This article first appeared in Journeys Fall 2017.
For someone who’s never attended a language immersion class before, I was pretty excited to see what I would uncover as I entered the Chinese immersion hub at Singapore American School.
I reached the hub at 7:55 a.m. to see Zhang and Li lăoshī and Xi and Yan lăoshī preparing for the day. They were happy to have me and ran through their program for the day, letting me know that they will not be speaking in English at all for the rest of the day. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. I speak six languages with proficiency ranging from native to fluent to rusty, but Chinese isn’t one of them.
I promised to be as invisible as I could to 29 curious four-year-olds, hoping I would not be a distraction.
One hub. Two teachers. Two instructional assistants. 29 students. 15 with Ms. Julie Zhang, and another 14 under Ms. Holly Xi. A hub of two full-curriculum kindergarten Chinese language immersion classes enables teachers to collaborate. Moveable walls and distinct learning spaces provide flexibility to best instruct and facilitate learning for these students.
The day had begun.
Students started trickling in, a little curious about the lady with a camera but pretty much ignored me for the rest of the day. The room was suddenly filled with chatter. But not something I’d understand.
Nǐ hǎo (hello)! Zǎoshang hǎo (good morning)!... Nǐ hǎo ma? (How are you?) flooded the room and finally both sections of the room settled down in a circle patiently awaiting further instruction.
During this morning meeting, the students greeted each other and their teachers, talked about their favorite colors, animals, and foods, read the date, and even took attendance—all in Chinese! I was amazed to say the least but also curious to know how the day would proceed.
Qǐng ānjìng (please be quiet), Wǒmen yìqǐ chàng gē (let’s sing a song together), and hěn hǎo (very good), were words I heard throughout the day.
My eye caught two very different personalities in this amazing little world of kids who were adventurous enough to explore and enjoy this little slice of Chinese culture. One, a shy little girl called Stella. The other, a bubbly, cheerful personality who goes by the name of Florence. To me, they were both so different, but so very similar in the way they approached every single task and came out victorious. Kudos to the teaching team who did nothing but encourage all the children, nudging them just enough through modeling and prompts.
Time for some math. My first thought: I’ve never learned mathematical concepts in another language, and I was unable to understand how this could be accomplished. The classes were combined and with the roll of a die, flashcards, and little toy animals, the children explored numbers. Florence was pretty quick with her numbers, and with a little encouragement from her teachers, Stella also responded extremely well!
As I sat through the next 30 minutes, I realized that these kids were being trained to not only read and write but also think in Chinese. This was far more than a bilingual program. It was a truly immersive experience where even concepts are taught in the language.
Recess. Snack time. Play time. I chatted with a couple of girls about what they thought of learning Chinese.
“It’s hard, but fun.”
“I love singing in Chinese.”
Handing over a banana, “Can you please help me peel this xiāngjiāo?” Another says, “This is a cǎoméi (strawberry).”
Whoa! Two weeks into school and they were already using Chinese words in conversation.
Next, Mr. Pearson, the counselor, came in to talk about learning goals for students. Starting with why they came to school, he asked each student what they hoped to achieve through the year.
If I were a kid, this would be my favorite part of the day. Out came play dough, ice-cream sticks, and a table-top clock set up at stations across the room. Kids could walk over to the activity of their choice and make Chinese letters from the materials provided, or spin the clock hands to try and read the time. What an amazing way to learn how to write before they actually learn how to write characters.
A dedicated administrator, Ms. Sally Lean, who lived in China for almost two decades, the elementary school admin team, the whole kindergarten professional learning community team, and even counselors who speak Chinese team up to ensure that best practice models are implemented into the immersion classrooms.
Lunch. Lunch Recess. Play.
Here, one class went swimming and the other for music. These specials, as well as English/language arts (ELA) classes, are conducted in English.
The immersion program model is a 75/25 model, meaning 75 percent of daily instruction is in Chinese, with the other 25 percent in English (specials of art, music, PE, and English/language arts). This means that all their classroom learning is in Chinese, so the students don’t just learn a language, they use the language for learning.
The students went to Kevin Donaghey’s class for ELA. Donaghey’s daughter is also part of the Chinese immersion class, and I asked him why he and his wife chose to opt for the immersion curriculum instead of the regular program. He responded, “Why not? I can teach my kids English, but where are they going to be able to experience this level of language and cultural immersion at this age? Even when we go out to eat, I get my daughters to place their orders in Chinese, and it’s an amazing experience!”
At ELA, students had a fun time doing a little bit of English writing practice followed by activity stations which explored the building of words. Florence was pretty quick with her writing work and it didn’t take her too long to get the hang of the activities that followed.
Back in their immersion hubs, the students learned about family. It was great to see that the teachers put up family photos of children and taught them how to address their bàba, māma (parents) and xiōngdìjiěmèi (siblings). This was followed by a sing and dance session teaching family relationships. Again, I was amazed to see that the kids knew the songs, especially when it came to the chorus. It was great to see Stella dance and open up!
Back to exploring mathematical concepts in Chinese, with rolling the die, and playing with different objects and toys. It was amazing to see the teachers call out Stella and some other kids to roll the die and respond to questions and see how their confidence levels got an instant boost.
Immersion students also attend perceptual motor classes. It’s a great way for kids to acquire and improve movement accuracy.
Queueing up to go home! Say Zàijiàn (goodbye) to teachers and friends!
- chinese immersion