Learning In Chinese

Mandarin immersion takes root in Bay Area schools.

On a crisp December afternoon at Berkeley’s Shu Ren International School, eleven squirming five-year-olds are sprawled out on the rug. Kai-Yao To’s kindergarten classroom looks much like any nice kindergarten room — bright, cheerful colors; student art masterpieces in Crayola and felt-tip marker; and an easel where the day’s itinerary is written on chart paper. What sets this classroom apart isn’t especially subtle. Just about everything is written in Chinese, from the morning greeting that Kai Laoshi (“Teacher Kai”) has written out for the students to read aloud together, to the labels underneath pictures of a dreidel and a menorah on the whiteboard. Even at the height of the holiday season, there probably aren’t too many other kindergarten classes learning about Hanukkah and Kwanzaa in Mandarin.

Shu Ren, founded in the fall of 2008, is the latest in a growing number of Mandarin bilingual schools that have cropped up in the Bay Area. Here in the East Bay, these include the Pacific Rim International School, a Montessori-based independent school in Emeryville; Stonebrae Elementary School, part of the Hayward Unified School District; and Shu Ren, whose 41 students currently range from pre-K to second grade, although the school plans to expand by one grade each year until it runs through the eighth grade. Most of the programs follow some variation of the “dual language” immersion model, which at the elementary school level usually entails students spending at least 50 percent of their day not simply learning a second language, but rather learning in and completely immersed in that language.

In the East Bay, there’s a well-established French immersion school and several Spanish-language immersion schools, and there is every indication that overall interest in foreign languages among Americans is higher than ever — no doubt a response to the increasingly globalized world in which we live. But the rising popularity of Mandarin immersion programs is particularly telling, in that much of the interest stems from China’s ever-increasing economic clout and prominence on the world stage. Indeed, there has been a sense, for many years now, that China is the future, and this has caused parents — Chinese and non-Chinese alike — to plan for their children’s education with an eye on the world’s 1.3-billion some-odd Mandarin speakers.

Even the federal government has jumped on the bandwagon, providing resources to further the teaching and learning of Chinese — along with Arabic, Hindi, and other “strategically important” languages — through its so-called STARTALK programs, which are funded by the National Security Language Initiative.

Here in Berkeley, Stella Kwoh is the director the National Center for K-16 Chinese Language Pedagogy, which for more than a year now has been using STARTALK funds to create resources to train and support Chinese language teachers. When Kwoh first got involved in teacher training more than twenty years ago, Mandarin education wasn’t especially popular in the United States — it was “in the freezer,” she jokes. “But now,” she said, “it’s getter hotter and hotter.”

While the administrators and others involved with Shu Ren acknowledge China’s emergence as one of the school’s major selling points, none are so crass as to place too much emphasis on the financial benefits of learning Mandarin — the idea, say, that there will be some quantifiable future payoff, measured out in Chinese yuan, for the $12,000-plus tuition parents are now paying each year. Instead, parents and teachers are much more likely to talk about the importance of multiculturalism or the cognitive benefits of learning about other people and other languages. The Chinese parents, in particular, talk about seeking ways to pass their cultural and linguistic heritage on to their own children.

In fact, Shu Ren’s founder and head, Jie Moore, concedes that one of the reasons she decided to start a new school in the first place was because she was having trouble finding a suitable preschool for her own daughter, Maya, to attend. Moore grew up in China, but her husband is from New Zealand and doesn’t speak Chinese at all. They agreed that they wanted their child to be bilingual but, unable to find a school in the area that offered as much of a Mandarin focus as she wanted, Moore ended up sending Maya to a regular Montessori preschool. Very quickly, Moore says, her daughter was basically no longer willing to speak Chinese.

Moore recalls, “One day I got really frustrated and I said, ‘You should speak Chinese to me. Why do you always answer back in English?’ And she said, ‘Mommy, I don’t know how!'”

For Moore, this served as a wake-up call with respect to the challenges inherent in trying to raise a bilingual child in the United States. “How could I expect her to speak Chinese when she never heard the words?” Moore said. “You know, during the day, all she hears is English. So that’s when I said she has to be in an immersion school.”

It was around this time that Moore started thinking about starting a school of her own, although she was no educator by her own admission. Her background was in sociology. She had never taught, and had no prior experience running a school.

But after receiving encouragement from Anne-Marie Pierce, an educational consultant who has worked with a Spanish immersion school in Oakland and a number of other international schools, Moore decided to give it a shot. In consultation with Pierce, Moore decided to base her school’s curriculum on the International Baccalaureate model, in addition to the overarching Mandarin immersion framework.

What that model offers is a student-centered, hands-on approach to teaching. At the elementary school and pre-elementary school level — what the International Baccalaureate foundation calls its Primary Years Program — the curriculum focuses on “inquiries” that the students will make into various themes, actively asking questions and finding the answers to those questions themselves. What also appealed to Moore about the International Baccalaureate curriculum is, as she explained, its emphasis on teaching “how to understand other people, people from different cultural and language backgrounds, and have genuine communication with those people.”

In that respect, she felt it was a perfect fit with the Mandarin language component.

Back in the kindergarten classroom, the students gathered on the rug are ready for their afternoon class — in this case an impromptu mini-lesson in math.

“How many more people do we have in our classroom now?” Kai Laoshi asks the children, in Mandarin.

“Xiao zhang,” one little boy ventures — the principal.

“Yes, the principal. That’s one person. Who else?”

Eventually the students decide that there are now fifteen people in the classroom, and the teacher leads them in counting — in Mandarin, of course. The kids have their Chinese counting down pat; they’re regular champs at it, going right up to fifteen without missing a beat.

At this point, Kai Laoshi takes out a basket of little plastic linking blocks and asks if any of the students can show her, using the blocks, how many more people they now have in the classroom. And on it goes from there.

The lesson typifies the way the school deals with the Chinese language component —not as a stand-alone academic subject but rather as something that’s integrated into their overall school experience. They’re not simply learning Chinese — they’re learning math in Chinese, or social studies in Chinese.

This is a totally different approach than the one used when Chinese is taught as a foreign language, as has become increasingly common in Bay Area schools. It also differs from the way that Chinese is taught as a “heritage language” — to those who already have some ethnic or cultural connection to Chinese — at the widespread weekend Chinese schools that many adult Chinese Americans still have unpleasant memories of attending when they were growing up. Aside from the limitation of only having a half a day on a Saturday or Sunday, these weekend Chinese schools have tended to be slanted toward more old-fashioned teaching methods favored when the instructors themselves were in school in China or Taiwan — copying a list of characters twenty times, or learning a classical Chinese poem through rote memorization.

You won’t find that kind of pedantic approach to teaching Chinese at Shu Ren; in fact, you won’t find much direct language instruction at all.

“It’s language used in an authentic environment,” Moore said. “That’s what I think is the advantage of an immersion school as opposed to a weekend school or even an after-school program.”

The effect — the sense that students truly are immersed in the Chinese language — is amplified at Shu Ren, where the model is more extreme than many of the area’s other immersion schools. At the kindergarten level, students spend an average of just an hour a day being instructed in English by a separate teacher. The rest of the time is devoted to Chinese. The pre-K class is actually 100 percent Mandarin, and more English time is added as the students advance through the grades, with a 50/50 split being reached by the third grade.

The approach is borne out by research, which shows that immersing students in a language as much possible when they are young is the key to cementing their success — and also that kids at that early age can pick up a language much more quickly than adults. Anecdotally, Moore estimates that it takes only about three or four months at the school for a child with no Mandarin background to start being able to understand most of what the Chinese teacher is saying in class, assuming that he or she starts in kindergarten or pre-K.

That said, to an outsider, it still might seem a bit crazy to plunge a kid into this environment where he’s suddenly going to have to be listening to a foreign language for six or seven hours a day. By Kai-Yao To’s count, about 80 percent of her students come from families where no Chinese is spoken at home.

In watching To interact with her students, it’s striking to note how infrequently she speaks in English — maybe one or two individual words over the course of an entire hour. After the math lesson is over, she tells the story of “The Nutcracker” — an elaborate setup, complete with little stick puppets, that holds the kids spellbound for longer than you’d think would be possible with a group of energetic five-year-olds. Again, no English — not even for advanced vocabulary like “nutcracker” and “magician” — but with all the props and everything else, the students are able to follow along.

It’s worth mentioning, too, that most of the kids aren’t able to speak in Mandarin the whole time — in fact, many of them seem to lack the vocabulary to really express themselves in the language, aside from set routines like counting that they’ve practiced many times. Part of To’s technique is to ask questions like, “Do you know who this is?” and when a student responds, “The nutcracker!” she’ll say, “Right!” and repeat the word again in Chinese.

Anyone who’s studied Mandarin knows that one of the most challenging things about the language is that it’s tonal. A single word like “ma” pronounced with different stresses and intonations might mean, variously, “horse” or “mother” or “scold.” If you try to learn the language as an adult, it’s likely that you’ll spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to get those tones exactly right — and, chances are, you never will.

What’s interesting about the language instruction at Shu Ren is that the students are never directly taught these tones. They’re just expected to pick them up the same way, one supposes, that an infant in China would pick them up. In fact, To never once corrects her students for the way they pronounce a word in Mandarin — never tells them that the way they’ve said it is wrong. Instead, she’ll just repeat the word, pronouncing it correctly.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about the students at Shu Ren? Even though not all of them can say a whole lot yet in Mandarin, the words they do say are — by and large — spoken with near-impeccable pronunciation.

Another thing that’s striking about Shu Ren is the particular demographic that the school attracts. Looking around Kai Laoshi’s kindergarten classroom, one of the first things you’ll notice is that there is a disproportionate number of biracial children, most of whom have one parent who’s ethnically Chinese. There are a handful of Chinese children. And then there are a few who don’t seem to have any obvious connection to Chinese: a couple of Caucasian kids and one African American.

As mentioned, for many of the biracial and Chinese families who send their children to the school, there’s a desire to maintain and build upon any Mandarin their kids might already be getting at home. Such is the case for Lishan Zhao, whose daughter Melanie is in the kindergarten class. Zhao and his wife are both from China, and it was particularly important to them that their daughter be able to read and write the language.

“We just don’t have the time or … the system that we can teach her,” Zhao explained.

To estimates that by the end of kindergarten, her students will be able to read and write about fifty Chinese characters.

Sophie Beach’s son, Luca, also is in the kindergarten class. Beach’s husband is Chinese, and so they too had a desire for their son to be able to become fully bilingual. Thus far, Beach said, it’s been a great success. Before he started preschool, Luca could speak Chinese but really didn’t feel comfortable doing so in new situations.

“After he started at Shu Ren — it was only a couple of months after — it was almost like Chinese became his more comfortable language,” Beach said. “He was much more comfortable speaking it in all different types of situations.”

A few students are children from China whose adoptive parents want their child to grow up with some sense of connection to their native tongue. Such is the case for Jacky Carleton, whose daughter, Liliane, was adopted from China when she was one year old.

Carleton, who doesn’t speak any Mandarin herself, said, “It’s a very, very beautiful, very, very complicated language, and if at some point she were to want to master the language, we’d certainly want to make that opportunity available for her.”

Perhaps most interesting of all are those families who have decided to send their children to Shu Ren despite having no obvious connection to Chinese themselves. Jason Mitchell’s children — his son Jaylen in the kindergarten and his daughter Jayla in pre-K — are two among a handful of African-American students who attend Shu Ren. According to Mitchell, sending one’s kids to a Mandarin immersion school is simply unheard of in the African-American community. Many of his friends and family members responded to his decision with a mixture of surprise and skepticism, wondering how, in fact, his kids would ever be able to learn anything in that kind of environment.

“I’m not the trend; I’m bucking the trend,” Mitchell said. “We’re maybe one out of a thousand families even thinking about doing this, if the percentage is even that high.”

Ultimately, for Mitchell the decision boiled down to his own interest in the Chinese language and culture — both he and his wife have started taking lessons, and he even has plans to maybe someday move to China to pursue business opportunities — as well as a desire to foster a global worldview in his children. “I’m a big believer that the world is larger than Oakland, or the East Bay, or California, or the United States,” Mitchell said. “They need to know that and be able to communicate to people.”

For the kids themselves, it hasn’t necessarily been an easy transition. Jaylen, in particular, went from being one of the brightest kids in an all African-American preschool to suddenly, this past September, being in an environment where not only did everyone look different, but where he also literally couldn’t understand anything that was being said. Mitchell recalls that there was a period of real struggle, when Jaylen would act out in class and come home saying that he felt “dumb.”

But after the family put in a lot of work with the teachers and the administrators at the school, Jaylen began to make progress. The turning point came a couple months into the school year, at a family gathering, where Jaylen counted to twenty in Mandarin in front of all his cousins and aunts and uncles.

“They were all ecstatic, like they couldn’t believe it,” Mitchell said. “And I think that gave him the confidence that [he] could do it. ‘I’ve got some kind of special gift,’ I think is what he said.”

Now, Jaylen is interested in learning Chinese — he wants to understand everything that’s being said in class. His teacher, Kai Laoshi, even cites Jaylen as one of her great success stories so far this year:

“Now he speaks. He can let me know he wants to drink water. He knows when I’m asking him to go get something, like ‘Can you go get the scissors?’ Or, ‘Can you go get the pencil for your teammates?’ But pretty much he already understands.”

It’s possible that Shu Ren would have never come to be had it not been for the pioneers who started the Chinese American International School in San Francisco in 1981, which is believed to be the first Mandarin immersion program anywhere in the country. And those who hope for Shu Ren’s long-term success maybe be comforted to look at this one shining example across the bay, which started with a handful of students in the basement of a French-American school and has now reached the point where, according to the Interim Head of School, Betty Shon, there are “waiting lists of 60 to 80 people for the pre-K spots, and people come to open house with the baby in utero.” In the one kindergarten classroom this reporter had the chance to observe, the fluency of the Chinese being spoken by the kids seemed nothing short of miraculous.

In its early days, though, the school’s founders faced a lot of the same challenges now facing Shu Ren — and even more so, since there was no frame of reference. The biggest question, said Shon, was, “Who on earth would send their kids to a school like this?”

Up until about ten years ago, her answer was simply, “Visionary parents.”

Part of the problem was a matter of marketing. There was a misconception, Shon said, that the Chinese American International School was intended to be a place to teach English to immigrant children, and so people were shocked to discover that there were actually non-Chinese students attending the school.

Similar misconceptions still persist, and can be particularly challenging for a school like Shu Ren that’s just getting off the ground. For example, Moore said that Shu Ren has actually had a difficult time retaining the families who are native Mandarin speakers, many of whom are more worried about their children falling behind in English than they are about the Chinese. This is the case even despite research indicating that students who are given a bilingual education will eventually match, and even surpass, the monolingual students in terms of English literacy skills.

Indeed, Lisa Jean Cohen, the English teacher at Shu Ren, has taught in public schools and is very familiar with various California state standards. Even with only one hour of English a day, when she tested the kindergarten students at the end of last year, she said they were all at or above grade level in terms of their English.

Even at the Chinese American International School, Shon concedes that part of the reason her school has a more conservative 50/50 immersion model in the lower grades is as a capitulation to parents who “needlessly” — in her view — worry about their children’s English.

Another challenge for both Moore and Shon is the difficulty of finding qualified Chinese teachers. It’s hard enough to find good teachers to begin with, but when the pool of people you have to pull from has to also be fluent in Mandarin, that makes things that much more daunting. Most of the teachers at both Shu Ren and the Chinese American International School were educated overseas, usually in China or Taiwan, and many had some kind of teaching experience there. What many of them do not have, however, are California teaching credentials. And while, as private schools, that’s something that Shu Ren and the Chinese American International School can work around, the lack of a systematic way to train Chinese teachers in this country is clearly a big issue.

The Chinese American International School has dealt with this by trying to develop as many of their teachers as they can in-house — by taking the people they hire, whether locally or overseas, and having them apprentice as a teacher’s aide before they can have a classroom of their own.

Stella Kwoh offers another solution. In addition to her work with STARTALK, Kwoh runs the oldest and probably the most in-depth certificate program for Chinese teachers in California, based at Cal State East Bay. Shu Ren kindergarten instructor Kai-Yao To actually completed this so-called “Certificate in Teaching Chinese as a Heritage or Other Language.” According to Kwoh, a separate CSU East Bay credential program also allows teachers to get their California teaching license if they need it. But the certificate program is more comprehensive in terms of dealing specifically with the Chinese, addressing such topics as linguistics, cross-cultural communication, and second-language acquisition, as well as specific teaching methodology.

Schools like Shu Ren are particularly close to Kwoh’s heart. As an expert in bilingual education, she has long believed that immersion is the most effective model for teaching Chinese. But part of why she puts so much emphasis on teacher training, along with the schools having a systematic and well thought out model, is because consequences of doing Mandarin immersion wrong could be disastrous.

“If you do it inadequately, you may lead the kids to be semi-lingual in both languages. It’s kind of dangerous if you don’t do it right,” she said. “But yes, immersion is the future trend.”

Shu Ren takes its name from a Chinese idiom that, loosely translated, says that it takes ten years to cultivate a tree (“shu”), but a hundred years to cultivate a person (“ren”). The name embodies the school’s approach to nurturing its students over the long haul and hints, too, at the need for patience on the part of the parents and other observers.

For her part, Moore is a realist — she’s not one of those school principals eager to point out how their school is so much better than everyone else’s. She doesn’t claim that the students at Shu Ren necessarily have better English than the kids going to a regular public school. She doesn’t claim that by the end of eighth grade, graduates of her school will miraculously be able to read and write in Chinese as well as eighth graders in China (a fifth-grade level is a more realistic goal, she says).

But what’s evident, from talking to Moore, is that she really does believe in this school — and that those “visionary parents” who have sent their kids here believe in it, too. And sitting in a pre-K classroom, watching the three- and four-year-olds singing their little holiday songs in Mandarin, squeaky voices and all, let’s just say it’s awfully hard to feel too cynical.


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