Elementary Students Becoming Immersed In Mandarin

By  Stina Sieg
March 05, 2014

(Photo by Stina Sieg-KJZZ)
Third grader Tessa Hauper works on a math problem in Mandarin. Part of what sets Gavilan Peak's program apart from others is the fact its students learn other subjects using their second language.

Around the world, it’s typical for children to learn a foreign language at a young age. We’re talking grade school. Then there’s the United States, where most students wait until high school. And that lag makes it hard to become proficient. But things are different at a public elementary school in Anthem, where students are immersed in the most widely spoken language in the world.

On a recent visit to Gavilan Peak School, smiling second graders were lined up against the wall in their classroom and singing the cute kind of number one does at that age. The lyics were pretty basic, about a kid who forgets a pencil, but what they represented was huge. They showed the foundation these youngsters are getting in Mandarin. Since kindergarten, they’ve been spending half their day speaking and learning in a language spoken by more than 1 billion people.

One of them is Cathy Cabizo, one of the program’s first teachers.

“I mean those kids are really, really lucky to have this program at this young age,” she said.

Cabizo would know. She’s a China native who didn’t begin studying English until third grade, and even then never studied like this. These Mandarin students don’t just learn the language. They learn math and science in Mandarin. That might sound ridiculously complicated, but Cabizo says it actually makes sense. In English, for instance, there’s no logic to the way some numbers sound.

“So, you put a 10 and 2 together, you say ‘12,’ but 12, it doesn’t mean 10 or 2, you know,” Cabizo explained. “But in Chinese, you say ‘shi’ and ‘er.’ And then 12 is shier.”

The kids must be getting it. The teacher in charge of the program says they score at least as well on standardized testing in math and science as those not learning the language. Sometimes better.

This program was started with the help of federal money meant to promote critical languages — as in “critical” to America’s economy and security. From 2004 to 2007, more than 100 districts and individual schools received support to teach various vital languages, include Mandarin, Arabic, Farsi, Hindi and Russian.

Congress defunded the program, but supporters say the need for those language skills is just as strong. Sure, lots of people know English all around the world, and American kids can use translators once they grow up and enter the workforce. But that’s a huge mistake, said Professor Denis LeClerc.

When you rely on translators, “you understand maybe 10 percent of what people are really telling you,” LeClerc said.

LeClerc, from the Thunderbird School of Global Management, explained language is not just about words. It’s about nuances and context. All that can be missed with a translator. And he thinks that’s just too risky when you’re doing business on the world stage.

“That’s why, for the people who don’t speak a foreign language, I always — if they can and if they have the budget — the advice is always to try to bring somebody who speaks the local language,” LeClerc said.

Maybe one day that could be a Gavilan Peak student, like Alex Craft. When she introduced herself in Mandarin, she did it without hesitation. After the flourish of foreign words, she translated.

“I am Alex, I am 9 years old, and I really like dogs,” she said.

Her ease with the language makes sense. The fourth grader has been learning Mandarin for pretty much as long as she can remember.

 “I think it’s good to start out young, because then you can have more years ahead of you to learn more and you can be more fluent,” she said.

And Alex will get that chance. In few years, she can even take high school Mandarin at Gavilan Peak.