Starting this fall, many kindergartners at Maryknoll School will learn their ABCs in English and their 1-2-3s in Chinese with the launch of the first Mandarin immersion program during the school day in Hawaii.
The children will spend half their day studying in Mandarin Chinese and half in English, rotating between two teachers who work as a team. The curriculum will be the same as regular kindergarten, but math, science and art will be taught in Chinese while phonics, reading, social studies and religion will be taught in English.
“Creating an immersive environment in the world’s most widely spoken first language opens up tremendous opportunities for our students’ educational and career aspirations,” Maryknoll President Perry Martin said. “Immersion schools are a growing thing on the mainland. Most of the time it’s hard to get into one of these schools. There is pent-up interest.”
Immersion students not only learn another language and culture; research shows that they also gain cognitive flexibility and focus, and their native language remains just as strong, if not stronger, he said. “The workout in their young brains is phenomenal,” Martin said.
Chinese immersion programs in U.S. schools have mushroomed in the last decade, popping up in unexpected places, such as public schools in Utah and Michigan. The Mandarin Immersion Parents Council lists more than 240 public and private immersion schools on its website.
Despite Hawaii’s Pacific location, Chinese immersion in the islands so far has been limited to preschool, after-school or Saturday programs.
Maryknoll’s initiative builds on the school’s commitment to giving its students a leg up in a dynamic world, according to its president. Eight years ago the school began requiring Chinese as a foreign language for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, for about two hours a week.
With immersion, kindergartners will spend at least 15 hours a week studying in Mandarin.
Myriam Met, a nationally known language immersion consultant, will give a free public talk on Chinese immersion for early learners at Maryknoll’s grade school campus at 5:30 p.m. June 7.
“I often say to parents there is no gift that they
can give their child that is longer-lasting and more critical than starting a new language at a very young age and continuing it through their schooling,” Met said in a phone interview from her home in Edgewater, Md.
“We have pretty good evidence now that children who participate in these programs not only learn another language, they actually do exceedingly well academically in English,” she said. “So in essence they are getting two for the price of one.”
The language is a natural fit and a strategic move for Maryknoll, the largest Catholic school in the state, with more than 1,200 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. Nearly two-thirds of Maryknoll students have some Chinese ancestry, but they don’t speak the language because they are mostly second- and third-generation local residents, Martin said.
Maryknoll will offer the Mandarin immersion program in two of its three kindergarten classrooms. The classes will have a teacher-student ratio of 1-to-15, and each class will also have a teaching assistant.
Jill Takasaki Canfield, director of international programs at Maryknoll, said the first concern parents have about immersion is whether their children’s English acquisition will suffer.
“It’s counterintuitive, but they achieve as much and perform just as well, if not better, on standard measures of reading and math, even tests in English,” she said. “Because you are learning how to decode two languages, you are developing and building your knowledge and use of both languages. There isn’t that negative effect that parents may be worried about.”
The Confucius Institute Hawaii will provide teaching assistants in the classroom and will also translate materials for kindergarten. The University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Center for Chinese Studies and Chinese Language Flagship Program are also helping develop curriculum and activities.
Chris Loomis, who has sons currently in kindergarten and first grade at Maryknoll, wishes they could try the immersion program. Maryknoll’s program will start with kindergartners this fall and then move up one grade each year.
“They love their Mandarin class,” said Loomis, who is vice principal of the grade school. “They love their teacher. They say things like they wished that they had Mandarin every day. When they go to the grocery store, they are able to name the fruits as they put them in the grocery cart. They are able to do basic conversations. They practice in the car.”
The admission process for the Mandarin immersion program is the same as for general admission to kindergarten, and there is no additional tuition.
“It’s exciting to see how much interest there is these days,” said Met, who was involved in the first Mandarin immersion program in a public kindergarten in Montgomery County, Md., in 1996.
“You could count on the fingers of one hand the number of programs in the U.S., and now we can’t even keep up with the number,” she said. “Every time we think we know how many there are, a new one has opened. It’s wonderful.”
She said some of it is propelled by the growing importance of China on the world stage, with opportunities dealing with trade, geopolitics, environment, health and natural disasters.
“There are lots of opportunities for collaboration on issues of mutual interest,” she said. “To do that effectively, people have to be able to communicate.”