Let me tell you the truth. The unromanticized, the good-the bad-and-the ugly truth about sending your child to an immersion school. We are eight months into our experience. Eight long, tiring, yet rewarding months into Chinese immersion. And let me tell you…it’s not easy. But it sure is good.
When I was younger we went to our neighborhood school and that was that. We didn’t have choices much beyond public or private. There were no charter schools or lotteries or wait-lists like families face nowadays. It seemed quite simple back then, right?
Then I grew up and it was time to choose a school for our son. I assumed he’d go to a local community school in our district, which I am a huge proponent of. Then I found out that no one really knows how hard it is to chose a school for your child until you’re summoned to the inescapable task. In my case, the challenge was amplified by the fact that I am an educator and educators know way too much about schools. It can be extremely difficult to walk into a school with fresh eyes as a teacher.
The options we had for kindergarten drove me bananas. At one point my son was enrolled in three different schools.
Yes. Three. Or was it four?
Anyways, through an unexpected turn of events, we found a Chinese immersion school that was a perfect fit for our family. We knew it wouldn’t be an easy journey, especially at first, but we knew deep down it was the right choice. My son wasn’t thrilled about learning a new language. I am grateful my husband and I had the deep down commitment part otherwise we may have ducked out of the challenge somewhere in the first few months.
I wasn’t certain what this school option would end up being like for us, but I have been learning that beyond the beautiful classrooms rich with new language and culture comes some struggle for our children in the beginning. Cultural differences in teaching and discipline as well as communication challenges for both parent and child are very real issues to be acknowledged.
Such as many things in life, the pros and cons naturally come alongside each other. As you can see from the following list, there’s no escaping one without the other, but the big picture is always good.
Pro: Your child will become bilingual (or even multilingual) Fluency will take a while, but your child will learn survival language rather quickly. We were truly impressed with our son when we took him to China four months into kindergarten and he was able to understand and communicate with family. He was even able to order ice cream for himself (kid priorities!). While he doesn’t like to show off his skills for us at home yet, I’ve seen him in action on the sidelines and it is quite impressive. Nearly eight hours a day of only Mandarin will do this to a child!
Con: Your child may resist their new language While your child will learn a lot and learn it quickly, it can take many years to achieve advanced fluency in a new language (especially Chinese). It will become frustrating at some point and your child may appear to hate everything about their new language. This is temporary, but it’s a difficult stage for us as parents knowing we’re sending our child into such a challenging environment those first years. While they may seem to have a distaste for their new language during this time, I assure you, they handle it much better in the classroom and are not unhappy all day long!
Pro: Your child will gain a respect for a new culture Though it’s not for everyone, our choice of a Chinese immersion school was personal. I was marrying into a Chinese American family and my son was becoming a part of this family as well. He would be adopted by a man who carried different roots than he did and our family’s identity would be beautifully mixed as a result. We wanted to equip our son with cultural and language skills that would give him a chance to feel connected to this part of our family identity. From elaborate Chinese New Year celebrations to sharing a love of jiǎozi with his classmates, our whole family has enjoyed deepening our love and understanding of Chinese culture as a result of his school.
Con: Your child will become very tired and moody All kindergartners are tired from their long day, but when your child’s brain is tackling a new language the exhaustion will be intensified. And definitely moody. Our kids work so hard the first couple of years as they learn in a new language…we’d be moody too! But don’t worry, around the spring of your child’s first year you’ll begin to see their mood calm as their brain finally adapts to a new normal and they feel more confident with the language. You will, however, find yourself obsessing over early bedtimes as a result of this, which means less evening activities for your family…at least the first years as they adjust.
Pro: The diversity of families represented at school will be rich Mandarin is not just for those with a Chinese background. We love seeing families and teachers of all backgrounds gather together around the common language and culture of China. Our family particularly loves knowing that it’s not unusual for our non-Chinese son to carry a Chinese surname because there is every possible type of family at our school. I also love how normal our school feels for students who were adopted from not only China, but other parts of the world as well. The only requirement to be “normal” at our school is to be a kid, and we love seeing how any child can fit in here.
Con: Your child will not learn to read English when their cousins and neighbors do…but they will be reading in another language, so this isn’t completely terrible. I felt like I could watch my son’s English pre literacy skills slip away right in front of my eyes. I watched all I had worked hard to teach him be replaced with Mandarin. He even forgot how to rhyme for a while. Some parents even admit their kids no longer enjoy reading as much as before. While this can be scary [ah-hum…terrifying, yet interesting?] to witness, you can trust me as an educator when I say- it’s only being tucked away for later use. Your child will learn to read later than other kindergartners, like, two years later, but they will learn. Your child’s bilingualism will not only shape their brain to read in English, it will also make learning other languages easier in the future.
Being a part of a globally minded community is good for every child and family, and our children are depending on us to broaden their worldview when we send them to school. For many children, that will be through learning a new language and culture. According to my six year old, “It’s a good idea to learn a new language so you can talk to more people in the world!” If you ask me, that’s reason enough to send him to an immersion school and it only took him eight months to come to that conclusion!
Is your family considering immersion schooling for your child? If your children are already attending an immersion school, what has your experience been like?