LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In Mandarin immersion teacher Kennis Wong’s kindergarten class, her young pupils are making paper masks glued to sticks that they twirl between their palms, showing a different face on each side.
With a similar duality, the children at Broadway Elementary in Los Angeles are learning to talk in English and Chinese, and some are becoming trilingual due to a Spanish-speaking parent.
As more parents have sought to give their children an edge in an era when China is a rising economic power, school districts have expanded Chinese language programs and students from a wide range of backgrounds have joined them.
Parents whose children speak Spanish or another language at home, Chinese in class and English on the playground hope their kids have limitless opportunities in a global economy bringing Asia, the U.S. and Latin America closer together.
Broadway Elementary parent Karla Godoy, 41, speaks to her son, Paco, in English, her husband talks to him in Spanish and he learns Mandarin at school.
“With Spanish and Mandarin and English, he should be able to do just about anything he wants,” she said.
There are at least 50 Chinese-language immersion programs at U.S. schools for children in grades 12 and below, compared to about a dozen six years ago, said Tara Fortune, immersion project coordinator at the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition at the University of Minnesota.
At Broadway Elementary in Los Angeles, a city with a high Latino population where both English and Spanish are commonly heard in the school yard, the Mandarin program launched this year serves 44 kindergarten students including several, like Cindy Soriano, who speak Spanish.
“She likes to speak Chinese,” said her mother, Isabelle Hernandez, 38. “She speaks all day what she learned.”
As for Susan Tuan, 40, a Chinese-American filmmaker, she speaks Mandarin to her son, Julian, and her husband of Chilean descent talks to him in Spanish.
For a time, Julian was not exposed to much English.
“It got to the point where on play dates, it was like a foreigner in another country,” Tuan said. “He didn’t really know what was going on, and we started feeling bad.”
Broadway Elementary is one of two Los Angeles Unified School District campuses with Mandarin immersion programs.
To aid instruction, teacher Kennis Wong never speaks English in front of her children, so they get used to only hearing Mandarin from her. But that does not stop them from speaking English to each other.
“Have you ever had a brain freeze?” one of the children could be heard asking a classmate, during a recent visit by reporters to Wong’s classroom.
In an interview, Wong said she tolerates English in her class, but rewards Mandarin. And the children are surrounded with Chinese characters on everything from the name cards on their desks to the drawing of a fish on a wall.
The children also learn in English from another teacher.
Wong said she has some children learning three languages at the same time.
“The brain is already rolling in a way to be so receptive, so that will definitely help them,” Wong said.
“But sometimes it will also be a negative, because I also see children who will get so confused because they are learning so many different languages,” she said.
Clayton Dube is an associate director at the University of Southern California’s U.S.-China Institute, and familiar with the Broadway Elementary program.
He said the school located in a mixed neighborhood shows how Chinese language instruction is reaching new students, beyond the children of Chinese descent and white kids from affluent families who had been more likely to learn Mandarin.
“What’s fresh about this is you’re moving beyond the usual suspects,” Dube said.
The same phenomenon is being seen in other parts of the country. Joan Brzezinski, director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota, said that in her state, children from Hmong and Somali immigrant communities are also joining Chinese-language programs.
Language education groups said there are no statistics on exactly how many students in Chinese language programs speak another language besides English at home.
But the number of K-12 public school students in the United States learning a Chinese language rose to nearly 60,000 in 2008, from about 20,000 in 2005, according to a report from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
That is still far below Spanish, which had 6.4 million students, but it approaches the 73,000 students learning Japanese. Similar to today’s interest in Chinese, enrollment in Japanese jumped in the 1980s with that country’s economic growth, language experts said.
For Julian, the Broadway Elementary student, the economic opportunities he may one day enjoy are not foremost in his mind. When asked what his favorite part of class is, Julian had a simple answer. “Learning more Chinese,” he said.
Editing by Jerry Norton