Growing up in a Pennsylvania public school, I had very clearly defined foreign language options; classes wouldn’t start until 7th grade, and I would have only three choices: Spanish, French and German. I took Spanish for the simple reason that I liked Menudo.
But fast forward 25 years to today and the options are much more manifold and diverse. Kids in America are learning languages at much earlier ages, and are exposed to more dialects than ever before in human history.
Yet I was still surprised, four years ago, upon moving back to the Bay Area, at the popularity of what’s widely called Chinese Immersion. I heard about it so much at the playground I decided to do my own research and here’s what I know.
Mandarin is the primary language of 900 million people and the second language of an additional 180 million, for a total of more than 1 billion speakers around the world. That means 1 out of every 7 people on earth speaks the language. It is the national language of China, Taiwan, and an official language of Singapore. No less authority than the Pentagon considers it an important “world language,” funding Chinese language programs at schools around the US with the goal of increasing the number of Americans who can speak Chinese. And of course China is a booming country with cultural, financial and social roots and branches around the world.
Learning Chinese goes a long way to helping children become world citizens. Spanish, French and German are of course the languages spoken by proud folks from historic cultures, but we Americans have a long history with our European forefathers. Asia — especially China — remains much more outside our daily experience and customs. Learning completely new linguistic structures, characters and customs can really help young students gain an appreciation for the diversity of the world.
Sometimes it actually can make you smarter in other ways! This is something I picked up in own study Chinese Immersion, and it makes sense in the context of the stereotype purporting that Asians are better at math than we are. Their number system is much more logical! For example instead of making up random words like “twelve,” the Chinese name for 12 is the just the equivalent of “one two.” Similarly, 40 is called “forty” but just the translation of “four zero.” This helps kids with math. Take for example 17 minus 12. Instead of first having to gather up the arbitrary notions of “seventeen” and “twelve” and then subtracting one from the other, students can incorporate the much easier system of “one seven” minus “one two,” which more rationally leads to the number 5. This systemic shortcuts help students of math at all levels.
Jobs jobs jobs. It’s never too early to start thinking about career opportunities. As China moves inexorably toward relaxed markets, the demand for employees who speak Mandarin is only going to rise. Those who speak Chinese will only have greater opportunities in the global marketplace. And of course it’s easier to learn a foreign language when you’re younger before your brain gets more set in its ways.
Let’s get cynical. You may consider or need to daycare for your child. And this daycare provider may or may not speak English as a first language. No judgements; it makes sense. Turn this to your advantage; your child is around the English language and all of its pathologies throughout the rest of the week — whether she’s hanging out with her parents, playing with friends or watching TV. Use the daycare provider’s first language as a convenient way for your child to pick up on all the benefits of learning a new tongue enumerated above. This is already a fairly common marketing tool for daycare centers, calling themselves “immersion programs” when the reality is that their teachers have recently immigrated to America and don’t speak English extremely well yet. In the Bay Area this immersion often takes the form of Chinese Language-learning because of the large Asian community in Northern California.
Final analysis: Immersion is a great way for your kid to learn Chinese at a young age when her brain is most receptive to different language structures. It can also help with math, and is an added bonus within the curricula of daycare. Immersion is not the cure-all to all social ills but it can go a long way to broad social and cultural awareness.
With that being said, immersion daycare cannot take the place of a regimented program when it comes to learning Chinese. If you want a Chinese, culturally-cognizant daycare, then look no further. If your main goal is to get your children fluent in Chinese, you'd do better with finding an experienced Chinese teacher or a reliable Chinese class program.