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Wednesday, June 13, 2007
San Fran kindergartners immersed in Chinese

Angelica Chang teaches Mandarin Chinese to kindergartners at the Starr King Elementary School.

Every kid knows that feeling of the last day of school. It feels so liberating to know there won't be any classes on Monday. But for the kids I met at Starr King Elementary School in San Francisco, it was mostly sadness.

The children I met, all kindergartners, had just finished an entire year learning Mandarin Chinese, and they were sad it was over. The class was a year-long immersion course. The teacher spoke only Chinese to her students. That's it. All of the kids' normal subjects, like math and science, were taught in Chinese. Imagine how difficult that would be since none of the 26 children had ever before spoken Mandarin, considered one of the more difficult languages to learn. (For one hour a day, they worked on their English skills with a different teacher.)

Immersion courses operate on the premise of osmosis: eventually the child will get it. And the children I saw seemed to get it. (Watch these American kids speak Mandarin Chinese)

It was astounding to walk into a classroom full of American five-year-olds communicating in Chinese. They seemed to have little problem understanding their teacher. They also spoke in Chinese to each other. And during their free time, they even read children's books written exclusively in Chinese.

Parents we spoke to said they enrolled their kids in the program to give them a "leg up" for the future. Some of the children are of Chinese descent, but come from English-speaking families. The district said it offered the immersion program course because of China's growing status in the world.

As the children said goodbye to each other and their teacher, there were a lot of tears. Even though they're only kindergartners, these kids and their teacher seemed to forge a special bond over the course of the year. However, this is only the beginning of their Mandarin education. Next year, as first-graders, they'll be back for another year of classes taught in Chinese.

-- By Dan Simon, CNN Correspondent
Posted By CNN: 4:37 PM ET
  24 Comments
Well, all I can say is I'd have a hard time learning Chinese now, let alone at age 5. Good luck to them. I'm kind of glad all I had to do in kindergarten was play games, have milk and cookies, sing alongs and a nap...I can't speak Chinese, but I know every verse of Mary had a little lamb and how to dunk my cookies in milk...What a skill! I wish the San Fran kids the best. Take Care
Posted By Lorie Ann, Buellton, Calif. : 6:19 PM ET
Until about age 7, kids will absorb whatever they hear. They can even acquire several languages at a time and, oddly, not mix them up too much. The concentration (what there is of it) in the U.S. has been on Spanish. That takes care of today.

The San Francisco school is wise to be looking forward and offering immersion in Mandarin, the most used Chinese dialect. The sleeping giant has woken up, and the Americans who know their language will be at an advantage either in business matters or because China is on the threshold of becoming the world's next superpower.
Posted By gypsy, an American in Mexico : 6:39 PM ET
Hey Dan,
It's the best time to learn another language at a young age,they learn faster.
My son will finish his 6th grade next friday. All year,he was in english immersion. They did the academic part in 5 months instead of 10,and since mid-january,they were only learning english(our first language is french). Now,they are bilingual and they left this morning for three days to a summer camp where they will do everything in english. It is a great experience. We had to talk mostly english in the house and CNN was our learning tool.It was a lot of hard work,but my son finished with honors and will be placed in advanced classes.Yeah,sorry,I'm a proud mom right now.:-)
As for the class you are talking about, the degree of difficulty is higher because they do the other subjects in CHinese also. But what a great experience for the kids.

Joanne R.
Laval Quebec
Posted By Joanne R.Laval Quebec : 6:48 PM ET
What a wonderful idea and one I hope catches on throughout the United States.

There is nothing wrong with the intelligence of U.S. children. The problem lies with the U.S. education system which varies greatly throughout the United States, and is usually quality based according to the economic level of the community in which the school district is located.
Posted By Joseph Kowalski, North Huntingdon, PA : 7:00 PM ET
American politicians have furnised China with materials and how to use them, military secrets stolen from under thier nose for 25 years, and financing of China's goals by letting the trade deficit go unbalanced. (Americans taught Japan how to whip on us commercially).
Will Buddism be opptional? India is yet another story. Must we learn Chinese, Mexican, and East Indian?
The politicians have put our country in a very vulnerable situation.
Posted By Tom Partain Midland Texas : 7:03 PM ET
Great, San Fransicko is already capitulating to China. Maybe if America just surrenders California, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Alaska to China they won't attack us in 20 years once they have put GM, Ford and Chrysler out of business.

I understand wanting to expose children to other cultures, but near total immersion in another language, in a PUBLIC school. In San Fran, there would be HUGE outcry if the language was Hebrew. Imagine immersion in German back in the 30's in a public school. But maybe if we UNDERSTAND our enemies, they won't attack us economically and eventually militarily.

What's scary is America is the last good hope in the world, because Europe has all but capitulated to China and Muslim extremism. Hopefully Americans can pull our collective heads out of the sand before it is too late to save this country.
Posted By Nestor, Austin, TX : 7:06 PM ET
As a former English teacher in Korea, I noticed that the younger the student, the faster the progression of learning a second language. It seems it is never to early to start, and whether it is Mandarin, Spanish, Hindi, Arabic or any other language, the United States needs to integrate more of these programs into our education system.
Posted By Trevin Portland OR : 7:40 PM ET
Certainly, this is one strategy to prepare for the growth of China.

From a different perspective:
I hope this is a wake up call for those who have argued that “people who cannot understand and speak English should not even be in the United States, let alone become citizens.” I absolutely disagree, for one’s language does not define one’s character and ability. Language is a form of communication, also an art.

In addition, there are individuals whose primary language is English and cannot even understand and speak it properly, let alone excel in a second language. I applaud these five-year-olds.
Posted By Jacqueline Hsieh of Elmhurst, New York : 7:57 PM ET
Dear friends,

I support bilingual education in the United States. I think more students should learn Chinese. This is going to be very important in the future. The only serious concern I have is if these students are using educational materials from mainland China. China is not a free country. The Chinese Communist Party uses education as a strong form of social control. I think many US parents would disapprove of the content promoted by mainland China. I also urge caution with entering into relationships with mainland Chinese schools and universities. Equal opportunity does not exist in China. Many American students would be either persecuted or denied access to education in China if they belonged to certain ethnic or spiritual groups. It is also a question of what you want to support with your money and your child’s participation. Would you buy your Korean language materials from North Korea or South Korea? Which country or organization would you feel comfortable buying Arabic language materials from? I know trade is popular with China right now, but it is important to think about these things carefully. It might help to spend some extra time to make sure you are getting Chinese language materials developed by Americans or developed in Taiwan.
Posted By Lee. Middletown, NY : 8:00 PM ET
Hi Dan,
I feel that this is a really beautiful program. I believe that we should all be taught a second language. It helps our brain to think and expand but the most important thing another language teaches us is how to communicate with others. The more communication we have with others the closer we can all come together in peace!
Bravo for these students, teachers, and parents wanting to teach and learn another language.
Myself? I plan on learning a second language just as soon as I master ENGLISH!!!!
Aprender otro idiom lleva a la paz en el mundo. Dios Bendice!
Posted By Betty Ann, Nacogdoches,TX : 8:23 PM ET
"I speak English, so I don't have to learn a foreign language...."

Everyone speaks English, right? Well, certainly not everyone speaks English. According to the CIA World Fact Book, only 5.6 % of the world's total population speaks English as a primary language. That number doubles when people who speak English as a second or third language are counted. By conservative estimates, that means that well over four-fifths of the world's population does not speak English.

It's true that English has become a global lingua franca over the past several decades; this fact, however, really should have little effect on your decision to learn a foreign language. The attitude that English alone is enough, in fact, creates self-imposed limitations. To remain monolingual is to stunt your educational development, to restrict your communication and thinking abilities, and to deny yourself the ability to fully appreciate and understand the world in which you live. Learning another language opens up new opportunities and gives you perspectives that you might never have encountered otherwise. Personal, professional, social, and economic considerations all point to the advantages of learning foreign languages.
Info from www.vistawide.com/language
I think these kids are of to a great start, kudos to their parents.
Posted By Valerie, Hesston KS : 9:27 PM ET
Everyone should learn as many languages as possible. To believe that one langauge will always be primary is delusional. My grandmother was not educated and she worked harder than most people do-even into her 70's. She was Cajun and spoke mainly French. She couldn't read or write, but she learned to speak English on her own. She was one of the smartest people I've ever known because in spite of her educational deficits, she could communicate in two languages.
Posted By Debbie, Denham Springs, LA : 10:23 PM ET
What a great program. I wish more schools would incorporate programs like this consistently in their schools as the earlier you start the better you do and the more languages you can learn. In tomorrow's world the successful people and the leaders will need to know many different languages and understand many different cultures as the world will only become smaller and more intertwined. I wish programs like this were available for my children. Thanks for the excellent report, Dan!
Posted By Annie Kate, Birmingham AL : 11:10 PM ET
At 3e International Kindergarten in Beijing, China, we have children from 18 different nationalities coming together in a bilingual (Mandarin & English) dual-immersion program created by Michigan State University’s innovative program, Educating Global Citizens (EGC). Here, children spend half a day in a Mandarin-speaking classroom and the other half in an English-speaking classroom. Many came into the school not speaking either language, but at this point in the year, all are conversing comfortably with one another and with their teachers in both languages. They are also beginning to read and write in both languages. We’ve brought together some very well-trained teachers from Michigan State University and Beijing Normal University who can provide these children the social interaction and support they need while acquiring language. What we want to accomplish here is to have these children gain respect and appreciation for people who are different from themselves so that they are able to move easily between cultures. They’re going to need that in the flat world that awaits them.

Anne K. Soderman, Professor
Dept. Family and Child Ecology
Michigan State University
Posted By Anonymous : 2:14 AM ET
Let's see... languages I have taken: French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, Japanese, Chinese, and Vietnamese.

I'd say that the two tonal languages (Chinese and Vietnamese) were almost impossible for me. I thought I was going to have an aneurysm! It all sounds so similar to me (as a native English speaker) and therefore I applaud these children for even trying. It is much easier for a child to learn another language than an adult; I wish I'd learned another one when I was six!!
Posted By Sharla Dawn Jones : 8:43 AM ET
That's fabulous - kindergarteners immersed in learning Mandarin. But is 1 hr/day enough for English? I don't think so, especially since reading & writing skills are in the initial stages for most 5-6 yr olds. Kids might want to pursue rigorous writing courses in the HS and collegiate levels only to find themselves behind their peers who had a solid education in English. Having traveled to Bejing, Shanghi & Hong Kong in the last few years, most Chinese people spoke to me in English. As a teenager, kids I met wanted to know about my life in the USA. While I would love to be fluent in more than English and half fluent in French, the Adv. Placement track in English takes a lot of time and dedication.
Posted By Rebecca, Chicago, IL : 9:54 AM ET
I wish I'd had something like that when I was in kindergarten. Being able to speak another language is a valuable tool.


Lindsay from Seattle
Posted By Anonymous : 10:09 AM ET
My daughter is bilingual. So is my entire family. So is most of the world's population (at least bilingual).

US children would be better off if they were exposed to at least 1 other language at a very early age. I think non-Hispanic American's should learn Spanish so that they can better relate to their neighbors and their continent. But other languages like Chinese, French or whatever are good substitutes as well.

I've met illiterate, poor, poorly nourised, underprivileged farmers in South America that speak 3 languages with ease. Why don't americans have a second language?

It's a proven myth that learning a second language at early age can limit a child's development. The opposite is true in fact.
Posted By Michael Rinehart, Seattle, WA : 11:23 AM ET
I'd like to point out some fallacies expressed in some of the comments here.

First, it's a lot easier for kids to learn languages, so it should not be surprising that they can grasp Chinese when adults have more trouble.

Second, although Chinese is so hard to learn because it's such a different language from English, it's no more difficult for Americans to learn Chinese than it is for Chinese to learn English. Since we see plenty of Chinese kids learn English when they immigrate to the United States, I don't see why it should be so astonishing that Americans can also learn Chinese.

Third, language is just a means of communicating ideas. Just because the vehicle happens to be Chinese, doesn't mean that these kids are not learning essential writing and reading skills. On the contrary, learning a second language helps you to distinguish the aspects of your language that are common in all languages versus those that are idiosyncratic to yours. This not only helps you to learn other languages, but it helps you to understand language -- how we as humans think, not just how people similar to us think.
Posted By Jane from San Francisco : 11:51 AM ET
I think that learning a second language at a young age is a great idea, no matter what the second language is. Each member of my immediate family is able to communicate in at least 3 languages fluently (written and verbal). Of the four languages I know, the most difficult to learn was Spanish, even though I took formal Spanish classes from seventh to eleventh grade. The problem I had in learning Spanish was pronunciation of the “rr” or “double r” sound. I remember trying to avoid words that had “rr” in it, unless it was a writing assignment. It was not until 3 years after I graduated from high school that I was able to master that. Learning a new language after childhood is not impossible, but it does take some effort and/or hard work to do it.
Posted By Genevieve Matthews, El Paso, TX : 12:50 PM ET
It was great to see these Kindergardeners sing and speak in Mandarin last night. I was very impressed to see them read in Chinese when I can't even write my name and I am Chinese - luckily I can at least speak it!

The U.S. is a melting pot yet many of us only know one language (English) which is a shame. When I traveled outside of the U.S. for the first time earlier this year to Switzerland, I was impressed by how many languages the citizens there spoke. Many of them knew at least 3 languages (English, French, and German) which they learned from school. I felt ashamed that since I was in another country, I was dependent on them to speak to me in English and to have bus and train stops written in English as well since I didn't know German or French which were their predominant languages. It's about time that this country joins the rest of the world and starts having the ability to understand more then one language. I applaud this school for taking the first step and maybe one of these days our children will be learning 3 languages as well.
Posted By M. Wong, Costa Mesa, CA : 2:45 PM ET
We are shortchanging our children by insisting on teaching only English. Every classroom in America should be at least bilingual, if not multi-lingual. Most other nations of the world do this and we're being left behind with our xenophobic hatred of 'foreigners'.
Posted By Pat, Moore, OK : 10:57 AM ET
What a refreshing article to blog about!

I've read of at least one toddler school in NY that teaches Mandarin as well as other languages. Some dispute that it's too young of an age for children to learn. Coming from a bilingual household I beg to differ and am a strong believer that early immersion is key.

I do hope this concept is adapted in the rest of the school system worldwide as being bi- or multi-lingual opens up worlds of new possibilities.

Thanks for reporting on a subject equally important as healthcare, taxes and wars.
Posted By M. Wong- Oakland, CA : 2:03 PM ET
My son was one of the lucky pioneers in this Mandarin Immersion program. The first months were difficult, because the language was new to all of us, and we were unable to provide much help with his homework. As the school year came to a close, his fluency really ramped up, and it is wonderful to hear him able to speak in English and Mandaring Chinese (and Spanish, since his mother's Mexican-American.)

To the person was concerned about the children learning English, I would suggest she look up studies on Dual Immersion education. The proportion of education in English increases from roughly 20% to 50% as the kids progress in elementary school. The children in programs like my son's tend to be behind their English-only peers from K-3, but by 4th grade have not only learned their target language, but demonstrate greater proficiency in English as well.

To the ignorant few who see Chinese education as capitulation, I extend pity. To view learning a new langauge as negative is baffling. I would add that hypothetically, should we ever have a major conflict with China, it is in our national security interest to have fluent speakers.

I consider it a great honor to send my son to a school where high quality English "normal" classes are side-by-side with classes for native Spanish speakers, aspiring Mandarin speakers, and small classes to accommodate autistic children.
Posted By Dan Priven, San Francisco : 3:51 AM ET
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