Catherine Toth Fox: How Language Immersion Programs In Schools Boost Cultural Awareness - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

When we were considering private schools for our son last year, I asked other parents to which ones they were applying — and Maryknoll School made a lot of Top 3 lists.

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I have to admit, I was surprised.

Until I found out why — and it wasn’t because tuition is much less than at Punahou School or Iolani School. (That matters, though.)

Maryknoll, which celebrates its 95th anniversary this year, has been offering a Mandarin immersion program since 2017.

There are 207 students currently enrolled — that’s two-thirds of the total school population in grades K-5 — and by the the time the kids are in eighth grade, they are expected to be fluent in reading, writing, listening and speaking Mandarin.

Here’s how it works: The program starts in kindergarten, with half of the classes — math, science and Mandarin — taught entirely in Mandarin. By the sixth grade, the program moves to an 80/20 model, where all core classes are taught in Mandarin. In high school, students who are ready can sit for the Advanced Placement Chinese test. The school is already looking at partnering with a local university to offer college-level Chinese classes for college credit.

Kids don’t need to know Mandarin prior to starting — and many of the families don’t speak Mandarin at all.

It’s the first program of its kind in Hawaii — and by all accounts, it’s been very successful. According to the school, students are reaching or exceeding proficiency benchmarks, very few have left the program since its inception and parents are happy with the outcomes.

“Maryknoll strives to be at the forefront of academic innovation and our Mandarin immersion program does just that,” says Maryknoll president Shana Tong, herself a Maryknoll alum. “As the program progresses each year, we see the growth and success that goes along with being a dual-language student. We look to foster the language and culture for our students to broaden their horizons and prepare them for our ever-changing world.”

A friend of mine sent her son, now in fourth grade, to Maryknoll specifically because of this language immersion program.

Maryknoll School’s Mandarin immersion program starts in kindergarten, with half of the classes — math, science and Mandarin — taught entirely in Mandarin. Maryknoll School

No one speaks Mandarin at home — and yet, her 10-year-old is already able to have conversations in the language.

“We were optimistic that he would like the program, and we didn’t really set expectations because we knew it was something new and different,” she told me recently. “But we are happy he enjoys learning a new language and hope he continues to work toward becoming a more fluent speaker.”

According to the language education company Berlitz, Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world, if you’re just counting only native speakers, at 918 million. (Add non-native and English has the most speakers at over 1 billion.) And while about half of the global population can speak at least two languages, only about 20% of Americans can say the same, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

There are a lot of benefits to being able to speak multiple languages, from brain development to increased cultural awareness. Dual-language immersion programs can also help minimize the achievement gap for non-native English speakers; these students can learn math and science, for example, in their native language instead of struggling within English-only curriculum.

Hawaii has had Hawaiian-language immersion schools since the mid-1980s, when a group of Hawaiian language educators started Hawaiian immersion preschools called Aha Punana Leo. Around the same time the state Department of Education launched its Hawaiian Language Immersion Program; today, 22 state-run sites and six charter schools offer various models of Hawaiian immersion education at all grade levels on six islands. More than 3,400 students are enrolled in these programs this school year, up from 2,400 in 2015.

While there’s demand for olelo Hawaii — and the perpetuation of the language is critically important — parents are looking for dual language education in other languages, too, namely Mandarin and Japanese. (On the mainland there are hundreds of Spanish, French and Mandarin immersion programs in schools.)

Hawaii has long had Hawaiian-language immersion schools like this one in Maui. April Estrellon/Civil Beat/2020

And it’s starting to happen.

In 2018, the state piloted its Dual Language Immersion Program with 42 third graders in Japanese and 23 fourth graders in Mandarin at Hahaione Elementary School. These were opt-in programs, so parents and students voluntarily signed up and the school could access the demand. In 2021, the school officially launched a Japanese immersion program, the first in Hawaii’s public school system, where kindergarten students learn in both Japanese and English.

“There was a high demand for it amongst families,” says Hahaione principal Shannon Goo. “As an International Baccalaureate World School, our mission is to create a better and more peaceful world. Learning a world language empowers students to gain insight into another culture and promotes a deep sense of empathy for multiple perspectives. This allows connections to be made that propel us to create a more peaceful world. It also allows us to gain a sense of equanimity to allow for that deeper dialogue and understanding.”

And so far, so good. Students in the Hahaione program are showing improved Japanese language proficiency — and doing just as well in English language arts as their peers who are not in the dual-language program.

“We believe that our dual language immersion students get the opportunity to grow in unique cognitive and intellectual ways, which may benefit a student’s long-term thinking and cognitive abilities,” Goo says.

I really took for granted the opportunity to learn a different language; it was a requirement in both high school and college and I considered these courses things to cross off a list. But now, as an adult navigating a world that seems to get smaller and a global community that seems to get bigger, I can see the benefit of multiple-language education, the way language can connect people and places, the way it helps with understanding and awareness.

What Maryknoll and the DOE are doing to promote cultural learning and provide dual-language opportunities should be applauded. Let’s hope it also inspires other schools — and more parents — to consider it, too.

Civil Beat’s education reporting is supported by a grant from Chamberlin Family Philanthropy.

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About the Author

Catherine Toth Fox

Born and raised on Oahu, Catherine Toth Fox is an editor, writer, children’s book author, blogger and former journalism instructor. She is currently the editor at large for Hawaii Magazine and lives in Honolulu with her husband, son and two dogs. You can follow her on Instagram @catherinetothfox. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

Is this program being funded or underwritten by an outside entity?If so, please supply the name.

Taueva · 11 months ago

About 10 years ago, I took part in a lively debate with a dozen other parents on the value of choosing this or that specific foreign language for a child's education. As it happened, most of the parents were U.S.-born but with a lot of international experience, all had at least an MBA/MD/PhD, and it was on the East Coast, so the discussion was not Hawaii-centric in any way.What we all agreed upon is that first and foremost you need to understand why you want your child to study a certain language. Some parents are very passionate about teaching their kids the language(s) of their ancestors; however, in practice this rarely goes beyond basic conversational knowledge of the language. If it's the business door-opening potential you are after, you probably should look at the languages spoken in major developing and emerging-markets countries that are notorious for their poor English; at the time, Mandarin and Russian were at the top of everyone's lists. One thing everyone agreed on is that an American cannot be considered an educated person if they haven't studied at least one Romance language (French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, etc., or perhaps even classical Latin).

Chiquita · 11 months ago

-I think if students learn a second language it should be Spanish

Swimmerjean · 11 months ago

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