Learn Mandarin Y’All! (Posted on Mandarin Immersion Parents Council)

This post was first published on the very informative Mandarin Immersion Parent’s Council website.

I did a little bit of or back of the envelope math the other day, and I found that about half of my current Mandarin students speak Spanish at home with at least one parent. When I worked in Austin, I noticed a similar trend. Many of our students had family connections to China/Taiwan, but others did not. Many of these students also spoke a language other than English at home, but it was not Mandarin. Our school had many multilingual families. It probably seems obvious that many people want to learn (or want their children to learn) Mandarin because of a family connection to the language. And yet we had so many families who spoke languages other than English at home. It was common to hear Thai, Korean, Spanish and other languages at pick up. These families seemed to push back against the idea that “everyone speaks English anyway” and invested in learning more languages, rather than sticking with the home language plus English.

Most Mandarin immersion programs advertise themselves as teaching children a second language. In many communities with Mandarin immersion programs*, it is assumed that children come from English-speaking homes and they will build their Mandarin knowledge entirely through this program. In three years of looking at these programs, I have never come across any parent literature that says “Yeah, it is probably a good idea if at least one parent can speak some Chinese.” In fact, they all say the opposite: families do not need any. They also do not explicitly encourage families who are already speaking a language other than English at home to apply for their programs. Utah, the state with the highest percentage of dual language programs, does not require its programs’ English teachers to have an ESL endorsement. This is a clue about who they assume will enroll in their dual language programs. Despite this, if what I have seen over the past few years is not a fluke, then there really is a trend of families adding Mandarin as a third language for children who are already growing up bilingual.

If you look at this graph of Mandarin immersion programs in the US, you will see that the line starts trending up during the late 90s and early 2000s. This was also around the time that California, Arizona and Massachusetts (1998, 2000 and 2002, respectively) passed their English-Only education laws.** Looking back, Mandarin immersion programs look like they were ahead of the curve because they embraced linguistic diversity instead of fighting it. In my experience in Texas, families are pushing for more languages, not fewer. They speak Spanish (or Korean or Turkish) at home, and want more languages at school. Thirty-five percent of Texans over the age of five speak a language other than English at home. Of these, 7 million speak Spanish. In Bexar county (San Antonio), where I live, the percentage of the population that speaks Spanish at home is higher: 38%.*** These families want to participate in Mandarin programs, and that means for their kids, Mandarin will be a third language (or maybe a fourth!).

If my husband and I are fortunate enough to have children, we will be one of the many Texas families for whom language-learning at school means learning a third or fourth language. My husband is a native Spanish speaker from Mexico and I teach Mandarin. We may choose to add in French or Portuguese, or stick with Spanish, Mandarin and English. In any case, our family won’t be made of English-monolinguals gaining bilingualism through a new immersion program. Like so many people around us, we are already a multilingual family.

Does the embrace of languages such as Mandarin by already bilingual families mean the end of the US as an English-speaking country? Not likely. Fears of a generation of young people growing up without English drove language education trends in the 1990s, as we have seen. Those fears were unfounded then, and still are today. What people who feel threatened by linguistic diversity do not take into account is the asymmetry of language. If a group of Mandarin teachers in a Mandarin immersion program in Utah have a meeting with their principal, they will speak English. When bilingual children are on the playground in San Antonio with English monolinguals, they will speak English too. The language of the group will always be the language of the monolingual person, even if there is only one of them. Language is asymmetrical, monolinguals have more power than they assume!

The State of Texas has a long history of multilingualism, hinted at by our history of having “six flags over Texas.” From my perspective, as an educator in the Mandarin language, our families want to keep it that way. They do not want to subtract languages by having schools be “English only” spaces, they want more languages. They speak Spanish, Korean, Turkish, Thai, and others at home, and they want their kids to learn Mandarin too.

*I’m talking specifically about dual-language programs, not two-way dual-language programs. In a two-way dual language program (also called two-way immersion (TWI)), a class is made up of 50% English speakers and 50% native speakers of the target language. In a dual language program (also called one-way immersion), none of the students are expected to speak the target language at home, although some students surely do.

** These laws have since been repealed in California and Massachusetts

***Source: American Community Survey 2009-2013

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