By the time they graduate from high school, students in Bob Tsai’s Chinese dual immersion class will be a few credits shy of a minor in the foreign language.
His students, who are currently eighth graders, are the first set of Chinese dual language immersion students in Provo City School District. When they enter high school in the fall, they’ll have the opportunity to take the Advanced Placement test for the language and start accumulating college credits.
“We are really excited to have them move on,” said Jamie Leite, the instructional coach for dual language immersion in Provo City School District and the director of the state’s Portuguese dual language immersion program. “This group of children and parents are incredibly committed to Chinese dual language immersion.”
Dual language immersion is available in Mandarin Chinese, French, Portuguese and Spanish in Provo City School District.
The programs start in first grade. Students spend half of their day speaking in the foreign language and the other half learning topics in English, with different teachers and classrooms for each language. Material isn’t repeated in each language, but vocabulary can be reinforced.
At Wasatch Elementary School, first-grade teacher Xiaoqian Xu pretends not to understand her students if they speak to her in English. They won’t discover she knows English until she speaks to parents prior to a play at the end of the school year.
She teaches two first-grade Chinese dual language immersion classes every day, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon, using Chinese to teach math, science, social studies and Chinese literacy.
The students were able to speak English in her class until Jan. 15. After that, they were only allowed to speak in Chinese. While the students are tattling on each other in Chinese now, it was a different story at the beginning of the school year as students adjusted to both attending school for the whole day and learning in a foreign language.
“The first day, I just want to make sure they all come to my classroom very comfortable because I am speaking a different language,” Xu said. “Most kids will feel really stressed out and nervous. I will make sure they learn and they understand by my gesture, my body language and my tone.”
Xu said the children pick up on the language faster than adults.
For some students, they might struggle with math in English, but understand it in Chinese.
As the students reach middle school, their topics shift to learning about Chinese history and culture in the foreign language.
Tsai, who teaches seventh and eighth graders at Centennial Middle School, said learning a culture is essential.
“You don’t just learn the language, you learn the culture as well so you have a proficiency in the language,” Tsai said.
He said his students have worked hard over the past few years, understand Chinese and can converse with him.
The students are in one of his classes every day.
“When you learn a language, you have to speak it every day,” Tsai said. “If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
As part of the first wave of Chinese dual language immersion programs in Utah following a pilot program, Leite said Provo’s program is established and respected.
The majority of the students in the program have remained in it.
Leite said there’s three larger levels of proficiency levels — novice, intermediate and advanced — that also contain sublevels. By the time the students graduate, the Chinese dual language immersion students should be at the advanced level.
“That is beyond what most return (LDS) missionaries would come home with,” she said.
That means the students will be able to narrate in the past, present and future tenses, be able to describe in great detail, think about academic topics and discuss abstract ideas in Chinese.
The students are tested on their foreign language skills annually.
“We have been monitoring the students, and we feel they are on track,” Leite said.
It’s not a gifted program.
“The research shows that any student can be successful in dual language immersion,” Leite said.
That includes students in special education.
And while there are parents who have voiced that they want a dual language immersion program on Provo’s west side, currently the district hasn’t confirmed the addition of one. Leite said the district is watching registration numbers for the programs and only a few students were on waiting lists this year.
One of the largest factors to the program’s growth is the difficulty the district faces in hiring teachers to fill the dual language immersion positions. But unlike in other districts, in Provo City School District most of the dual language immersion teachers aren’t international guest teachers. Leite attributes this to the district’s proximity to Brigham Young University in Provo, which draws many international students.