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How Immersion Works

By Elizabeth Weise

Language immersion schools, whether in Mandarin, Spanish, French or any other language, make use of children’s innate language-learning ability. Surround a child with people who only speak to each other and to the child in a certain language, and that child will acquire the language.

Immersion simply means being surrounded – immersed -- in a language so that you begin to pick it up. It's a skill innate to all humans and it's how babies learn the language of their parents, by hearing it spoken to and around them. Children are born primed to learned language in ways adults are not, which is very clear to anyone who’s tried to learn a language as an adult. A three-year-old can achieve a perfect accent that we can only envy.

To a baby, it doesn’t matter if mom is speaking English, Mandarin, Romanian or Korean sign language, it’s a language and they begin to babble in it between four and six months. It’s not about sounds, it’s about communication. Babies raised by parents who use sign language babble with their hands.

The progression is steady. Around a year or so babies start saying their first words, mama, dada, water. They use these to request, demand or exclaim. By a year and a half they may have ten to 15 words, by two years 40 to 50 – mostly just nouns with a few ‘me’s’ or ‘mine’ thrown in.

At around two years most toddlers have around 150 words and start using two or three word phrases like “give milk!” or “pick up!” By age three they know between 300 and 400 words. They still can’t say much, but their “receptive ability” is excellent. If you tell a two-and-a-half-year-old “Go to the table and get the red ball and bring it to Daddy,” they’ll be able to do it. They can’t say that sentence, but they understand it.

All without being ‘taught’ how to speak by a teacher or sitting down in a class and learning grammar. Humans learn language naturally, it’s how our brains are built. This is why many education writers don’t use the phrase ‘language learning’ but rather ‘language acquisition’ because children don’t learn languages, they acquire them.

Immersion is a brilliant way of taking advantage of that human ability. If you take a five-year-old and have her spend three, four or give hours a day with an adult who only speaks to her in Mandarin (or German or Latin or Swahili) and she will start speaking that language, without an accent, just as she learned to speak the language her parents spoke to her at home.

That, in a nutshell, is how Mandarin immersion in work in the San Francisco Unified School District. Beginning in Kindergarten, students spend about 80% of their school day with teachers who only speak to them in Mandarin. They are still young enough that their brains are receptive to new language and new sounds and they take them in just as they took in their home language.

Not effortlessly, mind you. But learning to speak their home language wasn’t effortless either. Anyone who’s spent time with a two-year-old throwing a tantrum because he can’t get across what he wants to with his limited language will realize this. Learning a language is tiring. It’s work for kids when they’re two and it’s work for kids when they’re in Kindergarten.

Immersion makes use of a child's innate abilities so that fluency comes more naturally to her than it would to an adult in a conventional language class.

Different groups have different needs

The immersion model used by SFUSD ideally brings together three groups of families into the immersion school community. Here’s what the District strives for:

  • One-third of incoming Kindergarteners have native Mandarin proficiency. They may be recent immigrants or come from a family where both parents are native Mandarin speakers.
  • One-third of incoming Kindergarteners have some Mandarin experience, perhaps from daycare or having one parent or grandparent who speaks to them in Mandarin.
  • One-third of incoming Kindergarteners come from homes where English (or English and another language such as Spanish) is spoken.

All three groups benefits from this arrangement.

  • Native Mandarin speakers learn English while continuing their language education in a public school context. At the same time, they provide a model for the non-Chinese speaking students. Many children in the United States grow up to a certain age with a heritage or home language, only to lose it or see it stagnate in elementary and middle schools when social pressures to communicate with their peers begin to dominate their interest in communicating with older family members. Immersion helps Mandarin-speaking students retain their home language.
  • Students with some Mandarin experience benefit from having more experienced speakers to communicate with, so that they build on what they already know.
  • Students who don’t speak Chinese at all get to learn Chinese. At the same time, they provide a native English speaking model for the non-English speaking students.

The net result is a mix of students from different language backgrounds who all help each other with both English and Mandarin.

Their families also come with different languages and different expectations, which is what most SFUSD school look like. In the case of a language-intensive environment like immersion, both students and parents get more opportunities to learn about other cultures and to prize both languages.

How does immersion work in an immersion classroom?`

To start, teachers use what’s called ‘comprehensible input.’ This is a teaching method in which students are surrounded with spoken language, almost all of which they can understand (so they’re not lost.)

When new words or grammatical structures are used, the students naturally figure them out from context, just as babies work out what all the grown ups around them are talking about merely by listening.

This is very different from how languages traditionally are taught, with vocabulary and rules memorized and then practiced until they become automatics.

It’s also a lot more fun. For example, this is what the first day of Kindergarten might look like:

  • Xiǎopéngyǒu, nǐmen hǎo?
    小朋友,你们 好吗?
    Hello children, how are you doing?
    [The teacher smiles, is very welcoming.]
  • Qǐng jìnlái
    Please come in.
    [The teacher uses her arms to usher the children into the classroom.]
  • Bǎ nǐ de shūbāo fàng zài zhèlǐ
    Put your backpacks here.
    [With a big smile she takes a backpack from one of the children to show everyone what it is.]
  • Shūbāo
    [She holds up the backpack and has them all say the word several times. A Mandarin-speaking child (or one who’s got older siblings in the school) says very proudly: “书包 means backpack. She means backpack. We put our backpacks over there!”
  • Qǐng nǐ zuò zài zhèlǐ
    Please sit down here.
    She sits down cross-legged on the rug at the front of the room and pats the spaces on either side of her.
  • Zhèlǐ!
    Here! Here! Here!
    [She says, waiting for the first child to sit down next to her. When one does, she beams.]
  • Hǎo!
    [She smiles broadly.]

Your child is just ten minutes into Mandarin immersion and has already learned to understand these phrases:

Come in

By the end of Kindergarten, students might be having stories read to them in class, a good 80% of which they’ll understand. Then the teacher might pass out pictures from the book and ask questions like these, in Mandarin: “Who has the picture with the boat?” Student raises hand and shows the pictures. “Right, John has the picture with the boat. Who has the picture with the trees? Right, Mary has the pictures with the trees.”

The students aren’t expected to speak a lot here, they’re just expected to understand and answer with language they know. So a discussion might look like this: “Who has red hair in our class?” the teacher asks. “Leo,” a couple of children might say. “Leo has red hair, it’s redder than Eleanor’s in 4th grade,” a child from a Mandarin-speaking family could answer. “You’re right, Leo has red hair,” the teacher says. To the Chinese-speaker she says “I think Leo’s hair is redder than Eleanor’s hair, too!”

As you can see, immersion schools don’t teach language the way most of us learned it in high school or college, with translations and grammar and vocabulary lists to memorize and verb conjugations to drill. Traditional language education depends on learning the logic of grammar whereas immersion is much more experiential.

So you won’t find your child coming home with pages of translations to do, or grammar exercises. Instead, they’ll use the language much the way a child learning language arts in China or Taiwan would. The homework they bring home in their backpack will look very similar in both English and Chinese.

Proficiency, Fluency and Literacy

Immersion is a good model for learning spoken language because it brings together children with different levels of proficiency and allows them to interact in class, on the playground and on play dates.

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has a proficiency scale for how well a person speaks a given language. The scale is:

  • Novice
  • Intermediate
  • Advanced
  • Superior
  • Distinguished

Novice speakers can’t say anything while Distinguished speakers are able to converse at a university level of discourse.

Mandarin immersion students at SFUSD are expected to reach the Intermediate stage by 3rd grade and the Advanced Low level by the end of 8th grade.

Compare that to an English-speaking student who’s had three years of high school Mandarin They are typically expected to reach only the Novice High stage. And most high school foreign language teacher are required to be at the Advanced Intermediate level.

Note that this is for the ability to speak and understand spoken Chinese. Literacy is another matter. Learning Chinese characters takes effort – and there are a lot of characters. Most estimates are that students in China and Taiwan can read between 3,000 to 5,000 characters by the end of 6th grade.

Students in SFUSD Mandarin immersion don’t learn that many and their reading ability generally lags about two to three years behind students in China and Taiwan. However this is common to all Mandarin immersion programs nationwide, and students. Programs nationally are working on intensifying immersion students’ ability to read but it is an on-going project.

Ssshhh! Don’t tell

The big ‘secret’ in immersion schools (at least to the Kindergarteners!) is that the Chinese teachers speak English. The Chinese teachers are very careful to never speak English in front of their students, so the students know they have to speak Chinese if their beloved but mono-lingual teacher is to understand them.

Of course the Chinese teachers actually do speak English, but they work really hard to keep that fact from the students, especially at the beginning of the year. So you might ask a question as a parent in front of some students and the teacher will answer you in Chinese, asking the children to translate. Or the teacher might wave for you to step away from the children so she can speak English freely.

This is important and it’s not just for show. If students realize their teachers speak English, they’ll feel free to use English words when they can’t think of the Mandarin ones. It trains them that they can ‘get away’ with not using Mandarin, and that’s a bad habit to get into. When they were babies learning English at home, they had to find a word their parents could understand, and they got rewarded by huge smiles, praise and the ability to communicate. Your child’s Chinese teacher is doing exactly the same thing that you did when you had a baby at home.

Some parents, watching their little five-year-olds go off to an immersion classroom, wonder if the teacher can’t just speak a little bit of English, to help them along when they get stuck. But there are really good reasons for Chinese speakers never to use English in the classroom. Not only does it teaches students that they can get by with English but it also sends a more subtle and possibly more dangerous message that English is the ‘real’ language of knowledge, understanding and authority. It also maintains the English dominance among the children. In the end, any English in the classroom helps to reinforce the status of English as the dominant language of society.

So do you part and figure out how to get along with your child’s teacher in Chinese using pantomime, or getting other students to translate (always a big ego-boost for an older student) or by finding a time when no kids are around.

Beside, it will give you a taste of what your child is dealing with every day and they can see you struggling and know that the whole family is in it together. 

Learning in another language?

Can children actually learn subject matter like math or history in one language and then access that information in another? It sound very academic until you sit down with your third grader and realize that he’s learning division in Mandarin and he can’t explain it to you in English. Does he really know how to do it?

The answer is yes. There’s ample evidence that what a child learns in one language is available to them in another. If they can add in Mandarin, they understand addition. If they learned that they have to raise their hand before they ask a question in class in Mandarin, they know it no matter what language their teacher is speaking. If they learn that mixing red and blue makes purple, they know the concept in both languages.

What is different, however, is that while they might get the concept, they don’t always have the vocabulary. Here’s an example: My 3rd grader was studying for the annual California state STAR tests that all public school students take starting in 2nd grade. The teachers had sent home a practice packet of math problems. The test, and the practice questions, were in English. So when we got to the question: “Which of these shapes is a pentagon?” with pictures of four different shapes below, my daughter was puzzled.

“That one’s a guǎngchǎng and that one’s a jǔxíng and that one’s a liùbiānxíng and that’s a wǔjiǎoxíng,” she said, totally correctly (A square, a rectangle, a hexagon and a pentagon.)

What she didn’t know what the English word for 五角形, or wǔjiǎoxíng. But when I asked her what wǔjiǎo meant, she correctly said “five sides” and for xíng she said “shape.”

Then I just had to tell her that “penta” meant five and she figured it out.

Math, Science and everything else, in Chinese

Here’s where immersion teaching becomes very skilled and complex. It is “the hardest kind of teaching there is,” says Myriam Met, a nationally-known expert on immersion who consults with SFUSD on our program. The students aren’t just learning Mandarin and they aren’t just learning math or science, they’re learning both at the same time. For parents who don’t speak Chinese it can sometimes look from the outside as if nothing is happening, when actually a great deal is being taught.

For example, in 3rd grade around Thanksgiving at Starr King, the Mandarin immersion students learned a song about a mother frog looking for her tadpole. All the parents dutifully came into class for a presentation and watched the kids squirm around on the floor like tadpoles while the girl playing the mother frog croaked and sang. Each in turn came up and described themselves and then the mother frog said “You’re not my tadpole.”

We left thinking “That was lovely,” but with no idea what we’d actually seen.

Later on I attended a workshop lead by master Chinese immersion teachers who demonstrated this lesson. Suddenly, I realized that the song was like an iceberg – 90% of what the students had learned was invisible to me. Here’s what was actually happening:

Two weeks before the performance, the 3rd grade teachers began teaching the students about the life cycle of frogs, a general part of the 3rd grade science curriculum taught in all SFUSD schools. They learned vocabulary such as amphibian, lifecycle, egg, tadpole, froglet and frog. They also learned environment words like swamp, pond, algae and habitat. They drew pictures of the lifecycle and watched videos of tadpoles becoming frogs.

Grammar was also being taught, invisibly. They were learning to use sequence in narration, words like first, then, after and finally.

So the lesson might sound something like this, only in Mandarin of course:

First, all frogs start as eggs. Then, these eggs become tadpoles. Next, the tadpoles grow two back legs. Later, they grow two front legs. The tail shrinks while the legs grow. When the tail is done shrinking, then they are young frogs. Finally, they grow more and become adult frogs. The life cycle of a frog takes approximately sixteen weeks.

Then the teacher read them the story about the mother frog searching for her tadpole. Now that they had the vocabulary, they could integrate all the science they had learned into a Mandarin language story. Next, she had them write a play based on the story. This allowed them to work on writing. She wrote the key words up on the board so they could refer to them, along with important phrases they might use. This is a technique in immersion education called ‘scaffolding,’ using phrases to help students build longer and more complicated sentences.

By the time the parents were sitting at the back of the room watching a play most of them couldn’t understand, the students had had two full weeks of science, Chinese vocabulary, Chinese writing practice and Chinese speaking practice. But all that was invisible to all the non-Mandarin speaking parents, who only understood the words on the program: “Mother Frog Searches for her Tadpole.”

Sheltered Subject Matter

The tadpoles are a good example of how most subjects are taught in today’s schools, in English and every other language. Lessons are integrated into the broader curriculum and made interesting and inviting, with lots of hands-on activities. There’s very little sitting at your desk and memorizing in today’s U.S. schools.

That said, immersion classes are taught somewhat differently in that teachers use what’s called ‘sheltered subject matter.’ This is where the program uses more carefully-chosen language to teach a given topic than a regular textbook might. For example, a 5th grade English language textbook on social studies and the arrival of Columbus might presume a certain level of vocabulary on the part of students. When you translate that textbook into Chinese, the vocabulary might be too advanced for students in immersion. For that reason, programs try to create ‘sheltered’ readings and worksheets in Chinese which are easier for students to understand while still covering all the necessary information.

The material not “Simple Math” or “Simple Science,” it’s Math and Science, just taught with a slightly more constrained vocabulary to make sure students are understanding the full lesson. Often, the material is taught in Mandarin, then students are also given reading in English to supplement and insure that they have the necessary vocabulary in English as well, then the class continues in Mandarin.