Learning a Second Language, Young
Bay City, Michigan is considering a fascinating new preschool concept. A new pilot program will immerse 3- and 4-year-olds in Mandarin Chinese for half the day; the children will learn in English the other half of the time. You can read an Associated Press article about the program here.
The district is not providing any funds for the program, which might be a blessing. There won't be much controversy that way (which, given the complaining about the IB program's international focus, might otherwise be anticipated). The program hopes to attract grants. It is being sold as a way to help Michigan students compete in a global economy that features 1.3 billion Chinese people, many of whom speak Mandarin.
All well and good. Portraying the program that way might help attract funds from Chinese-American business people. But I think the key to this program lies in what the Bay City gifted coordinator mentioned in the article, that children's brains are like sponges when they're this little. New evidence in early childhood development points to the idea that the brain grows like crazy when children are 0-5 years old. During these years, we are programmed to learn as much as we can about this world. After that, however, we have a little more trouble learning things. Our brains slow down on the neurological pathway development front. We learn, but not like we learn words when we're little.
Unfortunately, too few kids are immersed in rich learning environments during these years. I'm not sure what the solution to that problem is; I'm not a fan of the universal preschool proposals out there for two reasons. First, I worry that these preschool programs will suffer from the same low standards that dog the K-12 years in many public school systems. Second, many families are capable of providing enriching environments for children's early years. Parents read to their children, talk to them, play with them, take them to fascinating places, etc. Not all families need or want preschool, so making preschool mandatory, like K-12 grades are, would be a step backward.
But if families do choose to put their kids in preschool, immersion programs like this Mandarin one would be wonderful. Not only will kids learn Chinese, their brains will grow and form different, more problem-solving pathways than they otherwise might. That's what will help these Michigan kids in the global economy, not their fluency in Mandarin.