First Language A Contributor For Better English as Second Language?

By Andrew Pickholtz
Contributing Writer
University of San Francisco Synapse [Student Newspaper]

One of the first Mandarin immersion programs in the United States recently began its inaugural school year near the UCSF Mission Bay campus. The K-5 elementary school program offers students of all backgrounds the opportunity to become bilingual and bi-literate in Mandarin and English. Immersion programs are the fastest growing and most effective type of foreign language program available in U.S. schools, and Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world.

The new program at Starr King Elementary in Potrero Hill opened in September with two dozen kindergarten students in two classrooms. Each year, an additional grade will be added up, to the fifth grade. Eighty percent of class-time in the early years and 50% in the later years will be in Mandarin. Few of the students or their parents had any formal or sustained exposure to Chinese prior to the beginning of the school year.

The program is modeled after the pioneering French immersion programs developed in Canada in the 1960s. In immersion education, students don’t just “learn” a second language; they are taught and communicate on a daily basis “in” the second language. Young children have a unique ability to learn languages, so the acquisition of the second language appears almost effortless. Research has shown that the immersion experience actually advances English language development. In addition to the social and professional advantages of learning a second language, immersion students appear to benefit cognitively, likely because of the educational process itself. The students have to concentrate closely on their teachers, who use pantomime and other techniques to communicate in the first days and weeks of the program.

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After three-and-a-half months of school, the kindergarteners in the Starr King program are now clearly understanding their teachers, writing Chinese characters and occasionally speaking in Mandarin on their own. Of course, they’re also doing things that other kindergarteners do: learning to read, write and do arithmetic, making friends, singing songs in Mandarin and English, creating their own artwork and having fun. Meanwhile, the parents of students in the new program are collaborating on after-school enrichment activities, arranging transportation from all over the city and contributing to school promotion.

San Francisco has a strong track record in immersion education. The city’s two public Cantonese immersion programs are consistently among the best performing schools statewide, in math and English as well as Cantonese. San Francisco’s Spanish immersion schools are similarly well regarded, with some schools getting 10 Kindergarten applications for each available seat. In the private sector, the Chinese American International School (CAIS) in the Lower Haight was at the forefront of Chinese immersion education 25 years ago. Families now move to the San Francisco Bay Area specifically to have their children attend CAIS. Other private immersion schools in San Francisco include the French American International School and Lycee Francais.

Researchers in the recently created academic discipline of “educational neuroscience” have been studying how the brain adapts to bilingualism and immersion education. Studies at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire are using traditional techniques of cognitive psychology as well as newer technologies, such as Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (NIRS), to answer important questions relating to these new educational methods. NIRS can measure changes in the brain’s oxygen level density. The research is confirming that young children are easily capable of learning two languages “as if they had two monolingual brains in one.” Indeed, Professor Laura Ann Pettito of Dartmouth, who holds a joint appointment in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences and the Department of Education, has said researchers have “found no evidence that the human being is biologically programmed to be monolingual.” Based on this research, she has proposed “an ironic and daring idea … that, perhaps, the human species is biologically set to acquire multiple languages, and the contemporary pockets of civilization where one language is spoken are the aberrant deviation; in other words, perhaps our brains were neurologically set to be multilingual!”

The new Starr King program is focused on Mandarin, which is alternately considered a dialect of the Chinese language or one of the languages in the family of Chinese languages. As a separate language, it is the most widely spoken in the world, with almost 1 billion native speakers worldwide. Because of the growing financial, political and strategic importance of China, the U.S. government recently included Mandarin on a short-list of “critical-need” languages that it is encouraging more Americans to learn. But besides the practical value of Mandarin, it is a rich language spoke in countries with interesting histories and cultures. Just as children across America have learned French, Spanish and German for decades whether or not their families had a prior history with those languages, so too Mandarin is gaining in popularity among families of all backgrounds who want their children to have a broad educational background.

Applications for next years’ kindergarten class are due Friday, January 19, 2007. Children must be 5 years old by December 2, 2007 to be eligible for the 2007-08 school year. Tours can be arranged by calling the school at 415-695-5797. The school is located at 1215 Carolina Street, San Francisco.

David Hng

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