POTOMAC, Maryland – Ever since Beibei Sun moved to the United States to attend college, she knew she wanted to hold on to her Chinese roots.
Now that she has two children, she has found the best way to do that is by teaching them how to speak her first language.
Sun, who lives in Potomac, is one of many parents in the Montgomery County area who want their children to learn another language not only for future employment and travel opportunities, but also to keep their heritage alive.
“When you learn a new language, especially in Chinese, you have to learn where the words come from so you learn a lot about the Chinese culture,” Sun said.
Thirty-four percent of Montgomery County’s population is foreign-born. Of the seven districts that make up the county, two are more populated with Chinese-born people than any other nationality, according to a Capital News Service analysis.
The large Chinese presence has had multiple effects in the surrounding area, including in the schools.
Sun said she began speaking Chinese to her son and daughter when they were each infants, but when they became older, they stopped responding to her in Chinese. It became harder as they got older to teach them the language, especially after working all day, she said.
She then decided to enroll them in a local Chinese school that met for two hours per week to teach the children basic language skills.
She soon realized that the Chinese school wasn’t improving her children’s Chinese at a rate she was hoping for.
Fortunately, she heard that Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) offered language-immersion programs starting at the elementary school level. She said she immediately wanted to take advantage of what her local school system had to offer.
“In Chinese school, it’s just two hours per week so the kids don’t have the motivation to do the work every day,” Sun said. In the Chinese-immersion programs offered in MCPS, “they learn a little bit every day so it helps them pick up the language and they do the work each day.”
In language-immersion programs, either all or a portion of all core subjects — for example, math, science, history — are taught in the target language, according to the MCPS World Language Immersion Program website.
Sun saw immediate improvement in her son Leo’s ability to comprehend the language after he started the program in fourth grade at Potomac Elementary School.
Now 15, Leo said he feels a sense of duty to learn Chinese since it was his parents’ first language. He is now enrolled in Honors Chinese 5 at Churchill High School.
Although he’s only in his sophomore year of high school, he said plans to continue to take Chinese courses through college as his sister does.
The Chinese-immersion programs not only teach the students the language, but also about Chinese culture.
That appeals to some parents outside the Chinese community.
“Exposing them to something different from what they know… it helps their brains grow,” said Lola Tobun, whose son, Ayo, is in seventh grade and enrolled in the Chinese-immersion program at Herbert Hoover Middle School.
Tobun grew up in Nigeria speaking Yoruba and learned French in school. She teaches Ayo and her younger daughter — who attends Cold Spring Elementary’s gifted and talented program — about Nigerian culture as well. Although she does not know how to speak Chinese, she was excited that her son had the opportunity to learn.
“It’s a skill. Every skill you learn now is going to be useful. It doesn’t cost him anything to learn it,” Tobun said. “The future is Chinese. It’s one of the languages – from what I’ve read and everything – it’s a good language and the language of the future.”
The language-immersion programs in MCPS began nearly 40 years ago with the installation of a French language immersion program and its goal is to promote bilingual literacy, according to the supervisor of world languages in MCPS, Francoise Vandenplas.
“It was all based on interest from parents who found that, in Canada, this was one way that French was alive and well,” Vandenplas said.
MCPS now offers language-immersion programs in Chinese, French and Spanish at seven elementary schools across the county and four middle schools.
Immersion programs are not offered in the high schools, but students choose to take their preferred language level course.
In determining which specific language would be offered for a school’s immersion program, Vandenplas said that the surrounding demographic plays a major role.
“A lot has to do with community stakeholders and input from communities where the county is looking into creating a program,” Vandenplas said. “For Chinese, one (elementary) school is located in Potomac and there are definitely a lot of Chinese-born parents who have an interest in immersion.”
Tobun said that Ayo, who began learning Chinese at Potomac Elementary School, has frequent opportunities to speak Chinese outside of the classroom. She said she has some friends who will speak to him in Chinese.
Sun and her husband are “mostly social with Chinese” and many of her coworkers are Chinese, which gives Leo more opportunities to hear and speak with other people outside of school.
“I remember…12 years ago when I started teaching, only about 10 percent (of the students) came from Chinese-speaking homes,” said Shu-Ju Liu, a Chinese language teacher at Herbert Hoover Middle School. said. She said that now that number has increased to 16 to 20 percent of her students.
“I think that more and more in the U.S., people realize what an asset it is to be bilingual. Our current world is becoming more global and we can’t assume everyone speaks English,” Vandenplas said. “For this community, it’s a lot about keeping the heritage alive.”
All the other languages offered provide both partial- and full-immersion options. Vandenplas said the Chinese program is only offered as partial immersion because of a variety of factors, including availability of resources and community input.
Another factor for only offering partial immersion is that many of the students who are enrolled in the program come from Chinese-speaking homes, so learning fundamentals of English grammar and language are equally important, Vandenplas said.
“It’s good for their learning. For my kids, they ‘get it’ and understand what another culture is about…. When you talk about another culture, they’re not judgmental about it,” Tobun said. “For me, I think it is a good idea to expand the program to have every kid living in Montgomery County experience that.”