent, UK

Does the school make special provision for keeping English to a high standard? When we lived in France I met a number of families who had enrolled their children into the French system but had to take them out after two or three years when their English reading and writing was left behind at a level of English as a Foreign Language.

The children who did best seemed to be the ones at bilingual schools, or who started the full immersion at the age of about 16. Mine went to the British School because we knew we were there for only three years so, although their French is good, they aren't fully bilingual.

Devra Nelson profile image

Devra Nelson 4 weeks ago Author

Great question, Sheila. Yes, the school does ensure that students learn their ABC's, as well. During the first couple of years, when the goal is for the kids to build a solid foundation in Mandarin, 90% of the daily lessons are taught in Mandarin, and only 10% is taught in English. After the first couple of years, however, the model shifts to a 70/30 balance between Mandarin and English, and then at some point later it shifts again to 50/50. My daughter is now in 6th grade, and about half of her classes are in Mandarin and the other half are in English.

By the way, some might ask how immersion schools like ours do on the state-wide standardized tests, which of course are administered in English. Our particular school has performed just as well (and actually a little better in certain areas) as the English-only schools. I can't speak for all immersion schools -- but I've read that some see a dip in the standardized test scores in the lower grades, when students are focused on acquiring the target language, but that their scores catch up and often exceed standards by the middle grades.

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