Mandarin immersion programmes persist in American schools despite high-level US-China

Yu Ying parents generally did not harbour specific career aspirations for their young children. They instead seized on the cognitive benefits of learning a challenging language early in life.

Some would have been happy with any difficult language, while others described learning Mandarin as affording an extra dimension of value.

“China’s not going anywhere any time soon as an emerging force worldwide,” said one Yu Ying parent. “We need to equip our kids with the tools to deal with probably the pre-eminent economic force in the world for the next millennium.”

Despite its proximity to Washington’s corridors of power, Yu Ying opts not to market itself as a pathway into the US foreign-policy establishment.

It has, however, occasionally rubbed shoulders with high-level Chinese and American officials.

In 2014, then-first lady Michelle Obama sought tips from the school’s sixth-graders ahead of her trip to China. The following year, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, was photographed embracing a Yu Ying student during Xi’s state visit to the US.

In October, Yu Ying students performed at the Chinese embassy in Washington as ambassador Xie Feng quizzed the audience on Chinese idioms and touted friendship between the two countries’ peoples as the “impetus” in the bilateral relationship.

Yu Ying sees such public engagements as enriching educational experiences for their students, rather than political statements.

International politics have hardly affected the school, said Carlie Fisherow, its executive director, who noted that enrolment has stayed consistent since 2008 and wait-lists have been the norm in recent years.

“But you can feel the indirect effects coming … Recruiting for teachers takes more effort now,” Fisherow said, adding that the coronavirus pandemic had also affected teacher recruitment nationwide.

The US government crackdown on Chinese government-funded groups has hampered the recruitment of Mandarin teachers across America, according to Elizabeth Weise, California-based founder of the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council and author of A Parent’s Guide to Mandarin Immersion.

This was especially true in states where Chinese speakers were fewer in number, Weise said.

Hanban, an entity under China’s education ministry that oversees Confucius Institutes and Confucius Classrooms, “had provided a lot of teachers from China who would come over on a three-year contract”, she explained.

But while parents may be aware of high-level shifts and changing business fortunes, Weise said they still regard learning Mandarin as exceptionally good at instilling academic discipline in their children.

“Families are looking for something that will push their kids.”

Outside the nation’s capital, Mandarin immersion programmes can be found in 32 US states, according to the Mandarin Immersion Parents Council. Those that are publicly funded can be found in 31 states.

As of December, there were about 407 programmes in total.

The numbers are constantly in flux. While school districts in California, Minnesota and Oregon launched new programmes this year, a Kansas school district is downscaling its offerings and Oklahoma is phasing out Chinese immersion altogether.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Stacy Lyon of the Utah State Board of Education said Washington politics had yet to seep into the state’s programmes.

Utah’s 95 public immersion programmes emerged from a business decision made in 2008 by then-governor, and later US ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, according to Lyon. “It was a very economically driven decision and still is,” she said.

Since 2018 and despite the downturn in bilateral relations, the volume of Utah goods exported to China has grown. As of 2022, China still ranked in the state’s top four export markets among foreign countries.

Utah, a pioneer in America’s state-driven model for such language learning, accounts for about a quarter of publicly funded Mandarin-immersion programmes in the US.

In total numbers, it trails only California, a wealthy state with a substantial heritage community fuelling demand for its approximately 107 public, charter and private programmes.

Lyon said she expects Utah to be insulated from national political headwinds because many in its Mormon community – which accounts for about two-thirds of the state’s population – recognise the importance of languages, having lived abroad for mission work.

For Lyon, Utah was “part of a solution” to a better Sino-US relationship.

The immersion programmes represent a “living microcosm” of larger-scale relations, she said, giving students ample experience working through cross-cultural issues.

“We have plenty of horror stories where parents, students and teachers are trying to figure out relationships … except we’re working through everything all together in a way that’s culturally appropriate.”

Delaware has adopted Utah’s state-driven model, while other states like Arizona have struggled to do so. But regardless of state support, grass-roots efforts are often essential to keeping programmes alive.

In rural Michigan, parents earlier this year successfully rallied to save a programme facing a phase-out by Greenville Public Schools.

Similar efforts in Kansas, Delaware and Arizona – involving online petitions, door-to-door canvassing and physical protests – have yielded different degrees of success.

Being part of Mandarin immersion “has begun to shape local community identity”, said Shuhan Wang of the Asia Society, who supported various efforts to revive programmes. “They are very proud of it.”

For Kansas’ Blue Valley School District, difficulties finding licensed and high-quality teachers who also spoke Chinese was a major factor in its decision to discontinue one of its two elementary immersion programmes.

Other districts faced obstacles like budgetary shortfalls, enrolment reductions and concerns that immersion students were falling behind their non-immersion peers.

Several pullback efforts came with the arrival of new district leaders, whom many parents have said did not understand the immense positive impact Mandarin immersion has had on their communities.

Yanna Free, who sent the first of her four children to Yu Ying 13 years ago, told the Post that while her children may not always keep Chinese as a central part of their lives, the virtues of Mandarin immersion were much broader than simply acquiring a language.

“I see the experiences that my daughter has had. I know the experience that my son has had. I directly have lived experience with seeing how xenophobia was squashed with them in their interactions with others,” said Free, who now works at the school.

For parents like Free, enrolment is driven not by politics but by the lives they want for their children. “Parents are not politicians,” Weise said. “They just want their kid to have a good education and have as many opportunities as they can.”

This article was first published on SCMP.

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