Young students describe their experience inside a Chinese immersion classroom

Sadie Anderson
Jamie Holzer and her children Alana, Callee, T.J. and Sadie all take part in the Chinese immersion program in the Davis County School District. (Sadie Anderson)

This story pairs with Utah junior high schools integrate immersion students

It’s the first day of school and a group of new kindergarteners sit in a circle around their teacher. Only their teacher doesn’t speak English and the students don’t speak Chinese — yet.

Jamie Holzer, a Utah mother and English kindergarten teacher in the Chinese immersion program at Muir Elementary School, has enrolled all four of her children in the Chinese immersion program. Chinese had become a “secret language” of sorts for the kids when they didn’t want their mom knowing what they were saying until she became a teacher in the immersion program and started learning a bit of Chinese herself.

When asked what a typical school day looks like in the Chinese immersion program, Callee Holzer, a fifth grader, said students learn both math and science in Chinese. The students aren’t allowed to ask clarifying questions in English and are expected to address any misunderstanding in Chinese.

Callee said she likes it best when her English teacher is the same person as her Chinese teacher so that she can ask clarifying questions during the second half of the day, which is taught in English.

But not everyone is lucky enough to have both halves of their day taught by the same teacher. T.J. Holzer, a third grader, said he doesn’t mind learning math in Chinese, but learning science is bit more difficult.

When it comes to learning how to read and write, he said students begin in first grade with learning to read a few common Chinese characters but focus mainly on pinyin — the romanized version of the language. T.J. said third grade is when students start focusing a bit more on reading and calligraphy while still putting the majority of focus on learning how to both speak and understand Chinese.

Sadie Holzer, a first grader, said in her classroom they aren’t allowed to ask questions in Chinese. “We get in trouble if we speak English during the Chinese half of the day,” Sadie said. But she said she hasn’t had any problem getting the help she needs when she asks for it.

As a seventh grader, Alana Holzer’s school day is quite different from those of her siblings. Instead of spending half her day with a Chinese teacher and the other half with an English teacher, Alana takes two elective classes at the junior high school. The first is an honors Chinese class designed specifically for the immersion students. The second class is focused on Chinese culture and media.

“I love having two classes instead of spending half a day learning math and science in Chinese,” Alana said. She said it is much easier and more enjoyable to simply focus on learning Chinese in her Chinese class rather than trying to learn and understand scientific topics while picking up new Chinese words.

Jamie said she hasn’t seen any of her children struggle to keep up with learning English or any of the other subjects they study in school. As a teacher in the immersion program, she said many of her students excel above those not participating in the Chinese language immersion. “Chinese makes you use different parts of your brain than English does,” Jamie said. “The extra challenge is good for the kids in their learning.”

She said it is important to gage your children’s learning level and ability before deciding to give them the challenge of learning Chinese, but most of the time students do great with learning both Chinese and English in elementary school.

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