Will we all be speaking Mandarin by 2050?
Rena was six when she first started at Yu Ming Charter School in Oakland. She knew only a few words of Mandarin. “I thought it was weird that they [the teachers] were talking and I didn’t really understand,” she says. “I didn’t realize that it would sound so different and look so different. A lot of times, other kids would translate for me.” Now, in fifth grade, Rena’s Mandarin is crisp and clean.
Rena is having a sleepover at Rosa and Sonia’s house in the Berkeley Hills, all dark wood and sweeping vistas. You can see the Marin Headlands and the San Francisco skyline. The girls all attend Yu Ming together — Rosa is in fifth grade, like Rena, and Sonia is in third. Their parents, Cynthia Li and David Hochschild, are actually longtime friends of my wife’s. They’ve invited me over so I can learn more about immersion schools for a piece I’m writing. (Full disclosure: I also have a slightly personal interest. My wife is Chinese, and as we prepare to start a family of our own, this kind of thing is on our minds.)
Yu Ming is what’s known as a “two-way dual immersion program” — 50 percent Mandarin speakers and 50 percent non-Mandarin speakers so the two groups can learn from each other. Li is a doctor. She was born in Texas to Chinese parents. She speaks Mandarin fluently but admits she’s a bit rusty. Hochschild is a white “Northeasterner.” And while he claims he can “order some stuff at restaurants,” he says he is “definitively not a Mandarin speaker.”
The girls are sitting on the living room floor in the Berkeley house, recalling how nervous and confused they were when they first arrived at Yu Ming. It’s hard to believe this given how they seem now: Rena reads an odd story aloud about a boy who escapes a car accident and takes refuge in a tree, and then she translates it into English without batting an eye. They show me some of their journal entries that they keep for school — in Mandarin! Beautifully drawn black characters document trips to the zoo, Labor Day weekend activities, and so on.
They tell me that sometimes they even think in Mandarin now. “When I was learning my times tables,” Rosa says, “the only way I could remember it was by saying it and repeating it in Chinese, because that’s how I learned it. And my mom would be like, ‘What’s five times five?’ I would go, ‘Wŭ wŭ èr shí wŭ…25.’”
More than half of the world’s population is bilingual, but less than 20 percent of people in the United States speak a second language. Presidio Knolls School (PKS) is an elementary school off 10th Street in downtown San Francisco. It’s one of 200 foreign language immersion schools in California, part of a growing trend in education to reverse what Lee Drolet, head of school at PKS, refers to as our “lagging in language comprehension” problem.
There are actually more than 1,000 immersion programs in the United States; over half are Spanish-language programs, while less than 20 percent are Mandarin. But the tide is changing: In 2005, there were just 19 Mandarin immersion programs around the country, whereas today there are more than 200—and not only in states like California with large Asian populations, but also in places like Casper, Wyoming, and Fitchburg, Wisconsin.
The demographics of these programs vary by state and by location, but I was surprised to learn that none of these schools are dominated by native speakers. At Yu Ming with 257 students — 45% are Asian and 37% “multiracial.”At PKS, Drolet says, most students are not actually from Mandarin-speaking families, and there are just as many, if not more, students of other ethnicities as there are Chinese students. However, she says, it’s not uncommon for parents who are ethnically Chinese but raised in American without any Mandarin, to send their children to PKS — it’s a way for them to connect to their cultural background.
Drolet proudly runs through all the ways in which her students are benefiting from being part of an immersion program—“Heightened problem-solving abilities, attention, mental flexibility…”—but she says the importance of these programs goes way beyond the academic and intellectual.
“We’re thinking not just about where these kids are in their world today, but what the world might look like in the future. We have a commitment to our students to have a global competency that gives them the comfort and abilities to succeed not just in the Bay Area, or the United States, but within our broad, global community.”
In immersion programs, students study the same subjects as in traditional English-language schools—math, science, language arts, and social studies—they just do it all in the second language. Preschool and kindergarten students speak almost exclusively Mandarin, but that shifts (down to as little as 30% by middle school) as the students get older because by then, according to Drolet, “They’re totally proficient in reading, writing, and speaking.”
Bob Hillman has first- and third-graders who attend PKS. He used to be a successful musician, but now he’s in marketing — though he is quick to add that he tries hard “not to work too much.” Hillman and his wife are white and do not speak Mandarin, nor feel like they have to even though their children do.
His older son is part of the flagship class at PKS. Hillman describes how easily Mandarin came to his children: “It’s just not that big of a deal to them. It’s school. It just happens to be in Mandarin. They just do it. You’ve got to remember, for these kids, it’s not a struggle. We have to get out of our adult heads. Yes, it would be impossible for us to get plopped into a work environment where they speak a new language, but for kids, maybe there’s some cognitive dissonance at the beginning, but that fades so quickly.”
Li describes a similarly rapid transition taking place for her children at Yu Ming. “Of course, they’re totally frustrated at first, but even with complete non-speakers, it just takes a few months, and then they absorb it. They might not be speaking [Mandarin] fluently, but they understand everything that is going on.”
Drolet talks about the power of immersive learning in terms of meaning, “So think about if you were a person going to another country as a child: Would it be more meaningful to sit in a classroom for an hour a day just being exposed to a language?
Or would it be more meaningful to be immersed in seeing, touching, feeling, experiencing the music of a language, all the different senses, having your teachers act out words and helping you to understand it in a connected way? You’re hooking all the pictures and ideas together in your brain. The more we have meaning in our instructional setting, the more you have meaning around the big idea — whether it be maps, or how does the farm get to our table, or forces of motion and energy — if you can see that first hand and experience it, you make it mean something, and it’s going to stick with you forever.”
At the beginning especially, the teachers refuse to translate; they never break from Mandarin. But, says Li, “The teachers are really good at pantomime.” Also, the kids are really good at whispering answers to each other. However, unlike in a standard school setting, where this quiet assistance is frowned upon, immersion teachers welcome this hushed translation as a necessary part of the process.
“In learning a second language, there’s more brain pathways built,” says Li. “The brain is more efficient. Particularly with a tonal language, you’re really using the right side. I think the communication is really secured that way, with both sides of the brain.” According to Xiaoqiu Xu, who studied second-language acquisition while earning her PhD at Stanford and now works at Pearson Knowledge Technologies in Menlo Park, California, “If you already have learned a second language, it is easier to pick up a third.” It also improves your native language skills, she says, though not immediately. “Research shows English lagging behind a little bit in kindergarten, first, and second grades,” Xu says. “But immersion students typically pick up and surpass their peers by the end of elementary school.”
As an immersion learner, you’re also more likely to be a better all-around student because of the brain’s improvement in overall executive functioning. So these students — and the adults they become — are better able to manage and control cognitive processes like reasoning, focus, concentration, perception, and working memory. Improving their problem-solving abilities and mental flexibility can lead to improved creativity as well.
All of this is especially true if you learn the language in elementary school before you hit your teens. As a child, your brain is more plastic and the language center is primed and ready for this sort of acquisition work.
While at Stanford, Xu published a paper on a study in which she compared the Mandarin fluency of fourth- and fifth-grade immersion students and AP Chinese high school students in the same school districts. The fourth- and fifth-graders performed equally as well as, and in some cases better than, their high school counterparts.
Xu describes what she refers to as a “critical period” in language acquisition. “If a person learns a second language before puberty — ages 12 to 14 — it’s more likely that they’ll sound like a native speaker.”
As a child, the language center is in hyperdrive, but there are great hormonal shifts once puberty hits, in middle school or high school, about the time we typically start learning a second language. The brain and body change their developmental focus to other things.
However, it’s not just brain plasticity that makes elementary students better at acquiring a second language; emotional resiliency also plays a role. “Younger students are less aware and afraid of making mistakes,” Xu explains. “Adults are more scared of making mistakes and embarrassing themselves in front of other people. That’s a big advantage. Children can learn more quickly given their willingness to take risks.”
Hillman and I are drinking coffee and sitting off to the side of the PKS courtyard. The first bell has rung, morning assembly has ended, and the 200-plus students have filed into their various classrooms. We’re chatting about all the reasons parents choose immersion schools.
I’ve been told that for some parents it’s about making up for what they feel to be a void in their own lives — that for parents who are ethnically Chinese, but raised in America without any Mandarin, they may feel a cultural loss as a result and they look to right this for their children.
Hillman, not in this category, tells me, “The immersion path is — it’s cool. At first I was excited because I realized my child will be able to get a job in another country when they are an adult. But it takes five seconds to get beyond that. And you think, okay, well, there’s a cultural component to it, and if you start reading, obviously there are so many brain benefits… As parents we derive self-esteem from watching our kids speak Chinese to people who aren’t expecting it. There’s nothing that can make you feel like a good parent more than watching your kids play chess and singing a Chinese song at the same time. You feel like the best parent ever.”
Li says for her “It’s not about whether or not they speak Mandarin for life; it’s about the developmental advantage. “Whether they keep their Mandarin, we’re not attached to that at all. And they can kind of choose,” she says. “But it’s just the process of learning that we value so deeply. The bilingual education is really, really good for them.”
So good, it turns out, that after a week of meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping in September of this year, President Obama announced the goal of having 1 million students learning Mandarin in K–12 programs by 2020.
This is great, but how will they pull it off?
Two hundred schools are a vast improvement over 19 schools in 2005 , but it’s still not enough. Even in San Francisco, a city known for having a decent number of immersion schools, supply does not come close to meeting demand.
Hillman and his wife tried to enroll their oldest son in all seven of the city’s public immersion programs through the lottery system. They failed on all fronts. They were not alone: Hillman described a sea of Facebook posts and T-shirts springing up with the frustrating “0 for 7” tagline emblazoned. And the lottery losers can’t necessarily afford the $20,000 annual tuition that PKS, an independent school, charges.
Meeting the demand for these foreign-language immersion programs requires not just more schools but also a lot more teachers. But good teachers are hard to find — the parents and directors at these schools want educators who can essentially do double-duty: speak perfect, native-level Mandarin and be well versed in cutting-edge educational practices.
The problem, of course, is that the teachers are either steeped in a traditional educational style that is rote and memorization based, or they do not speak Mandarin well enough.
Hochschild explains, “There’s an interesting cultural contest that exists in terms of what the philosophy of this sort of education is going to be: Between tiger moms, which is the raw, hardcore academics-only style, and the panda mom camp, which is about nourishing the whole kid, supporting music and art, school camping trips, having a well-developed, fully rounded young person.”
So, you first have to decide what makes a good teacher. Second, you hire them. And even then, they are hard to keep on staff. According to Drolet, “The U.S. does recognize Mandarin as a critical language, but it doesn’t back that up with visa support. Sometimes we feel like we’re doing battle just to keep our teachers. We invest an incredible amount in best practices and staff development and all these amazing teaching and instructional techniques, and it’s heartbreaking if someone can’t continue to get visas to stay and teach with us.”
Between the immersion schools and other non-immersion Mandarin courses, there are approximately 200,000 K–12 Mandarin students in the United States today. This means we will need enough new teachers for an additional 800,000 students over the next five years. Carola McGiffert, president of the 100,000 Strong Foundation, is in charge of finding a solution to this 800,000-student problem. “We rely heavily on the generous support of the Chinese government, which sends us hundreds of teachers every year.” She acknowledges, however, that this is never going to be enough.
McGiffert has come to realize that you don’t have to be fully fluent in a language to be an effective language teacher, which “opens the door for more young Americans who are highly proficient,” she says. “It creates opportunities for them to enter the teaching field in Mandarin. Perhaps they’re not teaching the most advanced classes. I think that’s one way to get a lot of young people right out of college and graduate school to be excited about becoming a teacher and using their Mandarin skills.”
Whether we’re able to meet the 100,000 Strong Foundation’s ambitious goal remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that students will benefit from its attempt. When you visit these schools and talk to the students, you can’t help but get the feeling that the next generation will be more open, equal, and accepting than those that have come before. Li agrees: “When we watch movies, there’s one Latino kid or one black kid, and when they refer to them, they don’t refer to their skin color. They’ll say, ‘That boy in the green shirt is really funny.’ These kids don’t mention ethnicity at all.”
Hochschild describes it as “a miraculous fusion of different cultures taking place.” These students, he says, “are building a new youth culture that is separate from, and perhaps transcends, Chinese and American, black and white, yellow and brown. There’s this young hybrid culture. Students are spinning and weaving together different pieces of their various heritages, turning it into this hybrid culture that is it’s own new and beautiful thing.”
Animated gifs by Sam Cannon for BRIGHT