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

In 2015, Obama pledged that by 2020, 1 million American students would be learning Mandarin.

Students at Walnut Hills Elementary School in Greenville, Michigan, where parents earlier this year successfully rallied to save a Mandarin immersion programme from a phase-out. Photo: Facebook/ Walnut Hills Chinese Immersion

Eight years later, to say the dynamics have shifted would be an understatement.

Sino-US tensions now cast doubt over business opportunities in the mainland, while record-high proportions of Americans view China negatively.

American students – whose numbers in China have declined from over 11,000 five years ago to about 700 in 2023 – are warier about starting a China-focused career due to shrinking research access in the country and the perceived security risks of travelling there.

And Washington’s rhetoric about Beijing is forcing American schools to weigh tough questions about partnerships with the country, affecting their access to resources and teachers to support language programmes.

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The acrimony has all but wiped out Chinese government-funded language and culture programmes like Confucius Institutes at US colleges and their K-12 counterparts, known as “Confucius Classrooms”.

In September, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis went beyond targeting direct Chinese government support and cut scholarship funding to four K-12 schools part of a network controlled by a Hong Kong investment firm.

Yet Mandarin immersion at elementary, middle and high schools across the US appears largely insulated from geopolitical dynamics.

While Mandarin classes are not uncommon at US schools, immersion programmes are another matter, allowing students to develop a longer-term and more intimate connection with Chinese language and culture.

Demand has proved strong, with about a third of the some 340 publicly funded immersion programmes founded in the post-Obama era. In some school districts facing cutbacks, parents have fought passionately to retain the programmes.

Carlie Fisherow, Yu Ying Public Charter School’s executive director, speaks about the school’s new campus slated to open in Washington DC in 2024. Photo: Yu Ying Public Charter School

For parents pursuing the option, Mandarin immersion offers their children a unique identity, fostering a more open-minded, globally aware and academically accomplished student in the process.

For school districts, the programmes help them stand out and attract families who might not otherwise come to their district.

In fact, only a few miles from Capitol Hill, where congressional scrutiny of China has intensified in recent years, one of America’s more established immersion programmes has flourished.

Washington Yu Ying Public Charter School launched in 2008 after a group of parents sought to combine tuition-free, Chinese-language learning with a globally-oriented and rigorous curriculum.

Interest in its K-5 education has run so high that a campus expansion is planned for next year; at full enrolment, nearly 1,000 students will learn Mandarin daily.

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In the eyes of new Yu Ying parents Saagar Thakkar and Pearl Zheng, the school was an obvious choice.

Having lived abroad, including in Singapore, Thakkar said he believes in the importance of possessing business-proficient Mandarin – a skill he views as even more precious amid fraught US-China relations.
Zheng, a Taiwan native, considers immersion a way for her children to remain connected to their heritage.

But many Yu Ying parents have no ties to China and Asia, and simply deem the school an opportunity for their child to have more options in life.

“My reasons are simple: take advantage of a unique opportunity to have our kids be more open-minded,” explained Yu Ying parent Sam White, adding that he and his wife grew up in a part of the American Midwest where diversity was limited.

“Maybe it’ll be a marketable skill, maybe he meets a significant other because he can speak Mandarin, I don’t know! But he’s gonna have those opportunities,” said White of their son’s future.

White noted that career possibilities were not top of mind when he ranked Yu Ying first in the lottery-based school admissions system Washington uses.

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.”

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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.

Carlie Fisherow (third from right) and others from Yu Ying Charter Public School and Washington Latin, another public charter school, at an event marking their campus expansion in Washington DC. Photo: Yu Ying Charter Public School

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.

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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.

Parents and students protesting the planned closure of Linden Hill Elementary School’s Chinese immersion programme in Wilmington, Delaware, in March 2021. Photo: Change.org

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.

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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.”

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For Kansas’s 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.”

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