The American grass-roots school movement immersing children in Mandarin

School districts, parents, and administrators are driving the growth in programmes that teach US primary school pupils to read, write and exercise in another language despite broader anti-China sentiment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 September, 2018, 11:03pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2018, 9:26am

Jiahang Li was not prepared for what awaited him at an American kindergarten in Salt Lake City, Utah in 2012.

The Peking University graduate was doing a doctorate in education at the University of Maryland and visiting the public school to see the state’s pioneering Chinese-English dual language immersion programme in action.

Li was surprised when then the children greeted him in perfectly accented Mandarin.

“It was a totally eye-opening experience to see these five and six-year-olds have a conversation with an adult in a different language that is so different from their native one,” said Li, who is now associate director of the Confucius Institute at Michigan State University.

Li was witnessing the results of a grass-roots trend in American primary education: language immersion programmes in which children spend at least half of each school day taking their regular classes, like maths, science or physical education, entirely in Mandarin.

Despite anti-China rhetoric and wariness, these immersion programmes have flourished in recent years, expanding from a handful of schools in the 1990s to some 300 programmes running across the nation this year. The numbers continue to climb steadily, driven not by federal funding but by parents and administrators pushing for Mandarin immersion in their public schools.

“There is a growing realisation that the US is not the centre of the universe,” said Elizabeth Weise, author of A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion. “Parents want their children to be able to move freely in the world and that means knowing multiple languages.”


The growth of immersion programmes has coincided with a surge in American interest in learning Mandarin.

In 2000, Mandarin barely registered on a foreign language enrolment survey conducted by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages but today roughly a quarter of a million US primary and secondary students study the language in schools and extracurricular programmes.

Likewise, Mandarin immersion programmes in primary and secondary schools have expanded rapidly in recent years, to make them now the third-biggest of their kind nationwide, after Spanish and French, according to the Centre for Applied Linguistics. According to the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council, programmes in 31 states are teaching young learners in Mandarin.

Why more Chinese Indonesians are learning Mandarin, and nurturing their children’s sense of belonging to Chinese culture

Much of the momentum for the programmes came from parents, administrators, and local lawmakers across the country, educators said. 

“When you are a parent, the bottom line is that you want to get your child prepared, and regardless of your political views, you see the writing on the wall that the world is becoming more interconnected, and it’s important that your child learn another language,” said Eric Peterson, principal of the West County Mandarin School in northern California, which opened last year.

That was what made Kelly Miller decide to enrol her daughter in a dual language immersion kindergarten opening in their Blue Valley school district outside Kansas City.

“We thought, ‘you know what – why wouldn’t we take advantage of this programme and this opportunity?’” Miller said. “We know that Mandarin is spoken by 20 per cent of the planet, and that it’s been deemed a critical-needs language in the US because of all the interaction that’s been happening between Asia and the US and the opportunity for future growth there.”

She said she relied on Google Translate to help with her daughter’s homework but the overall choice had already been a broadening experience, prompting the family to connect with Chinese communities in their area.


Bilingual classrooms were originally a way for students who spoke different languages at home to help each other learn in the classroom. The style of teaching spread after a US Supreme Court decision in a case in 1974 brought by Kinney Kimmon Lau, a pupil in San Francisco who had immigrated from Hong Kong. The court ruled that all American public school students, including San Francisco’s nearly 3,000 Chinese speaking students, should have access to adequate English-language instruction.

The decision paved the way for supplemental language classes for pupils who did not speak English. It also opened the door to dual language immersion programmes.

Today the programmes have expanded in scope and focus, with most schools catering to students who have no background in the immersion language or culture.

“We have had students that are native French speakers, native Cantonese speakers and native Spanish speakers, along with Mandarin speakers, all in the Mandarin programme,” said Meran Rogers, who founded Ohio’s first Mandarin language immersion programme, Global Ambassadors Language Academy in Cleveland.

Rogers, whose school is a mix of lower income and middle-class pupils, said immersion programmes would only continue to prosper throughout the US.

“It’s not this fad – where immersion programmes are just popping up, but won’t sustain,” she said. “I think it’s important to show parents that across the world this is normal, and that across our country it continues to grow.”


Like many others, Rogers’ academy is a charter school, a publicly funded independent school supported by philanthropic donations and her own persistence.

Federal funding that helped pay for the first wave of dual language immersion programmes was cut at the end of 2011, leaving little federal support for primary and secondary foreign language education.

Instead, programmes and schools like Global Ambassadors are launched on the backs of individual administrators, groups of parents pushing for this opportunity for their children, and districts looking for ways to draw or keep families in their school systems.

With more speakers of Mandarin than Cantonese in Canada now, what future for the southern Chinese dialect there?

States across the country are picking up where the federal government has left off, offering grants and funding to encourage immersion, according to Shuhan Wang, who oversees the Asia Society’s Chinese Early Language and Immersion Network.

“Amazingly there is not really federal funding from the Department of Education,” she said, referring to pre-university Chinese language immersion. “Most of this growth is made possible by state efforts and local school districts’ effort.”

After observing the growth of Chinese language programmes over several decades, Wang said the movement was pervading the country and she was optimistic about the future.

“We have always as a country been using language as a way to show our national identity, and use it as a badge for national identity, so inevitably foreign language has always been tied to the wanes and wax of public attitudes,” she said.

“There are so many things happening in world language – and they’re happening outside major metropolitan and coastal areas. It’s happening on a local level and through the work of individuals.”

Mandarin may be the ‘common language’, but here’s why Cantonese reigns supreme

Jiahang Li, who has also seen dual language immersion take off since his encounter in the Utah classroom, agreed, saying the interest at local levels would eventually lead to more state and federal support.

“The need is generated from the local community, parents and students, they want to have foreign language programmes for their kids to be prepared for the future,” he said. “I do believe there will be support to facilitate this growth and satisfy this need for the local communities.”