Preparing for Mandarin Immersion Programs

With globalization’s impact no longer deniable, more and more public (and private) schools around the U.S. are offering dual language programs starting from elementary school. Mandarin Immersion Parents Council estimate nearly 280 Mandarin programs exist in 2019. States with the most dual language programs include Utah, followed by Minnesota, Hawaii, Louisiana, and California.

This article aims to provide a general background to the different types of Mandarin immersion programs for families thinking about these programs and the type of preparation families should do to help their child(ren) succeed in the program.

What types of dual language programs are available?

While some schools offer full immersion programs, many more offer FLES (or FLEX) programs. Immersion programs are designed so at least 50% of instruction is in Mandarin and the remaining time in English. FLES/FLEX programs, on the other hand, are foreign language classes taught at least 75 minutes per week with the goals of learning basic phrases and gaining an appreciation of the Chinese culture rather than fluency. While many of these FLES/FLEX programs are well designed and effective, we will not focus on them in this article.

Mandarin immersion programs (like all dual language programs) are designed either as two-way immersion (TWI) or one-way immersion (OWI) programs. TWI programs have both native English speakers and native Mandarin speakers enrolled, ideally at a 50/50 ratio, to encourage a natural usage of both languages among the students. For example, math may be taught in Mandarin and history may be taught in English or vice versa while Language Arts is taught in both languages.

Two-way immersion programs strive to promote bilingualism and biliteracy, grade-level academic achievement, and positive cross-cultural attitudes and behaviors in all students.

~LILSCHOLARS from Social Moms

In contrast, OWI assumes that most of the students are native English speakers with little knowledge of the target language and is usually used in states/cities with a smaller Chinese population. Unsurprisingly, the curriculum designs for OWI usually move slower, especially in the beginning.

Some immersion programs are designed to be 50/50, a model where English and Mandarin are each used for 50% of instruction at all grade levels. Other programs utilize a 90/10 or 80/20 model where students are instructed mostly in Mandarin at first, with English instruction gradually increasing each year until the program reaches a 50/50 ratio or even higher.

Is Mandarin immersion right for your child/family?

Exposing your child to a new language and culture sounds great… but it doesn’t come without sacrifices and bumps along the road. Take some time to think through these questions before you take the deep dive.

  1. Can your family stay in the same school/program for 4-6 years?
  2. Can you commit to staying involved in your child’s education, possibly even learning Mandarin alongside with them?
  3. Does your child have special needs that can be met by the school/program?

Immersion programs are designed with the expectation that pupils begin in kindergarten/1st grade and continue on to 5th grade, sometimes beyond, to fully gain the benefits of the program. If your family is likely to move in a few years, immersion may not be the best choice unless you have a “transition” or “continuation” plan in place.

Mandarin is difficult. At some point, your child will struggle. Even native speakers struggle. Add to it the facts that a young child may not appreciate the purpose of learning a language she cannot readily use outside of the classroom and the pull of the English language from the great environment and her non-immersion peers, your commitment to the language is crucial to her success. (One best way to show your support is to learn the language with your child, thus fostering a positive learning environment and appreciation of the culture at home!)

Mandarin immersion teachers are hard to find. Even more difficult is finding Mandarin teachers with the proper special needs training and experience. Hence, immersion programs may not be the best choice if your child has unique needs. Check out this article for more information.

Preparation for success in an immersion program

Once you are committed (and enrolled) in a Mandarin immersion program, what can you do to make sure your child thrives in the program? Here are some tips to get you started.

  1. Create a positive learning environment at home. This means lots of encouragement and praise.
  2. Find opportunities for your child to apply their learnings. (No, this does not mean asking them to translate for you before they have a certain confidence level in the language. The better options would be playdates with Chinese speakers, trips to China/Taiwan, teaching simple Chinese to younger siblings, playing a game of who-recognize-the-character, etc.)
  3. Communicate regularly with the school teacher/administrator and volunteer your time.
  4. (If you don’t speak Mandarin,) show your amazement at how quickly they learn and how much you admire them for learning such a difficult language. Even better, learn the language with your child. (Each Little Chinese Readers premium account comes with a primary parent/teacher account and five student accounts so you can learn together and even engage in a bit of positive competition).
  5. (If you do speak Mandarin,) emphasize your understanding of how difficult this process is but how rewarding it can be because reasons that are cool and appealing to your child and not necessarily something practical like better jobs. Some reasons that motivate my kids include learning the Chinese names of the Pokemon characters, playing with their cousins from Taiwan, and having a “secret language” between the siblings.
  6. Build a home library of Chinese books. The easiest way is to print out the Little Chinese Reader stories so they are readily accessible by your child. Watch the video here on to compile the printouts.
  7. Relax. Don’t stress your child out. Don’t expect miracles. Whether it’s his Mandarin (or later when you start to worry whether his English ability is on par with his peers… and yes, you will worry), remember that language acquisition takes time.

For more information, read about a family’s first year of experience in a Mandarin immersion school or check out Elizabeth Weise’s fantastic book “A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion.”

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