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First graders master handwriting, addition...& Chinese?!

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. - First grade is full of colorful bulletin boards, simple arithmetic… and the Chinese language?!

"The children are taught the language through the curriculum, so there is no true direct instruction of the language itself,” said Stacey Rogovoy, Principal at College Gardens Elementary School.

Montgomery County Public Schools' Language Immersion Program has been growing for decades. At College Gardens, about 140 students learn half of their day in Mandarin Chinese.

"My students that leave here will be able to be competitive in society,” said Rogovoy. “Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in the world, and so it allows for my children to be open-minded citizens that definitely will have a lot to offer."

The key to mastering a language, especially one with different characters and tones than English, is to start young.

"Actually, kids don't realize how difficult it is. They just learn naturally, because it's an immersion program,” said Yanting Xia, teacher at College Gardens Elementary School.

Xia blends a variety of techniques, like gesturing and modeling, where kids learn largely through observation.

"In Asia and other areas, it's very normal to learn a second language,” said Ellie Kleinman, Chinese Immersion Program Coordinator at College Gardens Elementary School. “So, this is something, as a nation, we're going to be able to take greater and greater advantage of."

Only two elementary schools offer the Chinese Immersion Program in the district, so some students spend an hour and a half on the school bus, a trip many kids and parents deem well worth it.

"When you learn Chinese, it makes me smart,” said Lala Toure, student in the Chinese Immersion Program. “I think Chinese is healthy for me."

"We will not only prepare them for the future academically, we also prepare them culturally and linguistically,” said Xia.

Students can opt to take language immersion classes through their senior year at no extra cost.

MCPS offers Chinese, French and Spanish immersion programs at the elementary level.

Students are selected for the programs through a lottery process.

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