A Kindergartener's Year In A Mandarin-Immersion School : NPR Ed Starting kindergarten can be scary. So imagine if your parents sent you to a school where they teach most of the day in another language, like Mandarin Chinese.

A Kindergartener's Year In A Mandarin-Immersion School

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Kindergarten is a challenge for lots of 5-year-olds. Tougher still is if no one speaks their language. But immersion is a great way to teach a young child a foreign language. A year ago, the Gomez family of Southern California enrolled their daughter Gemma in a Chinese immersion school where Mandarin is spoken most of the school day. Deepa Fernandes, of member station KPCC, has followed Gemma through that first year.

DEEPA FERNANDES, BYLINE: OK, so I'll get you to tell me your name.

BROOKE GOMEZ: My name is Brooke Gomez, and my husband is Ryan Gomez. And, Gemma, would you like to introduce yourself?


GOMEZ: OK, and this is Gemma Gomez.

FERNANDES: Gemma, are you excited about starting kindergarten tomorrow?

GEMMA: A little.

GOMEZ: It's really scary. I'm having, you know, my doubts, even up until today where we're going to school tomorrow. And the scariest part about it, I think, for right now is just sending your kid somewhere where the teacher doesn't speak English.

GEMMA: I'm going to school now.

GOMEZ: Are you ready?

GEMMA: Yep, just need to put my backpack on.

GOMEZ: Well, we are an English-only speaking family. I mean, we're not just non-Chinese. We don't speak any other language than English in our house.

GEMMA: Just like when Ellen's first day of school sign that had an apple on it.

GOMEZ: Yes, look what yours has.

GEMMA: A pony.

GOMEZ: It's a horse, But because you're going to Chinese school your picture on your school sign is a horse because 2014 is the year of the horse.

GEMMA: Hi, little pony (laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Welcome to your first day. Because it is the first day, it is OK for parents to take their kids to the classroom.

ANA MARIA APODACA: My name is Ana Maria Apodaca. I'm the principal of Eugene Field Elementary School in Pasadena, Calif. A small percentage of our kids come into our program knowing Mandarin already. The beginning of the year is tough for some of our kids. They're very excited to be in kindergarten, and then once the instruction starts, they're - some of them are little bit surprised.

TINGTING MEI: (Speaking Mandarin) My name is Tingting Mei, and I teach kindergarten (speaking Mandarin).

FERNANDES: You're looking at the children. What are you seeing on their faces? I mean, do you get a sense that they understand what you're saying?

MEI: At the beginning of the school year, I don't think they understand a word of what I'm saying. So I have to use a lot of visuals or gestures (speaking Mandarin).

GEMMA: I wrote Chinese on here.

GOMEZ: We are two months into the school year - almost exactly.

FERNANDES: And what does it say? 'Cause I can't read Chinese.

GEMMA: (Speaking Mandarin).

FERNANDES: Wow, so that's you counting to - is it the equivalent of 10? Did you find that really hard to do?

GEMMA: No (speaking Mandarin).

FERNANDES: So, Gemma, what's happening today?

GEMMA: (Laughter) I'm at school.

FERNANDES: Are you about to be in a show?

GEMMA: Yeah, it's Chinese.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Speaking Mandarin).



MEI: (Speaking Mandarin).

GEMMA: (Speaking Mandarin).

MEI: (Speaking Mandarin).

FERNANDES: What were you just asking the teacher, Gemma?

GEMMA: My table doesn't have green.

FERNANDES: So you wanted a green crayon.


MEI: Most of them, they're really good at pronunciation.

FERNANDES: And is that something you work on?

MEI: We do. If a student mispronounced the word and I have the student repeat it again until they get it.

FERNANDES: So what do you do in Chinese class?

GEMMA: You just do the same thing every day.

GOMEZ: I definitely have had that thought many times of is this right for us because, you know, there have been days where Gemma says that she learns the same thing over and over again every day.

APODACA: Students learning a target language do need to hear the language a lot, so you will see in all of our classrooms, as the teacher's teaching new vocabulary, you'll see that my turn, you turn pattern where the teacher says it first and the students repeat it.

MEI: (Speaking Mandarin).


GEMMA: Yay, finally (laughter).

GOMEZ: How did kindergarten go? Well, I have to say - in one word, I would say amazing. It was everything that we could've imagined and more.

GEMMA: (Speaking Mandarin) There's a (pronouncing Mandarin phonemes).

FERNANDES: And do you understand your teacher now when talks in class in Chinese?

GEMMA: Yes. I've learned, like, 120 characters - well, almost.

FERNANDES: That says about the author, and I see a picture of...

GEMMA: Me (laughter).

FERNANDES: So tell me about the author. Can you read what it says about the author?

GEMMA: (Speaking Mandarin) Done, Mama.

GOMEZ: We feel like this was the right decision for Gemma and our family, and we're really excited to continue on.

FERNANDES: For NPR News, I'm Deepa Fernandes.

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