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Casper school seeks to make students bilingual

A school in Casper has started teaching some of its classes in Chinese. The idea is that the students in those classes will grow up bilingual. This is the first Chinese immersion program in a Wyoming school, but data from other states that have similar programs show a wide range of benefits. Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports.

WILLOW BELDEN: Miss Li’s classroom at Paradise Valley Elementary school looks a lot like other kindergarten classrooms. There are bins of art supplies, colorful pictures on the walls, and tables that are just the right size for five-year-olds. Miss Li is doing a lesson in counting, drawing shapes on a white board with colorful markers. What’s different about this class is that everything is in Chinese.

(Teacher asks question in Chinese; students answer)

BELDEN: These kindergarteners are in a dual language immersion program. Half the day, they have class in English, and the other half, in Chinese. Aaron Wilson is the principal. He says the way they’re learning Chinese is very different than the way most people have learned foreign languages.

AARON WILSON: They’re actually learning math, social studies, and science content in Chinese. It’s not being translated for them. There’s no English spoken in that class by the teacher.

BELDEN: When Wilson says “no English,” he means no English. The teacher even spoke Chinese to me when I visited the classroom.

The whole thing may sound impossible: you throw a bunch of English-speaking kids into a class and expect them to pick up Chinese without translating a single word. But it seems to be working. The kids already know how to count to 100. They can tell simple stories. And they’ve learned songs.

(Kids sing song in Chinese.)

BELDEN: The hope is that by the time the kids graduate high school, they’ll be proficient, if not fluent, in Mandarin. Thea True-Wells is one of the parents who pushed to get the dual language program started. She says she wants her son to be bilingual, and she has other goals for him too. 

THEA TRUE-WELLS:   I also hope that he looks at the world differently than I did growing up in Wyoming, where it was very much about the border of Wyoming, it wasn’t necessarily about the globe. And my hope is that even if he never uses Mandarin … that there will be an appreciation for other cultures, and just how vast and different and exciting the world can be.

BELDEN: Plus, there’s the business aspect of it. Wyoming is looking to export large amounts of coal to China. Chinese companies are investing in oil production here. And just in general, China is the world’s second largest economy. So knowing Mandarin isn’t a bad thing to have on your resume.

VIRGINIA COLLIER: Most businesses are just really, really begging and pleading for more bilinguals. And so these kids are going to be ready for that world.

BELDEN: That’s Virginia Collier. She’s a professor emerita at George Mason University and has done extensive research on bilingual education. She says Mandarin is a good choice of language, because so many people speak it. But she says learning any language is useful.

COLLIER: It just expands your thinking skills. It expands the parts of your brain that you use.

BELDEN: Collier says once you know one language, it’s easier to learn others – even if the languages are very different. Plus, studies have shown that kids who grow up bilingual are more creative and have better problem solving skills than their monolingual counterparts. They’re also doing well on standardized tests  -- and not just when it comes to foreign languages. Gregg Roberts is a language immersion specialist in Utah, where 20,000 students are in dual language immersion programs like the one in Casper.

GREGG ROBERTS: Dual language immersion students are on par, or actually scoring higher, than their monolingual peers, in English, language arts, math and science.

BELDEN: For now, the program in Casper is just for kindergarteners. But the school hopes to add an additional grade level each year, so that it becomes a K thru 12 program. Parents are also pushing for similar programs in Spanish. And experts like Virginia Collier say that eventually, dual language immersion could become the new norm for elementary education all over Wyoming, and across the country. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.

BACK ANNOUNCE: The Natrona County School Board will discuss whether to expand the dual language immersion program, at its meeting on October 28th.