How do I choose a Mandarin immersion school in the Bay Area?

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The benefits of bilingualism have been widely studied and researched. Empathy, cognitive agility, school performance and engagement have all been associated in people who are bilingual. As a result, the demand for immersion programs in schools is increasing rapidly. As a parent looking forward to your child’s educational path, deciding between an immersion or mono-lingual program feels like a natural choice. According to Mandarin Immersion Parents Council, “As of the fall of the 2019-2020 school year, there will be Mandarin immersion programs in 306 schools [across the US]. Of those, 15 will be new. This is part of an overall strong growth in Mandarin immersion nationwide, with a steep increase in schools beginning in 1999 that has continued ever since. Recent years have seen large gains — 28 new schools launched in the 2017—2018 school year and a stunning 31 in the 2018—2019 school year.”

In the Bay Area, there are a wide variety of Mandarin language learning opportunities–from 100% immersion, to dual-language programs, and the traditional enrichment/“Saturday school” options. When choosing a program for your child, it’s important to distinguish what type of model will best suit your goals, your budget and also your time.

What are the different models of Mandarin learning?

Mandarin Immersion Model

In an immersion model the target language (Mandarin) is used to teach content (e.g. music, history, conflict resolution) in addition to learning the mechanics of the language. This can be in varying degrees of immersion usually from 100% (all day instruction) to 50% (half the day in Chinese and half in English). For Mandarin immersion elementary schools, many will start in Kindergarten with a higher percentage of Mandarin than English and then gradually shift to a 50/50 model by about third grade. Students graduating from an immersion model usually have the greatest language and cultural competence. In addition to speaking and reading Chinese, they are able to learn and think about the world around them in two languages.

Mandarin Dual-language Model

Like the immersion model, the dual-language model also focuses on instruction and content in two languages but students are selected to create a balance of native speakers of the target language and native English speakers. Instruction is usually 50/50 English/target language from Kindergarten onward. School and classroom culture are especially important to the success of the dual-language model.

Mandarin Enrichment Model

The focus of an enrichment model is to teach Mandarin as a second language subject. In this model, Mandarin is taught as a stand-alone 45 minute class once a week, either within the school day or as a weekend enrichment program. This type of program focuses on the mechanics of the target language and learning basic conversational skills.

Each school will have a different way of articulating their Mandarin program. It’s important for you to understand the philosophy and values of each school to ensure that it resonates with your personal values as well. If you want to expose your child to a second language and build a basic understanding of the language through colors, numbers, foods and common phrases, then an enrichment program will likely suffice. An enrichment program, like those for soccer, dance, or chess allow you to explore a potential interest without a lot of commitment. If your goal is developing cognitive agility, an understanding of the world from different perspectives, or to communicate with cultural sensitivity, then an immersion model where a majority of the instruction is in Mandarin is a better fit.

What type of school environment is best for our family?

The best way to tackle this very big question is to start inquiring with different schools. Ask questions to gain an understanding of their program, gain a sense of their values, and their community. Also take a look at your budget. Many families write off private schools due to the perceived cost of tuition without realizing that many private schools offer tuition assistance and scholarships. Be sure to ask for details about financial aid during your visit.

Private School

Private schools are able to offer smaller class sizes with more individualized learning for each student. This can be very beneficial for students learning a second language as more attention is given to each student. For language learning, the common saying “use it or lose it” is applicable. Thus, a smaller class size with more focused attention would be an added benefit for your language learning goals.

Public/Charter School

There are currently a rising number of public and charter schools offering dual-language or immersion programs in the Bay Area which greatly increases the opportunities to learn Mandarin to a wider group of students. These programs can sometimes be selective due to lotteries and language requirements. It is best to inquire with the school and the district to understand enrollment requirements.


Many public and private schools are now offering Mandarin as a second language during the school day for one period throughout the week. Additionally, there are an abundance of afterschool and weekend options in any city in the Bay Area and you are sure to find one that fits your schedule. Need something more flexible? There are a number of online options (both paid and free) as well. Check out our curated video and audio learning resources to help you get started!

What is better, traditional or simplified Chinese?

This really depends on you and your motivation for having your child learn Chinese. If fluency is your goal, then simplified Chinese will be a better match. After all, simplified Chinese was created for the express purpose of raising the literacy rate across mainland China. If you have a strong interest in the rich history of Chinese, the artistry and culture deeply rooted in each character, then studying traditional characters would be a good fit. Regions such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau still use traditional characters while mainland China uses simplified.

One thing to note is that learning one over the other does not mean the other form is not accessible. Because of its graphical nature and organization by radicals, a student learning simplified Chinese can transfer their decoding skills to access and read traditional characters.

Next Steps: Contacting Schools

With so much choice in the Bay Area, it is best for you to make contact with each school 6-12 months prior to your intended enrollment to understand the school mission and values and also the application process. Make an appointment to see the school to get a feel for the environment to help you determine if it is a good fit for your family. After the school tour, you should have a good sense if you can see your child thriving in that learning environment. Get on the school mailing list and visit a few of their community events.

If you are interested to know more about inquiry-based, Mandarin immersion combined with the International Baccalaureate framework of learning (focusing on curiosity, learner-centered, global citizenship), please reach out to us at Shu Ren International School and we would be happy to give you an introduction to our community of learners.

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