Back in February of 2002, it was suddenly time to register my blue-eyed baby for kindergarten. Luckily for us, our schools here in Cupertino are excellent, so we just assumed we'd register for the neighborhood elementary school, and be done with it.
Then a friend told us about Cupertino's alternative programs: the academic sit-up-straight-so-we-can-have-the-highest-scores program, the Village People Who Do Computers program, and the airy-fairy, artsy-fartsy, hippie-dippie program. All great schools, I'm sure. But the fourth one really caught our attention: the Cupertino Language Immersion Program (CLIP).
This program immerses the kids in Mandarin Chinese for the majority of the day. That means that the regular subject matter is taught in Mandarin. Science and social studies, as language rich subjects, are especially good candidates for “Mandarin time”. The kids have the usual English Language Arts, but they also have Chinese Language Arts. They sing in Mandarin. They have art class in Mandarin. Within days of immersion, every 5-year-old has no doubt when the teacher is saying in Mandarin “Everyone sit down and stop talking”.
My husband and I both enjoy languages -- he's fluent in Spanish, and I'm pretty good at German, and have studied a couple of other languages, too. What a great opportunity! Our blue-eyed baby, with no Chinese heritage, could be fluent in Mandarin! Where do we sign up?
At the time, it turned out that not so many people shared our enthusiasm. The program was only four years old, and this was a few years before China really hit the news scene. Families with no Chinese heritage paid no attention to the program's existence, or if they did, figured that since they couldn’t help their child with homework, it couldn’t work for them. Chinese-speaking families worried their kids wouldn't learn English properly. The program expanded that year from one Kindergarten class to two, but had trouble filling the 64 slots.
But we jumped right in and tried to recruit more families. Still, the next two or three years had trouble filling those slots, while the Village People and Scores Are Us had waiting lists of over a hundred.
Nine years later, when you can’t power on your computer without seeing a story about China’s economic growth, people marvel at the foresight that my husband and I had in 2002. CLIP’s waiting list now always has over a hundred hopefuls. We are breaking our arms patting ourselves on the back, although we are really just a couple of foreign language nerds. We’re thrilled with ourselves because our blue-eyed baby, graduating 8th grade, the last year of the program, is fluent in Mandarin.
Her accent is so beautiful that the Chinese mommies can’t identify her in a blind listening test. And she can read and write some 2,000 to 3,000 Chinese characters.
Whether she uses Mandarin in her future is, of course, unknown. But we’re pretty sure being in CLIP had lots of great side benefits for her. She had to learn self-reliance and creative memory techniques to do her homework. She learned so much about Chinese culture that I finally enrolled her in Hebrew School in 2nd grade because she knew more about the Moon Festival than some Jewish holidays. She learned that the world doesn’t look like her. She learned confidence, because she knew something her parents did not.
And she learned to make fun of her parents when they try to speak Mandarin with their god-awful accents. Yes, my husband and I studied some Mandarin, but I’m more likely to become an Olympic synchronized swimming medalist than an understandable Mandarin speaker.
There were surprising benefits for us, the parents, as well. Even though my Mandarin is unrecognizable as such, people appreciate the effort, and we gained insight to how hard it is for an adult Chinese immigrant to learn English. We learned about Chinese culture, and saw many similarities with cultures more familiar to us – especially in the food category. We made friends with the other parents, a close-knit group that has been together since our kids started kindergarten.
We also became friends with our tutor (the tutor was primarily for us – our daughter was doing fine), who gave us a private tour of Taiwan. We went on a China tour with three other CLIP families. If you plan a trip to China, I’m telling you -- bringing along a busload of friends who speak Chinese is the way to go.
Now the annual CLIP Spring Banquet, where the kids receive their CLIP diplomas, has come and gone. Of the 64 kindergarteners, 28 eighth-graders graduated due to attrition over curriculum disputes in the early years, the middle school jump off, and assorted other personal reasons.
The younger CLIP grades are full, but I still don’t see many blue-eyed babies. Despite being fawned over on the trips to Taiwan and China by astonished shopkeepers, who looked around for her Chinese parents, but saw only us, blue-eyed and mute, our daughter doesn’t think her speaking Chinese is unusual. After all, all her classmates speak it, too.
Now, she and her classmates will disperse to their various high schools, where many will take Chinese Level 4 as 9th graders, and probably have a pretty easy time of it. They certainly deserve it; they put in a lot of hours for many years on their Chinese homework. It’s time to break our arms patting them on the back.