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Dual-language elementary students performed as well as AP high schoolers in Mandarin, study says

Kindergartener Gemma Gomez practices Chinese writing at a dual-language immersion program in Pasadena.
Deepa Fernandes/KPCC
Kindergartener Gemma Gomez practices Chinese writing at a dual-language immersion program in Pasadena.

A new Stanford University study reports some surprising results: fourth and fifth graders  at a Palo Alto school performed on par with high school students in Mandarin.

The elementary students attend Palo Alto's Ohlone Elementary dual-language immersion program, which means they are taught all subjects for at least half the day in Mandarin. The high school students were 4th and 5th level Advanced Placement Mandarin students.

The Stanford Graduate School of Education researchers found the elementary and high school students had the same level of linguistic competency in Mandarin, with some fifth graders even outperforming the high schoolers in reading. The results of their study are published in the spring issue of Foreign Language Annals.

The Stanford researchers also found no difference in linguistic ability between native Mandarin speakers and non-Chinese students in dual-language immersion school by the time they reached 4th and 5th grade.

Researchers said they believe this to be the first study to compare immersion language learners with high school AP language learners, and it is new fuel in the growing movement to introduce language learning in the younger grades. 

UCLA linguist Nina Hyams has studied language acquisition in babies and children. The Stanford research backs up her work in the field.

“We know that around puberty is the point when [the language program in the brain] seems not to be as active anymore, and in this country that’s the point at which we start teaching second languages, generally, in middle school,” Hyams said.

“So we’re introducing second language instruction at precisely the point where people are much less cognitively prepared to acquire a second language. It’s harder work for them and they just don’t do it as naturally.” 

Some parents might worry that immersing an elementary aged child in a language other than English for their formative learning years might hinder English proficiency. Fear not, according to the Stanford researchers. An earlier study they conducted found that the same Palo Alto school students did as well as their peers learning only in English across all subjects. The tests they took were in English.