FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Q: Why begin learning Mandarin Chinese in kindergarten?
A: The earlier a child is introduced to a language, the greater the likelihood they will become truly proficient in it. Children’s brains are naturally programmed to learn any language they are sufficiently exposed to perfectly and without accent. This ability declines with age, disappearing by high school.
Q: Which kind of Chinese characters will the children learn in Mandarin Immersion programs learn?
A: There are two kinds of Chinese characters, Simplified and Traditional. China instituted simplified characters (简体字 jianti zi), mostly derived from commonly-used handwriting shortcuts, beginning in the 1950s. Most characters are the same, but there are some differences. China, Singapore and Malaysia all use simplified characters. Taiwan and almost all immigrant Chinese communities around the world still use traditional characters (繁体字 fanti zi).
Because simplified characters are used in China, we will teach them in the Mandarin Immersion programs. The vast majority of written materials in Chinese today use simplified characters.
Q: What are the goals of the Mandarin Immersion programs?
A: Students will be bilingual, biliterate and bicultural in both English and Mandarin Chinese. They will learn to read, write, speak and understand both languages.
Q: How fluent will they become?
A: Given the complexity of learning Mandarin, and the fact that students do not live in a predominantly Chinese-speaking world, children who do not speak Chinese at home will become fluent speakers of Mandarin but will not be at the same level as students of the same age in China. The target, based on 30 years experience in San Francisco is that by fifth grade, Mandarin immersion students will have gained Mandarin reading and writing proficiency equal to somewhere between a late third grade to mid fourth grade level in China. The School also expects Mandarin immersion students will be on target with fifth grade English reading and writing.
Q: Do students in Mandarin immersion learn the same things children in general education programs learn?
A: Actually, they do, they just learn them in Mandarin. The teachers will translate English materials and teach the units in Mandarin if similar materials are not found. For example, in second grade students learn about the Executive, Judicial and Legislative branches of government in social studies and study a unit on geology in science. In 4th grade they learn about the California Missions, all in Mandarin.
Q: But my child doesn’t speak Mandarin. How can he or she learn in Mandarin?
A: Your child’s homeroom teacher will speak only Mandarin to your child from the day he or she arrives in Transitional Kindergarten. Their English teacher, who they will have the class for part of the day, will speak English to them. While it is confusing for the students at first, they quickly grasp the routine. All the teachers are warm, loving and patient. They use songs, body language, exaggerated facial expressions, hands-on activities, intonation and drawing to help children understand what they’re saying. Instruction is carefully designed so students can understand what is being taught.
Q: My child already speaks Chinese – will he or she fall behind in English?
A: Generally speaking, no. More than likely, the child will have English-speaking friends and will engage those friends in English instead of Mandarin. Any shortfall should be limited due to influences outside the classroom. The school also pulls out students who need extra help to work with tutors. However, you should monitor your child’s English development and supplement it with English reading and language exercises as necessary. The school will have suggestions.
Q: Will a native Mandarin-speaking child be bored in a beginning Mandarin class?
A: Absolutely not! The program is designed to challenge your child’s ability to absorb and learn two languages. Remember, they’re not being TAUGHT Mandarin, they’re being taught IN Mandarin. Native speakers can show off their Mandarin skills and will be given the chance to act as leaders during Chinese time. While they may be verbally fluent, it is assumed that children do not enter kindergarten reading and writing Chinese, so the task of gaining literacy, combined with the other math and science curriculum covered in Mandarin, should keep them intrigued and advancing.
Q: How are the Mandarin Immersion programs structured?
A: The goal is to get students to a strong command of Mandarin by the end of 3rd grade, then introduce more subjects taught in English. This is based on the work of Dr. Stephen Krashen, an influential bilingual researcher and educator, whose research helps form the underpinning of most bilingual and immersion programs. One of Krashen’s principles is that it is important to solidify a student’s grasp of the target language (in this case Mandarin) before pushing on to more work in English. For more information about Krashen’s research, see http://www.languageimpact.com/articles/rw/krashenbk.htm.
However, please understand that the curriculum is a work-in-progress and as the years progress the teachers, curriculum specialists, parents and principals may make small changes to better serve the students. This is entirely consistent with the District’s General Education programs, which are also adjusted yearly to better serve students.
Q: What about homework?
A: The teachers know that most parents do not read and write both Mandarin and English fluently. Homework generally comes in a weekly packet with a cover page of instructions in English for parents or homework instructions are emailed to parents. Teachers also go over what is expected with students.
Towards the beginning of the year the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council (the parent organization that supports Mandarin schools, teachers, parents and students) will hold a “Chinese 101” workshop for parents to help them understand what their children are learning.
Later in the year, the MIPC holds a workshop on how to use a Chinese-English dictionary and which ones to buy. The Cheng & Tsui Chinese Character Dictionary: A guide to the 2,000 most frequently-used characters is the current favorite of families with students in the younger grades. (Though we have noticed that on-line dictionaries such as YellowBridge seem to be supplanting it of late).
Each school will have an active Mandarin Immersion parents e-mail list, so you can conveniently ask questions about specific homework assignments.
It is hoped that several parents will form a Club Gongke (Homework Club) after school so students can get homework support.
Please remember that while the school trys to have consistent policies, every teacher has his or her own way of assigning and passing out homework. Students get a weekly packet or daily homework or some combination thereof, depending on their teacher and the material being covered. Summer homework is also sent home to re-enforce skills during the three-month break.
Most importantly, experienced Mandarin immersion parents will tell you that the real hurdle is not being able to help your child with their Chinese or English homework, it is getting them to sit down and do any homework at all! And that is something parents in every language face.
Q: Is Mandarin immersion comparable to Spanish immersion?
A: Yes and no. In both, students learn a new language but there’s no getting around the fact that learning to write Chinese is a bigger task than learning to write Spanish, which is after all one of the world’s most rationally-spelled languages.
You and your family are making a commitment to a long-term project when you enroll in Mandarin immersion. It won’t engulf your life, but it will definitely take some thought and patience, and the benefits will be tangible in many areas.
Q: Isn’t Mandarin hard to learn?
A: For a child, it is no harder to learn to speak Mandarin than to learn to speak any other language. Our brains are built to learn languages at that age and we are good at it. One billion Chinese, about one out of every six people on the planet, manage to do it, and your child can too.
But yes, it is harder to learn to write Chinese. Research and years of experience by the State Department training diplomats indicates that it takes two to three times longer to master the Mandarin language, written and spoken, compared to languages with phonetic alphabets. As indicated above, students are not expected to be at a fifth grade level in Mandarin by the end of fifth grade. Rather, your child should be reading and writing comparable to late third grade or early fourth grade. (Please note, this applies to Mandarin only. Your child will be reading and writing English at a fifth grade level!)
By the end of fifth grade, students will have learned to read and write about 500 characters, but will be able to read and recognize a total of between 800 to 1,200, depending on the student’s level. 1,500 to 2,000 characters are considered necessary to read a newspaper. To be a fully literate adult, around 5,000 are considered necessary, and for higher-level studies it can go as high as 6,000. Our school provides a great foundation to continue studies, if desired.
Q: How much more work is Mandarin immersion than General Education?
A: We’re going to be honest with you – it is more work for you as a parent. Mandarin immersion takes effort. You could drop your child in a General Education program in Kindergarten and pick them up in 5th grade and they’d do okay. Of course, they’ll do better if you put time in doing homework with them and taking an interest in their school work, but in general they would do fine.
That’s not the case in Mandarin. Any child living in a home where Chinese is not spoken and read is going to have to work harder to get the most out of the program. You can drop your kid off in Kindergarten and come back in 5th grade and they’ll know a lot of Mandarin, but if you really want them to get the full benefit from this amazing opportunity being offered by Irvine International Academy, you’re going to have to work at it.
What do we mean by that? Basically two things:
- you have to pay more attention to homework and provide an English explanation.
- you have to work a lot harder at getting Mandarin in your child’s life.
Homework is just sitting down at the dining room table and being a presence to make sure they get their homework done. However, because they will have learned subjects like math, science and social studies in Mandarin, it can sometimes be necessary for parents to go over the material in English at home, to make sure their children grasp it fully. Note that this isn’t all that different from what a lot of parents with children in General Education do, but we have got to be more on top of it because it is possible our children may not be fully understanding some concepts and terms simply because the Mandarin is getting in the way.
None of this is all that hard. Grade-school math is within the grasp of all parents and you’ll easily be able to keep up. But it means having the will, the determination and the time to spend with your children and make sure that they’re getting everything being presented in class.
One San Francisco parent’s experience: “My 3rd grader knew all her shapes, but in Chinese. I found this out when I pointed at a pentagon and asked her what it was and she didn’t know. She knew the word in Mandarin, but I had to teach her the words in English. We ended up going through the shapes so that she knew all of them in both languages. It all made a lot more sense to her when I said that ‘penta’ meant ‘five’ in Greek and she told me that the word in Mandarin was the same, ‘five sides.’”
Getting Mandarin in your child’s life is also work. Non-Chinese speaking families have to make a concerted effort to find their children Mandarin videos, books and games. Remember that while your child may spend four hours a day at school in Mandarin, the rest of the time they’re immersed in English. Children in China spend six hours a day in Chinese and then another 10 in Chinese. Non-Chinese-speaking children here do not and we have to make up some of that difference or Mandarin starts to be something like Latin, a weird artifact language we’re making them learn that isn’t something used in the real world.
The MIPC (Mandarin Immersion Parents Council) does a lot of work finding videos, books and events that help bring more Mandarin into our children’ lives. It can mean watching Taiwanese variety shows on TV on Saturday night, tuning in to the Mandarin pop music, or wandering around on the Chinese version of YouTube to find Mandarin cartoons, printing out book lists for the librarian at your public library and watching Mandarin-dubbed Star Wars videos. As children get older and begin to read in Chinese, it means telling them they have to read 15 minutes a day in Mandarin before they can go back to Harry Potter. Again, none of it is impossible, but it does require a commitment on the part of families.
Q: Can I really help my children with their Chinese homework if I do not speak Chinese?
A: Yes. As we said above, the teachers know many parents do not speak or read Chinese, so the instructions come home in both languages. In addition, most of it is pretty straightforward. With online dictionaries (check out YellowBridge.com for example) even non-Chinese speakers can look up words and hear them pronounced easily. And there are multiple email lists for parents (for your child’s class, for the school and for the Mandarin program as a whole) where you can go for quick help when faced with something totally confusing – whether it is in English, Chinese, math or the words to that crazy song about the Sun being a mass of incandescent gas!
Q: Can my child truly become fluent in a language we do not speak at home?
A: Yes. Children the world-over do it routinely. It generally takes three to five years to develop written and oral proficiency in the new language. Typically children soak up the language in the first two years. You’ll notice that they will understand more than they speak. By the second grade, teachers will encourage students to speak more in the target language until it becomes more natural.
That said, we have noticed that the non-Mandarin speakers in Mandarin immersion understand spoken Mandarin very well but are not as comfortable at actually speaking it as one might hope. Experience show this is more in the upper grades, in students who came in while the program was still under construction. But it is of concern and something parents and teachers will pay attention to.
Q: My child claims she understands what the teacher is saying, but she cannot explain it to me. Does she really know what is going on?
A: Yes. Remember, receptive and active language (understanding versus being able to translate) are two very different skills. Think of your child when she was a year-and-a-half-old. You could tell her to go to her room and get a red stuffed animal and bring it back to you, and she could do everything you asked, even though she couldn’t say more than a few words. The beginning of immersion is like that. They understand what they’re being told to do (watch it in action in the classroom) but they cannot translate it into English.
Q: The Mandarin Immersion programs are still being created. Where does their curriculum come from?
A: The School and the teachers are working together to create a unified curriculum that seamlessly moves from Transitional Kindergarten to fifth grade and beyond. They will be seeking help from already-existing Chinese programs, Additionally, Dr. Scott has met with several Chinese schools who want to partner and exchange resources with American schools.
The School and the teachers will create a Chinese curriculum committee which selects curriculum and creates standards and benchmarks for the Mandarin Program.
The Mandarin program uses a mixture of two textbook series, teacher-created worksheets and other materials. Some of the possible series are:
My First Chinese Readers (from Better Chinese)
This is used for social language and grammar.
ShuāngShuāng, (Bridging East-West through culture and language) this is used for grammar and academic language and contains many well-known Chinese rhymes, tongue twisters, fables and poetry.
In addition, teachers use a variety of worksheets that they themselves create, or worksheets used in other immersion programs which they translate into Mandarin and simplified characters. The curriculum used in Mandarin immersion is theme-based, so students are working with similar sets of vocabulary and can build upon it across both their textbooks and their worksheets.
Q: How do Mandarin Immersion students do on the California state-wide education tests, California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) System tests?
A: California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) System tests California students on English-language arts, math, science, and social science. The test is given in English.
Q: I hear it is hard to get Mandarin teachers. How can we be assured we will have enough teachers to fill all the slots?
A: It is true that credentialed Mandarin teachers are in short supply nationwide. But thankfully, Dr. Scott has recruited BCLAD, Mandarin-speaking teachers already working in Southern California. One advantage our programs have is that California Baptist University has a significant Mandarin-speaking student population. Our teachers will have a community of other Mandarin-speakers as well as a strong and committed group of Mandarin speakers for support, personal or professional. Dr. Scott is known nationwide in China and has many contacts at schools in China having spoken at over 70 institutions. A challenge the school will face is that many excellent applicants are credentialed for China and SBCUSD will have to arrange Primary Credentials and visas to work in the United States.
We intend to have an active hiring committee made up of our principals, teachers, and parents who work hard to find excellent teachers to teach in our growing programs.
Q: Will there be exchanges or class trips to China?
A: A Cultural Exchange parent committee will begin work on creating Sister Schools in China. One topic of discussion is a possible exchange and trip to China when we have seventh graders. That is likely to be a self-funded trip separate from the school, but there will be a committee formed to help make it happen.
Q: My child does not speak English; how will immersion affect how my child learns it?
A: All students in Mandarin immersion get one period of English Language Arts per day. In addition, English Learners get English Language Development instruction specifically designed for English Learners. Your child’s teachers will be carefully monitoring how well they are learning English.
Many parents are fearful that immersion may delay their child’s learning to speak, read and write in English. It is true that some students go through an initial lag. However research shows that the immersion experience actually advances English language development long-term. The amount of instruction in English increases every year until half of the day is spent in English. After three to four years, immersion students typically do as well as or better than their peers in general education. It is important that parents understand that an initial lag is to be expected and may be temporary. Again, your child’s teacher will carefully monitor your child’s progress and will alert you if she or he has concerns.
Q: We speak English at home, but will my child learn to read and write it?
A: Yes, but somewhat more slowly than his or her peers at a non-immersion program. Reading, word knowledge and spelling may lag a year or so behind when students first enter school, but by fifth grade immersion students catch up and often exceed non-immersion students.
Q: I’m worried that my child will fall behind in English.
A: Any language immersion program, but Mandarin especially, is a journey that needs to last for between seven and nine years for students to get all the possible benefit from the program. All the research shows that immersion is a long-term process. Students are somewhat behind in English at the beginning, but by 5th and 6th grade may not only catch up but often surpass their English-only peers.
Some Citations: http://crede.berkeley.edu/research/llaa/1.1_final.html
Parents should realize that they’re making a long-term commitment to immersion. It is not something that you start with to check out and then expect that you can leave in 3rd grade and mistakenly think your child will have 3rd grade competency in both English and Mandarin.
Q: What is “First Grade Freak-Out” and what is its cure?
A: It is a malady common to some immersion parents, especially in Chinese immersion. Somewhere about halfway through first grade (though it can hit as early as Kindergarten or as late as second grade), they compare what their child is doing in English with what children they known in general education programs are doing and are filled with dread that their child is “behind.”
They immediately begin to worry that their child will never catch up, never master written English, probably never graduate from high school, certainly never graduate from college and end up unemployable and homeless. Of course, none of that is true, but what parent doesn’t worry about their child’s future?
The cure for this extremely common condition is time and information. So, while yes, it is true that a first grader in Mandarin immersion may not be at the same level in English as their general education peers, by 5th grade they will be at or above that level and they’ll read, write and speak Mandarin. So, the cure to the ‘first grade freak-out’ is to stay calm and remember that you’ve made a long-term commitment to your child’s future by enrolling him or her into immersion. For particularly difficult cases, we suggest speaking with your child’s teacher and principal. And spend as much time as you can in his or her classroom, even become a classroom helper, so you see exactly how much Chinese they understand (it can be eye-opening) and then spend some time on the playground, where you’ll quickly realize that their command of English is flawless.
For those with more questions, we suggest you read Struggling Learners and Language Immersion Education: Research-based, Practitioner-informed Responses to Educators’ Top Questions, which is available from the University of Minnesota’s Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition. Ordering information is available from http://www.carla.umn.edu/immersion/learners.html.
Q: How can I get my child ready for Kindergarten?
A: Mandarin Immersion parents can begin organizing play dates for incoming TKs, Kindergarteners, and First graders as soon as the School’s admission letters go out. They continue throughout the summer, so incoming students have a chance to get to know their classmates-to-be, which makes the transition to primary school easier.
Q: What can I expect when school starts?
A: When TK, Kindergarten, and First grades first begins, your child may be confused or frustrated. He or she may be tired at the end of the day (though that’s not really an immersion thing, it is common to most young students.)
Still, learning a new language is a challenge. Reassure your child and express confidence in his or her abilities. This transition phase is common among first-time immersion learners and generally lasts from two weeks to two months. Children are generally very resilient and will soon feel comfortable in the new language.
Q: Will there be a quota for entry?
A: There is no quota. About 50 Mandarin immersion TK and kindergarten seats open up every fall, which means there’s a good chance your child will get in, but it could be in the second round. Enrollment is done directly to the charter school – NOT Irvine Unified School District. Students from other districts may also apply.
Q: What about coming in first grade?
A: If there are spaces available (generally there are one or two each year at each school) children may enter Mandarin immersion programs without any prior Mandarin experience in first grade. From second grade on they must take a test to show that their Mandarin is sufficient for them to keep up. That could include children educated in China or who have attended other Chinese schools in the United States.
While any child is welcome to enter the program at first grade, it is something of a steep learning curve. Past experience has shown that it is helpful if they have had some exposure to Mandarin before hand, although of course children have done just fine with none. There are several summer Mandarin programs available that can at least help your child become somewhat comfortable with a Mandarin environment if you’re planning on applying for first grade. However, the first year will have everyone starting at the beginning so first, second, third, and fourth are encouraged to apply.
Q: Will my child interact with children in the other strands at the schools?
A: Yes. While certain things are specific to Mandarin Immersion, we are all a part of the greater school community. Your child will be in classes with students from the entire school, not just from the Mandarin strand. For example, students in all strands participate in library and physical education together.
Q: How can families help their children learn Mandarin?
A: First, learn about how immersion programs work so that you understand what and how your child is learning and most importantly when they’ll be learning certain things. Attend school orientation workshops and read the notes that come home in your child’s homework. If you have questions or do not quite know what is happening in the classroom (your child may not always be able to explain it clearly) ask the teacher — they’re your best resource.
Q: It doesn’t seem like my child is really learning that much, what is going on in the classroom?
A: One of the things parents in Immersion programs have to remember is that they may not always be aware of what is going on in the classroom because it is happening in a language they do not speak, whether that language is English or Mandarin. That can make a big piece of the curriculum ‘invisible’ to families. Ask your child about what they did during the day (though remember that five-, six- and seven- year-olds often are not all the best reporters). Then ask what language they learned it in, and of course the teachers are always happy to discuss what they’re teaching. Teachers also post the week’s learning objectives in their classrooms and/or online.
To get a taste of what your child’s day is like, become a classroom helper. Many teachers welcome help in their classrooms although not within the first two weeks of school (to allow time for teacher-student bonding). You do not even need to speak Mandarin.
Q: How can I help my child learn to write characters properly?
A: If you can write Chinese, supervising your child to make sure they write their characters using the correct stroke order is very important.
If you do not write Chinese, attend the beginning-of-the-year workshop where teachers will give a brief overview of how to use a Chinese dictionary and how to write characters. Your child’s homework will show the stroke order (in which order the lines of the character are written) and make sure they follow that. Ask other parents who write Chinese or the teacher or even older students for help!
Q: How else can I help?
A: Make homework a part of daily life. In the Mandarin Immersion program, students get a weekly packet of homework. Most families have learned the hard way that doing a little bit of homework every day makes for fewer tears and tantrums than doing it all in one night!
Teachers estimate that homework times should be around:
K- 15 min homework daily
1st- 25 min homework daily
2nd-30 min homework daily
But please note that every child is different and that these times can vary.
The most important thing to remember is that a little time spent reinforcing what your child learns in school every day at home is what is important. Help your child by carving out time for them to focus on homework every day, and be available to help and answer questions.
If your child completes his or her homework in an after-school program, it is still important to make sure it is done completely and correctly.
Some things require sitting down at a table to write. But for the weekly quizzes in English and Chinese you can simply carry flash cards in your pocket and ask a question or two when you’re waiting in line at the supermarket or for the bus. Make learning a part of family life, not just something that ends at 2:40. But also do not let it overwhelm you or your child.
Q: What do teachers say works best?
A: When parents assist with homework (read the directions).
When parents provide additional support.
When parents show interest about their child’s learning.
Q: What is the most important thing parents can do to help their children learn?
A: Read to your child, in English and Chinese, every day. It is the single best thing you can do to help them learn. The website will have a list of many helpful resources for Chinese and English reading materials, including books that come on CD that you child can listen to while they turn the pages of the book. More suggestions will be posted online.