Sixth-grader Andy Kuo concedes it took him a few days to realize the language skills he’s learned during the past seven years in Forest Hills Public Schools’ Mandarin Chinese Immersion Program would stand up to a real world test.
The 12-year-old was among a group of 32 students, parents and siblings who spent 11 days during spring break in China, visiting tourist attractions like the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the historic city of Xi’an, home of the famed Terracotta Warriors that guard the tomb of China’s first emperor. They also spent time working on their Mandarin and expanding their understanding of calligraphy with students and teachers at a pair of schools in Beijing and another about 90 kilometers outside of town.
“I thought we were barely going to survive in China with the language,” Andy said. “We did much better than I thought.”
As it turned out, it was the younger students who often saved the day when dealing with the routine matters of daily life on the road, communicating with hotel housekeeping and restaurant staff. Begun in 2008 at Meadow Brook Elementary School with kindergarteners who will graduate high school in 2021, students spend between a third and half of their day, depending on grade level, studying traditional subjects like math in Mandarin.
Lessons are taught by a combination of district teachers using English and native-speaking teachers and aids provided by Confucius institutes at Michigan State University and Western Michigan University. Students who began the program at Meadow Brook are this year continuing at the Northern Trails 5/6 building. Grades are being added as students continue the program through high school.
A Whole New World of Job Prospects
District officials think the program has been valuable to students preparing for jobs in an international economy, and has them thinking in different ways about the world around them. Susan Gutierrez, principal at Northern Trails, said she’s been amazed by the students’ progress in the program despite Mandarin being among the most difficult languages to master.
She said basic literacy in Mandarin means knowing about 5,000 characters, compared with understanding the 26 letters in the English alphabet. Gutierrez added that students will be well prepared for jobs anywhere in the world because learning a second language at a young age makes it much easier to master others later in life.
“If you can make it in China and through all of those challenges, a company would gladly send you to Europe because you’ve already demonstrated a complex cultural and language competency,” Gutierrez said. “Can you imagine sitting down with a college counselor and explaining you spent a third of your time studying in Mandarin?”
Students said the China trip helped them see the real-world value of what they’ve learned and has given them experiences with cultural differences they’ll never forget. It turns out blond young Americans who speak Mandarin fluently are something of a novelty in China.
“On the Great Wall, there was one tower where a lot of people seemed to be hanging out and a lady came up tome and asked if she could take a picture of me and I said okay,” said fifth-grader Will Rechner, 10. “The next thing I knew there were a whole bunch of cameras pointed at me.”
Alaina Bennett, an 11-year-old sixth-grader, said among her favorite experiences was meeting fellow students and trying new foods. The group also visited a traditional barter market in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter, where fruits and vegetables that don’t exist in North America are available. Alaina said she couldn’t resist trying the Chinese delicacy of duck feet.
“Some of the kids let me ride their unicycle even though I wasn’t very good at it,” Alaina said. “I met a lot of people and made a lot of friends. I also ate gold fish (dumplings) and duck’s feet. The gold fish tasted like chicken and the duck made me gag.”
Gutierrez said teachers exchanged books and curriculum ideas with their Chinese counterparts to add to the Forest Hills program. She said there is no curriculum in the U.S. written for Chinese immersion programs. Forest Hills is among only a few West Michigan schools districts with Chinese immersion programs. Greenville and Zeeland Christian have fledgling programs. Rockford officials said they offer Chinese as a language option in high school but have no Chinese immersion program.
Forest Hills has Spanish and Chinese immersion programs. Gutierrez noted the group visited what’s considered an affluent school in Beijing and a poorer rural school about 90 kilometers outside of town.
“The kids had kind of the continuum of experience in terms of what school was like in China,” Gutierrez said. “It was really very powerful.”