MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — In many ways, a kindergarten class at Benjamin Mays Magnet Elementary in St. Paul is like any other; they sing songs, learn numbers, and tell stories. The big difference is that the students are learning everything in Mandarin Chinese.
“It’s very, very hard for them, but they’re doing very, very well,” said teacher Hong Juan Zhou.
WCCO-TV spent a morning in class during the first week of school. Some students seemed to be catching on quickly, while others looked frustrated and worn out. They sat at their desks with their head between their hands, or lying on the desk, in what appeared to be an intense and challenging school day.
Benjamin Mays’ new program is one of 63 immersion programs in Minnesota.
In the last 10 years, the number of language immersion programs has close to doubled in the U.S, from 524 to 924.
Dr. Tara Fortune is with the Center for Research on Language Acquisition (CARLA), and works with immersion programs across the country.
“For this generation to be successful, it’s not going to be enough for them to succeed on a national level. We have to be able to succeed on an international level,” said Fortune.
She believes the demands on young students will continue to grow, especially with the rise of China’s economy.
“Educated Americans will need to know two or more languages in order to be successful in this new global economy,” said Fortune.
Principal Tyrone Brookins said that’s part of why he enrolled his son Brooke in the class.
“I want to give him the opportunity to have a heads up, or a leg up on his peers,” he said.
The addition of this new program has opened his eyes to how fast the world is changing.
“The very first day of school I had at least three parents in here who were speaking the Mandarin Chinese language. I was like ‘wow,’ as a parent I think I’ve got to get caught up,” said Brookins.
For the first two years, the students will learn everything in Chinese and then they’ll begin to incorporate English.
The district was able to add the program thanks to a federal grant. More federal dollars are being freed up for those types of programs and is part of the reason why the immersion programs are growing nationally.
Fortune said the hope is that the students are able to advance in learning the language as they go to junior high and then high school. She said research shows immersion students do as well, if not better on average than other students in standardized testing when it comes to reading and math.
Fortune said the programs also help to build self esteem and language proficiency.
Meanwhile, the program coordinator said if the students stick with it, they’ll be bi-lingual by third grade.