First Vancouver cohort to complete Mandarin immersion program set to graduate

The first cohort of Vancouver elementary students to complete a popular Mandarin-bilingual program — from kindergarten to Grade 7 — is set to graduate at the end of June.

The students were taught in Mandarin and English from kindergarten to Grade 7

Students learn not only Mandarin, but also the crucial elements of Chinese culture. (Caroline Chan/CBC)

The first cohort of Vancouver elementary students to complete a popular Mandarin-bilingual program — from kindergarten to Grade 7 — is set to graduate at the end of June.

The John Norquay Elementary class is just like any other in the Lower Mainland, except teacher Elaine Lau's class does half the curriculum in English and the other half in Mandarin.

Students in the school's Early Mandarin Bilingual Program — which blends both languages from kindergarten to Grade 7 — come from many different backgrounds. Some have no familial connection to China.

"We take part in many sorts of engaging activities that students can learn and also learn Mandarin at the same time," said Lau.

She said it's important to learn the culture of China while also learning Mandarin, because they go hand in hand.

During Vancouver's Dragon Boat Festival the class made sticky rice wraps. During Lunar New Year, they made paper lanterns.

"When you're learning the language you need to learn its history," said Lau. "We do a lot of proverbs and poems so they can also learn the history of China."

Textbooks used in the program use a combination of English and Mandarin. (Caroline Chan/CBC)

The program, which admits roughly 20 students a year, isn't geared toward native Mandarin speakers, but instead works on a lottery system for admittance, similar to French Immersion courses.

"When you're learning multiple languages at a young age, that cognitive development is a lot faster," said Christepher Wee, the Grade 1 and 2 teacher.

"In terms of their ability to have empathy and compassion. All those play into learning a second language."

The first of group of students to ever entirely complete Vancouver's only Mandarin immersion program is set to graduate at the end of June. 5:16

Wee, who was a teacher while the students completed their entire stint in the program, said students will come away from Norquay Elementary with a "greater sense of the world."

"They'll have a better understanding of cultures, and that diversity we have," said Wee.

The graduating class is a welcome sight for parents, many of whom worried earlier this year after a shortage of qualified teachers possibly threatened the future of the program.

With files from On the Coast

Read more from CBC British Columbia