In a kindergarten classroom decorated with a cornucopia of Mandarin words, 5- and 6-year-olds are diligently drawing intricate Mandarin characters and trying their best to keep English out of their conversations.
Broadway Elementary School teacher Kennis Wong teaches her kindergartners all academic subjects in Mandarin. UCLA's Confucius Institute has helped establish Mandarin programs at four schools in Los Angeles County to bring knowledge of Chinese language, culture and arts to the community.
Suddenly, a student notices that a large insect has landed on teacher Kennis Wong’s back. Wong quickly brushes it off as her students huddle around to get a good look at the intruder.
See the Mandarin immersion class and the kindergarteners in action in this video, where teacher Kennis Wong and UCLA Confucius Institute Director Susan Pertel Jain explain the program. "They don't know I speak English," Wong says.
Wong uses the moment to teach her students several words they don’t know in Mandarin, like "scared" and "insect."
"Were you scared when you saw the insect?" Wong asks students in Mandarin. Most of them raise their hands. Is the insect poisonous, one student asks in Mandarin. And Wong assures them that it was not.
"They understand about 90–95 percent of what I say to them now," said Wong, who teaches two kindergarten Mandarin immersion classes at Broadway Elementary School in Venice. "I am amazed because they learn so fast." And young children are more apt to learn a language fluently, even one as difficult to master as Mandarin, if they start speaking it at a young age.
The success of Broadway’s Mandarin program is even more dramatic because it’s an immersion program that teaches students all academic subjects in Chinese. It’s only the second Mandarin immersion program in the Los Angeles Unified School District and the only such class taught on the Westside, according to Susan Wang, Broadway’s principal.
And while the school is predominately comprised of Latino and African American students, the Mandarin kindergarten classes are more diverse, with Asian, white and mixed-race students. At least eight of the Mandarin program’s 40 students have a parent who works at UCLA so the class is gaining a small, but loyal following among UCLA parents who want their children to learn Mandarin.
Wong goes over vocabulary words with kindergartner Maya Nelson. Students are learning to write in Mandarin as well. Broadway is the only Westside public school with a Mandarin immersion program.
A key player in establishing Broadway’s kindergarten immersion program has been UCLA’s Confucius Institute. Broadway’s immersion program is perhaps the best example of the institute’s efforts to champion Chinese language instruction, culture and arts throughout Los Angeles County.
In 2009, the institute sent three volunteers to Broadway to teach 30 minutes of Mandarin four times a week to all its K-6 students. The volunteers also developed the class curriculum.
Two of the university’s volunteers were students in the institute’s Mandarin Teaching Scholars Program while one was a visiting faculty member from China. In return for volunteering up to 20 hours a week at Broadway, the institute provided the volunteers with scholarships, mentoring and monthly professional development sessions.
Students and parents raved about the classes so much that a year later the L.A. school district decided to create two Mandarin immersion kindergarten classes at Broadway.
"The Confucius Institute and its director, Susan Pertel Jain, have been a tremendous support to Broadway Elementary School," Wang said. "It was the institute bringing the volunteer Mandarin teachers that got the parents interested in an immersion program at Broadway."
Said Jain: "Our goal was to plant a seed at the school and get them excited about learning Chinese. The enthusiasm Broadway students, parents, teachers and administrators have shown for the Chinese program has really contributed to its expansion."
Since the institute was established in 2007, it has helped establish permanent Mandarin programs at three schools in Los Angeles County in addition to Broadway: the James A. Foshay Learning Center in South Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County School of the Arts, and the Norton Space and Aeronautics Academy in San Bernardino.
The institute also runs the Chinese Teacher Leadership Institute for California’s Mandarin teachers, prepares teachers and graduate students for a state test that enables them to teach the language, hosts a summer workshop in scholarly translation and sponsors a handful of other programs on Chinese language, culture and arts.
"The Chinese economy is set to overtake the U.S. economy by 2030," Jain said. "To remain competitive, more Americans know they need to learn Chinese and build even stronger ties with China. It just makes business sense."
This fall, Broadway will continue with two first-grade Mandarin classes and expand the program by starting another four kindergarten classes. The goal, according to principal Wang, is to offer Mandarin classes ranging from kindergarten to sixth grade.
While Spanish immersion classes have been established at some private and public schools throughout Los Angeles, a Mandarin immersion class on the Westside was difficult to find until she stumbled upon the Venice school, said Mary Cliff, whose 5-year-old daughter Joyce is in the Broadway class. Cliff is a principal financial analyst with UCLA Library Business Services.
At first, Joyce was apprehensive about speaking Mandarin. But since being in the immersion class, she feels comfortable enough to converse with her grandmother, who is Chinese.
Her daughter, Cliff said, is "really pushing herself to learn the 100 high-frequency words that Miss Wong wants them to know by the end of the year."
Charles Corbett, a professor of operations and environmental management with UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, enrolled his daughter, Jessica, in the school so she will be able to converse with his wife’s Taiwanese relatives, but it will also give her a lifelong advantage, he said.
"If you speak and write like a native, you can understand the culture much more than you could otherwise," Corbett said. "The likelihood that Chinese will become a major world language — even more than it is now — is very strong. So why not give her the ability to communicate in Chinese?
"She will have an advantage in any international career she wants to pursue," he added.