RIVERTON — First-graders in Susan Shumway's Chinese immersion class at Foothills Elementary School in Riverton never hear her speak English. And after the first half of the school year, they never speak English to her, either.
Everything in class is done in Mandarin, regardless of whether they are studying vocabulary words or math. They even color in Chinese — singing familiar children's songs, but with oh so unique lyrics, as they color and cut at their desks.
State-directed curriculum for this immersion program began in 2009 with the urging of the Mandarin-speaking governor at the time, Jon Huntsman Jr., and legislative support sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper. The program continues to grow with the support of current Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
Huntsman and Herbert are together this week in China as Herbert leads a trade mission in the waning days of Huntsman's tour as U.S. ambassador there.
Spanish immersion programs in Utah still outnumber those teaching Mandarin, but both programs are strong and growing. By the time the next school year begins in the fall, the state expects to see about 2,200 elementary school students and 5,000 students in secondary schools studying Mandarin.
"We're adding schools as fast as we can," said Gregg Roberts, world language specialist for the Utah State Office of Education, who said limited funding is the only reason the immersion program is not growing even faster.
Roberts said the governor would like to have 100 dual-immersion programs in five languages with 30,000 students by 2015.
"Next year, Utah will have approximately one-third of all Chinese immersion programs in the country," he said. Programs will also continue in Spanish and in French. The state has chosen, but not announced, what additional languages it will add, Roberts said.
Carolyn Gough, world languages consultant for the Jordan School District's dual immersion program, said children learn languages quickly and see the greatest measure of success when they start young.
"People who are savvy about business recognize the world is no longer round. It's a flat, spreading economy, and China is where a lot of our business opportunities are going to be in the near future," Gough said. "I think most parents recognize there's a great opportunity for their children to know and speak Chinese."
"It's all about economics, economics, economics," Roberts said. "We know that students will be farther ahead and have jobs skills if they are fluent in Chinese."
Heidi Sabey's daughter Kaylin is in Shumway's first-grade class. "We really thought this would be a great learning experience for her, to give her a higher level of learning, and the challenge. We were excited for the different level of thinking she could have."
Kaylin brings a lot of what she learns home. "She has been teaching her little sisters, and my husband and I, and she's getting it," her mother said. The Sabeys hope Kaylin's two younger sisters are also in the Chinese immersion program.
Kaylin said she likes writing the Chinese characters, and "I like to sing in Chinese." Caleb Grossarth said he likes learning Chinese because it's something not all of the kids at his school get to do.
"My favorite thing to do in Chinese class is journal and the calligraphy book," said classmate McKenna Thompson.
Sydnee Nelson also likes writing Chinese characters the best, "because it kind of helps you understand what things mean," she said. In the future, "maybe it will give me a good chance to give me something for college."
The students also spend half a day with an English-speaking teacher, where they are also still learning handwriting skills.
Shumway said her students are "just like sponges."
"They're very excited. At the beginning of the year they were a little intimidated," she said. "But you can see the excitement in their eyes. They pick up so much stuff so quickly it's just amazing."37 comments on this story
Limited funding isn't the only obstacle the state has as it pushes the immersion programs forward: There is also a limited supply of qualified teachers. Roberts said there are currently 25 guest teachers in Utah from China and five more from Taiwan. Brigham Young University and the University of Utah are starting to produce qualified teachers, and other universities in the state are exploring programs that would produce teachers capable of teaching in dual-language programs.
Roberts said the state immersion model is receiving international attention.
"The French government is giving us six paid teachers from France. They're going to start our exact model in schools in France next year," he said.