Courtney Dezahd grew up speaking English only, and when she was pregnant with her daughter, she was determined that her children would be different.
In addition to English, they would learn Mandarin, she decided — even though neither Dezahd nor her husband is Chinese. So when her daughter and son turned 18 months old, she enrolled them in LePort Montessori's Mandarin immersion program in Irvine.
"It's an opportunity and a gift that you can give your kids," said Dezahd, an Irvine mother of two. "If you can do it, they'll get a lifetime benefit from it. Orange County is very culturally diverse, and if my daughter stays in Orange County, I can't even imagine the benefits, businesswise, if she can speak Mandarin."
Dezahd is among a growing group of parents in Orange County who are opting for foreign language immersion programs as early as preschool as a way to give their kids a competitive advantage in the global economy, as well as the benefits in terms of brain development of being fluent in multiple languages.
"If you learn a much different language like Mandarin, the brain gets to be a lot more reflective of language and doesn't accept things as standard," said Heike Larson, senior vice president of marketing and admissions for LePort, which also offers Spanish immersion. "They get that meta-cognition that you don't have if you're monolingual."
Plus, she said, research has shown that bilingual children are more empathetic and have better executive function than monolingual kids, and that being fluent in more than one language can even slow the onset of brain damage from Alzheimer's or strokes.
Science has also shown that the best time to learn language is as a child, and that by doing so, children will be able to speak without an accent.
"They're learning how to speak English anyway, so it's really no different for them to learn other languages at the time," said Carrie Mizera, executive director of Renascence School International, a tri-lingual English, Spanish and Mandarin immersion program in Costa Mesa. "Their brains are really, really absorbent at that time, and that's why we want to capture this opportunity and teach multiple languages."
Another reason parents are turning to immersion preschools is to preserve their culture.
"The other group of parents that I'm seeing are second- or third-generation Chinese Americans," said Mizera. "They feel like they missed the boat. In the past, it was kind of taboo to keep your language, so you learn English, you want to blend in and you don't want to stand out. But they're realizing now that because of that, they lost a language they could have kept — and now they want to give that as a gift to their children."
Renee Wu, whose 5-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter attend LePort's Mandarin program, said that while she wanted to pass Mandarin along to her children, her own language skills weren't strong enough to do it on her own.
"We wanted them to have as much culture as we had growing up, but we don't have enough within us to provide it for them," she said. "My son is in kindergarten now and his level of Chinese surpasses my own. They also celebrate both American and Chinese culture, and some of the Chinese traditions I didn't even know that much about."
The program has also helped Wu's children to connect to their extended family.
"We took my kids back to Taiwan, where my husband's family is," she said. "My husband's family doesn't speak English at all, but my kids blended right in. They're more American in terms of habits, but I don't think anything really surprised them there. By contrast, I felt like a foreigner because I don't speak the language very well."
The Mandarin and Spanish classrooms at LePort are set up just like their English classrooms, explained Larson, so the activities and toys are all the same — but teachers exclusively speak the immersion language.
This differs from foreign language instruction in most middle and high schools, where the language of instruction is English, and English vocabulary and phrases are translated into another language.
"A lot of other schools have a head teacher and they'll bring in an assistant to sing Spanish songs," said Larson. "But the problem with that is that the kids will speak English, and the teacher speaks English, and the default language all around you is English. So the kids might understand another language, but they don't speak it.
"We firmly believe that at least during the preschool years, it has to be a monolingual immersion environment so that the classroom becomes Spanish or Mandarin so that the kids start to speak Spanish or Mandarin along with the teachers."
Renascence, which currently goes from preschool up to sixth grade, has a similar pedagogy, but as a trilingual immersion program offers some classes in English, some in Spanish and some in Mandarin throughout the day.
"The obvious question is, if you have the opportunity to have your kid learn another language by going to a preschool, why wouldn't you?" said Larson. "You drop them off, you pick them up — it's no extra effort to you. There's no drawback."