Language immersion is becoming more popular every year. Studies show it improves linguistic competency and the brain’s executive functioning. And, contrary to what many assume, immersion doesn’t affect kids’ understanding of other subjects, such as maths and English. It may even enhance learning in these subjects. In Mandarin-happy Singapore, it’s no surprise that preschools and international schools are adding Chinese immersion programmes into the curriculum.
We talked to CAROL CHENG, Director at Masterminds, a Montessori-based kindergarten and enrichment club that is launching a new Chinese immersion programme in July.
What are the benefits of Chinese immersion at a young age?
Children between two and three years old are very sensitive to language. It’s a great time to pick up a new language. Expat children and local children alike usually have minimal Chinese language exposure at home. We use Mandarin throughout the classes, including transition and play times. This creates an environment where the language is used organically and spontaneously. It encourages children to learn the language as if it were their first language and to use it to communicate. This is very different than feeling as if it’s an academic subject that is only taught and used during Chinese lessons.
How much Mandarin is used? Is English spoken at all?
The entire immersion programme is carried out in Mandarin. There are only Chinese teachers teaching the children. The teacher-student ratio is 1:5. It’s a mixed-age group class so there are lots of opportunities for peer learning. For interested parents, the children can stay for an extra hour for Montessori and maths work. This extended hour is taught in English.
Are your Mandarin teachers native speakers?
Most of our teachers are native Chinese speakers. All teachers have the required qualifications as stipulated by the Early Childhood Development Agency.
How is a typical day structured?
Masterminds offers three hours of drop-off instruction. Children start the day with Chinese circle, followed by time in our sensory playroom. The playroom was born out of the idea that children need a place to release their sensory stress. We have stations such as sand and water tables, children’s gym equipment, swing, bouncing ball, quiet tent, LEGO and magnetic walls. Children choose their stations depending on their interests and what sensory stresses they need to release.
After play and snack, children attend Chinese classes, which includes speech and drama and cultural arts lessons. They also spend some time in our life skills area where they can pour, cut and do arts and crafts. This helps their fine motor skills and develops longer concentration spans. They also play outside at our playground twice a week.
What ages do you accept?
We generally start enrolling children after they have turned two. We take in a few 18-month-old children, too.
When do classes begin and end?
Our Chinese immersion programme starts at 8.30am and ends at 11.30am. The optional additional hour extends the session to 12.30pm. You can sign up to attend twice a week (Tuesday/Thursday), three times a week (Monday/Wednesday/Friday) or five times a week.
If a child is confused by the use of Mandarin in a given situation, how do the teachers respond?
The teachers will always use Mandarin first and support that with non-verbal cues (such as showing the action). If the child is still confused, the teacher will use simple English to explain, then repeat the instructions in Mandarin again. Consistency and repetition are important to help a child learn a new language. By using the same words to give a particular instruction, the child will quickly pick up and understand.
When did you launch the programme?
Our first term starts on 3 July.
Who are the people behind it?
My partner and I have been in the early childhood industry for over 25 years in total. We worked together for 10 years in the same school before we decided to start Masterminds together. The school opened its doors in 2018.
I graduated from college with a degree in Economics and Psychology. I started working in a bank, which was something I always thought I had wanted as a career. After working in the corporate world for a few years, I decided I wanted to pursue an underlying passion to work with young children. I went on to do a Masters degree in Child Development, trained myself in the Montessori pedagogy, started working in a Montessori school, and haven’t looked back since.
My partner started her career as an architect. She spent 18 years designing and building houses, then pursued her passion to be a kindergarten teacher. That was 19 years ago, and she is still loving it.
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