Mandarin Immersion as a Gateway to the Future
Shenzhan Liao, Senior Vice President of Education, China Institute
Does the future still speak Mandarin?
As parents exploring potential schools for their children (for some it might be before the children were born!), this may be one question that is worth considering.
Today, Mandarin has never been more popular as a language to learn in early childhood education for a myriad of reasons, not just when we consider the advantages knowing Mandarin may hold for the future.
Studies have demonstrated many benefits of starting one’s early childhood education with learning a second language, especially in an immersion program, where 50–100 percent of the instruction is given in the target language. The goal of such programs is for children to be bilingual, i.e., age-appropriate proficient in a language in addition to their native tongues. In a Mandarin immersion preschool in the U.S., it’s aimed toward bilingualism in English and Mandarin Chinese (acknowledging that Chinese has a variety of subdialects including Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, Fujiannese, etc. in addition to completely different languages among ethnic groups in China). Ultimately, bilingualism deepens a child’s cognitive and social/emotional learning while sharpening executive functions of the brain, especially when exposed at a young age. Contrary to some concerns that learning two languages at the same time might confuse a developing brain and lag development in the first language, research consistently demonstrates that bilingual children are able to achieve a higher level of reading in English, as well as math. Indeed, as Dr. Tara W. Fortune from the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota points out, being bilingual helps with the first language, as the child learns to understand how different parts of languages work, referred by linguists as “metalinguistic awareness”.
What sets Mandarin Chinese apart is that it is a tonal language, that is, the meaning of a sound changes by its pitch. The written Chinese language is not based on the alphabet, like Roman languages such as English or Spanish, but on “characters”, pictographic symbols visualizing the meaning of the sound. As a result, Mandarin Chinese by nature triggers completely different parts of the brain for children who are native English speakers. Especially for those between the ages of 2–5, a critical time for language development, exposing the brain to a different “wiring system” helps maximize its capacity to make sense of differences and denote specifics. For example, the ability to tell the nuances of pitches that may be natural for toddlers might be largely diminished in adulthood. While it is not the only time for one to develop a second language proficiency (I myself didn’t start to learn English until I was in middle school), it certainly helps tremendously for children to obtain a much more “natural” command of the language (and much more effortlessly!) if they choose to continue studying the language later in life.
In his book The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education Is in Two Languages, Dr. Fabrice Jaumont rightfully notes that parents choose bilingual programs for different reasons: some want to sustain their heritage, others are interested in the benefits for cognitive development, yet others might be interested in planning for a career path with more alternatives. Regardless of the motivations, the shared understanding is bilingualism / multilingualism is good for our children as their brains will be challenged, their world views will be broadened, and their ability to deal with uncertainties and solve problems will be refined. In a world that is constantly more connected at a speed outpacing any previous generations, the best gift to give our children is a mindset open to explore anything new equipped with the ability to do so.
While language immersion is proven to be beneficial, given the current tensions between the U.S. and China, parents may also wonder whether it is still worth it. Five years ago, this wouldn’t be a question as curiosity and demand for Mandarin Chinese instruction coincided with China rising as a world economic and political power. For parents who see learning Mandarin as a long-term career investment, this might seem problematic in the moment but educating a child is never a momentary project.
Beyond individual development, learning Mandarin Chinese opens the door to a civilization with over 5000 years of rich history, which goes beyond what’s at stake between the U.S. and China over trade. More so, it is important to recognize that the U.S. and China will be the two most important and influential countries in the next decade and in our children’s lifetime. Learning its language — currently the most popular spoken language in the world — and culture creates a connection sure to provide an advantage when looking at future educational and career-based endeavors. Case in point, Mr. James B. Heimowitz, President of China Institute, who studied Chinese at the Little Red School in New York City at the peak of the Cold War when China barely had any relations with the U.S. After a successful career in China for over a decade, Mr. Heimowitz returned stateside to lead China Institute, the most renowned and oldest bi-cultural non-profit organization in the U.S., building bridges between the U.S. and China.
In fact, China Institute will open its own full Mandarin immersion preschool in downtown Manhattan in Fall 2020. While its School of Chinese Studies has long taught Mandarin to children as young as 18 months of age, China Institute recognizes the ongoing demand for multi-cultural understanding and language proficiency today. “Our classes are full and our Summer Camp Programs have never been more popular. As a result, the next step is building on our history to open China Institute’s Mandarin immersion preschool to extend the many benefits of Mandarin instruction to the youngest generation,” Mr. Heimowitz says.
So, does the future still speak Mandarin? Not only will the future, but the present is currently doing so. Mandarin is more than just another dialect. It is the gateway to a vibrant and diverse culture, a passport to cross-cultural understanding, and the language through which a limitless future can be accessed. #
Shenzhan Liao is Senior VP of Education and heads the School of Chinese Studies at the China Institute in NYC.