Beginning next year, several students at Coronado Elementary School will take their first steps toward learning the most widely spoken language in the world while learning more about the origin country’s culture.
The school’s Mandarin immersion program will provide students in kindergarten and first grade the first steps toward learning Mandarin. Called the Mandarin Choice Program, students will receive lessons in math and science from a native Mandarin speaker, although language arts and social studies will be taught primarily in English.
Principal Mai-Lon Wong, who started a similar program in Deer Valley five years ago, said the plan is to add a grade level for the program year by year until it covers kindergarten through sixth grade. That would put it in line with the Mandarin classes offered at the Higley Unified School District’s middle and high schools.
For students, the end result would be 13 years of immersion to not only learn the language, but to get a stronger grasp of a culture that is becoming more and more important on a global business scale.
“I think it’s crucial to the future of our children, of our schools, of our nation (and) of our state,” Wong said.
The main advantage to starting at such an early age is how much easier it is for the students to absorb the language and material. Learning a new language is difficult after a student enters his or her teen years, but Wong said starting at age 6, essentially kindergarten age, makes things much easier.
As she put it, the window to learn a new language like Mandarin that is far different in structure than English “is only open one time in their lifetime.”
Even with the early start, the program isn’t easy for the students in the early going, as Wong said the first three weeks in the program are exhausting for students who are learning the new social cues. What does make it a bit easier though is the cultural aspects of the program; Wong said that while the immersion side is a different approach to how other languages are taught in schools, it provides a more natural learning environment.
“It’s the way we’re wired to learn language,” she said.
A question Wong admitted has been posed is why not do the program, which she emphasized is cost-neutral for the district, in Spanish. The reason, she said, is that Spanish isn’t as difficult for students to pick up, and is much easier to add as a third language once the students enter high school.
It calls back to the long-term plan for the program, as students could complete the Mandarin courses prior to their sophomore years as long as they qualify for the school’s Advanced Placement class. If so, the student could then take three years of Spanish and graduate high school trilingual.
All of that is still a year away from getting started, although that hasn’t prevented the school from at least dipping students’ toes in the water when it comes to Mandarin. Currently, Coronado offers an after-school culture club class in which students participate in activities related to Chinese culture.
A meeting on Nov. 18 featured the students building their own hacky sacks, called jian zi, and experimenting with a che ling, or a Chinese yo-yo. After the session, the students went outside for a Tai Chi lesson from teaching intern Xiaoya Zhang.
Wong said the first Mandarin Choice Program classes will be filled on a first-come, first-serve basis, with a goal of maintaining an equal mix of boys and girls. Information sessions about the program is scheduled for Dec. 12 at Coronado, 4333 S. DeAnza Blvd. in Gilbert, at 8:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.
For more information, contact Wong at (480) 279-6900.
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