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Loving the Language: The Choice, Marketing, and Impact of Mandarin Immersion


This study investigates why and how Americans of various social locations are choosing Mandarin Immersion Programs, a form of bilingual education, as a source of cultural and linguistic transmission. Mandarin Immersion Programs are elementary school programs where children learn a foreign language and culture through a traditional elementary school curriculum. The growing number of language immersion programs and their locations outside ethnic enclaves, suggests that they hold some attraction to Americans of various backgrounds. To investigate this phenomenon, I examine Mandarin Immersion Programs through three related questions: 1) why do parents, without a Mandarin-speaking background or culture, choose a Mandarin Immersion Program? 2) how and why does a school promote a Mandarin Immersion Program when the student body is majority Hispanic? 3) how does the implementation of the Mandarin Immersion Program and the parents it attracts, impact the school environment? The analysis draws on two different, but related sets of data collection primarily located in the state of California. The first set of mixed-methods data was collected during the 2015-2016 school year and included a 500-respondent parent survey and 15 interviews with Black and White parents. The second set of data was collected three years later, during the 2018-2019 academic year. It narrows the focus to one Mandarin Immersion Program placed within a traditional English-only elementary school. The school serves a primarily working-class Hispanic student population within a conventional public-school district. The Mandarin Immersion Program is a strand of the school, as not all the students are learning in two languages. For the 2018-2019 academic school year, I spent approximately 300 hours observing four elementary classrooms and various parent and administrator meetings. I supplement the observations with twenty-five parent, teacher, and administrator interviews. This dissertation reveals several key findings in three stand-alone substantive chapters. First, in Chapter 2, I find that White and Black parents frame the benefits of immersion for their children differently. White parents want to give their children a future advantage to sustain their place within the academic hierarchy. Black parents choose Mandarin Immersion to circumvent structural issues within the educational system that may impact their children negatively. In Chapter 3, I find that a struggling school uses the immersion program to attract parents from outside the school catchment area resulting in an improved school based on state metrics. The immersion parents that arrive are generally middle-class and begin to occupy many parental positions of influence. I argue that the district does not take the majority Hispanic student body into account because their goals are not necessarily educational or citizenship-building. Rather, the goals are to increase school enrollment, test scores, and resources by bringing middle-class parents into the school through branding itself as a gateway to a global community. Finally, in Chapter 4, I show how the immersion program creates a more racially and economically diverse student body. However, the integration is superficial, and the structure of the program creates two schools under one roof. Mandarin Immersion parents leverage their social class resources to make changes to the school that primarily benefit their children and may eventually push out the families that existed before the immersion program arrived.

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