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In NSA-funded initiative, Palo Alto students sharpen their Mandarin skills

Original post made on Jul 3, 2014

As Americans debate revelations about sweeping data collection by the National Security Agency, the secretive federal department has funded a seemingly more benign agenda at Ohlone Elementary School in Palo Alto.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, July 4, 2014, 12:00 AM

Comments (32)

Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 4, 2014 at 10:45 am

I was never a fan of the Mandarin Immersion program, but it seems very foolish to have an immersion program at the elementary level for 6 years and then have no Mandarin at the Middle school levels. Not that we need to continue the immersion, but after investing 6 years of our education $$, shouldn't we continue to support learning Mandarin?

Posted by Bush
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 4, 2014 at 1:21 pm

Thank you for this program, President Bush.

Posted by Think Again
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2014 at 1:23 pm

The money might be better spent teaching the kids Russian.

Most Chinese who move here or do business here speak English; most Russians in the same situation do not

According to the June 28 edition of " The Economist", the up-and-coming nations are Eastern European, especially Poland.

Polish, Portuguese ( esp Brazilian), Vietnamese, Spanish, French, and Italian speakers are very much needed, now and in the future, because those populations are not taught English. Even the schools in Japan have stopped teaching English.

But, as usual, our government is always LAST on a trend.

Posted by Think Again Again
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 4, 2014 at 1:37 pm

China is the largest country in the world by population, and less than 1% speak english (.73% according to Wikipedia). So if you want to go to China to do business, might be a good idea to speak Chinese. Not surprising that Chinese businessmen who come to the US speak english - it is quite the self selected group, don't you think?

BTW, 33% of Poles speak english, 8% of Brazilians, 39% of French, 34% of Italians, 22% of Spaniards, so not sure why you would say that those populations are not taught English...

Web Link

Posted by Joe
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jul 4, 2014 at 1:51 pm

> China is the largest country in the world by population, and less than
> 1% speak english (.73% according to Wikipedia).

Anyone wanting to do business in China will most likely be dealing with the 1% that does speak English.

> So if you want to go to China to do business

it's pretty clear that the Chinese gov't does not want you going to China to do business--particularly if you want to import goods that they are making already.

Posted by Think Again Again
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 4, 2014 at 2:40 pm

>Anyone wanting to do business in China will most likely be dealing with the 1% that does speak English.

Not true at all, I've been to dozens of factories and only run into english speaking owners/operators a couple times. And even then, I've had to rely on a translator.

> it's pretty clear that the Chinese gov't does not want you going to China to do business

Totally not true. They are desperate for Americans to come over and do business. They don't want our imports, but they really want to do even more manufacturing for American businesses.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 4, 2014 at 3:18 pm

If they're at the level of 3rd year high school chinese - what will the year 1-3 high school chinese classes offer them? Will PAUSD be offering specialized high school Mandarin (level 4+)?

At what level of functionality in Mandarin is a 3rd year high school student? Are the conversational? Are they reading and writing conversationally? I'm just curiuos because I've heard Mandarin is a difficult language to learn.

Also curious, how many of the original mandarine class at Ohlone (that entered as kinders) were in the graduating class?

Posted by Joe
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 5, 2014 at 9:05 am

> And even then, I've had to rely on a translator.

A person who knows English?

> They are desperate for Americans to come over and do business.
> They don't want our imports,
> but they really want to do even more manufacturing for American businesses.

Couple this claim with this week's US labor statistics, printed in this morning's POST:

6.15 of the US labor force is unemployed.
U6 rate is 12.1% (this number includes people believed to have given up looking for work).
US labor participation rate is 62% (about 90M out of work)
Blacks unemployed: 10.7%
Teens: 21%

Unemployment rate in China:

Web Link

Unemployment Rate in China remained unchanged at 4.10 percent in the first quarter of 2014 from 4.10 percent in the fourth quarter of 2013.
* * *

Of course the Chinese are desparate to have all of the US manufacturing jobs transferred to China--they would like to get their unemployment rate down even lower. Odd that US manufacturers don't seem to understand that.

So--why are you so keen to help move American manufacturing jobs to China?

And .. when when will you be learning Mandarin?

The whole idea of using public money to train people to help deindustrialize the US is unbelievable. Yet--it's happening here in Palo Alto. It's extremely unlikely that anyone in the so-called Mandaron Immersion program will ever work for the CIA utilizing these skills. While anything is possible--given Palo Alto's hostility to the Federal Government in times past--it's difficult to see that much will change in the future.

Posted by And then...
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jul 5, 2014 at 9:43 am

According to a senior government economist with the GHW Bush administration, quoted last week on MSNBC, the high end jobs are going to Chinese immigrants; the middle-class jobs are going to Chinese immigrants; the low-end jobs are going to illegal Mexican and Chinese immigrants.

Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 5, 2014 at 2:31 pm

Just got back from SFO, where I dropped off my 24 yo daughter, who is returning to China for the second of three years since college.

She worked the last 12 months teaching English, will work as a college counselor starting next week, and then will spend a year at a Johns Hopkins program in Nanjing which is in effect a fast track MBA program. Classes in Mandarin.

Although she is Caucasian, she had many friends during her time in the PAUSD who were of Chinese heritage. She took private lesson while a Paly student, at her behest spent two summers in Beijing during her high school years, learning Mandarin, and majored in it in college, spending a semester and a half in Kunming, in western China. She is fluent.

Of course, as her father, I am proud of her accomplishment. The larger lesson is that she will be a valuable contributor in her adult working life because of her Mandarin skills and knowledge of China. Larger still is that we need more Americans who can deepen the ties between the States and China. It does not just fall on people who come here from China or have heritage ties to the region.

The relationship between the States and China will become increasingly complex and I for one am glad that a member of my family will help navigate those waters. We need more people like that, and that means programs as described in the article are essential in this day and age/

Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2014 at 9:19 am

In our experience, even if someone Caucasian is reasonably fluent, they are still discriminated against in China. We know a couple of young test cases, and will keep up on their experiences.
One may be certain China is opposed to the United States' interests (as well as Japan's, etc.) Be careful for what you wish for....

Posted by Language for all
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 6, 2014 at 6:12 pm

There should be language instruction for ALL PAUSD students starting in KINDERGARTEN. Even in my mid-western hick home town we had languages starting in first. Only one stop light - but we had foreign language instruction. Granted, I we all said "ain't" and we learned Spanish with a twang, but much better than not at all!!

Posted by it's not about business
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 7, 2014 at 10:58 am

We have a Spanish immersion program, but I highly doubt anybody enrolls their kids in Spanish Immersion because they think it'll help their kids with business, so I don't buy the argument that we should care about the business prospects of our kids in choosing our language immersion programs. The simple truth is, a lot of Palo Alto residents are interested in Chinese, which is why the Mandarin immersion program now exists. Furthermore, the demand is so large that you have to be incredibly lucky to win the Ohlone lottery to get into the Mandarin immersion program in the first place. In this past lottery, there were so many siblings enrolling for next year that I heard there were only 6 spots available for new families, of which only 2 spots were available for native speakers. Nobody we knew got into the Mandarin immersion program this past year.

Posted by Back in the Day
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 7, 2014 at 11:22 am

When I was in kindergarten, our school had a program where Spanish was taught to all students entering kindergarten. With the idea that it would be continued throughout elementary school, at the very least. After that, kids would be able to continue Spanish or learn another language.

I loved learning a foreign language in kindergarten and excelled. Most of my classmates did, too.

However, the parents were shocked and disgusted that we were being forcibly taught the language of migrant workers. They went en masse to the school board and harrassed them until the Spanish language program was discontinued.

To this day I regret that this program was discontinued and that our parents could not see the wisdom of this, although a few would have gone along with a different language, such as French or German, being taught in place of Spanish. It was fun, it was relatively easy for us, and we would have all become so fluent by sixth grade!

What a waste and what a shame our parents were so short-sighted.

Posted by Foreign language for everyone,.
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2014 at 12:21 pm

As foreign language becomes increasingly important to individual success (and, evidently, our nation's security), we should be offering it k-12 to ALL students in our public schools.

Limited reach via boutique programs that offer immersion language education to a small minority of district students while providing NO elementary school foreign language education to more than 90% of the children in the district is grossly inadequate and unfair.

We can do better...if we choose to do better, as other developed countries have done. Parents, speak up

Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2014 at 12:35 pm

I don't think Palo Alto parents want their kids to learn a foreign language for business reasons. They want their kids exposed to another language/culture, some want their kids to learn their "heritage" language without paying for expensive lessons and they want their kids to have a cool college resume - Mandarin is a unique line on your college application.

Interesting little item, Mandarin is the 2nd most common (after English) language spoken at home by Gunn students.

Posted by Grace Mah
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 8, 2014 at 2:56 am

With regards to a middle school Mandarin Immersion program, I am soliciting interest from PAUSD families with students in middle school this Fall 2014:

PLEASE fill out this survey if you are a Palo Alto Unified School District family with a child attending middle school and are interested in having your child take an Mandarin Immersion after school class in a Palo Alto middle school this FALL 2014.

This is not a PAUSD-sponsored poll, and is an informational poll that I am collecting which will be turned into the administration. I hope this data will persuade the administration to consider these options for a Mandarin immersion elective class in middle school this Fall 2014. Please pass this survey on to other PAUSD families with children who have bilingual and biliterate skill levels commensurate to the Ohlone MI graduated 6th graders. As this is an after school program, entering 6th, 7th, and 8th graders may be able to enroll in this class. Private school students may also be able to enroll, as long as they are PAUSD residents. Please fill out one survey per child.

We need to spread out the word that this is possible, with enough kids significantly interested. Please pass this on to others.

Thanks for your participation!
Grace Mah
Chinese Language Advocate in Palo Alto
Founder, PACE (Palo Alto Chinese Education)
gmahbox-community @

Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 8, 2014 at 11:44 am

Grace - Just curious, why are you working towards an after school Mandarin program rather than a high level mandarin class taught at at least one middle school (like the SI class at Jordan)? As I said above, although I think the District should actually use the $$ to teach a world language to all elementary students instead of a chosen few, it is seems both foolish and wasteful to fund an immersion program for six years and then expect the students to do nothing in middle school, yet retain it in high school. At a minimum, there should be a Mandarin 2 or 3 level class in 7th and 8th grade at one of our middle schools.

Posted by Interesting Note
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Though Mandarin may be the second most common language spoken at home, it is spoken by Chinese nationals and their children, most of whom intend to return to China at some point. Those children get Mandarin Immersion AT HOME, they do. To need it at school--they need ENGLISH Immersion.

I think the people wanting Mandarin immersion are English-speaking Americans, who would also like immersion in other languages ( a choice, actually), such as Russian or Spanish. There is also a need for people who can speak Arabic, Brazilian Portuguese, and most any Eastern European language.

Posted by Chris Kenrick
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 8, 2014 at 12:17 pm


Paly and Gunn both offer Mandarin beyond the third year in the form of Mandarin 4 or something called AP Chinese Language and Culture.

The Ohlone students testing at the level of students who have taken three years of high school Chinese are considered intermediate speakers in both oral and written discourse. They're able to string sentences together versus just responding to a question with a one-word or sentence response. They're also able to comprehend non-technical discourse like newscasts.

According to Duarte Silva, "Mandarin is not necessarily a difficult language to learn, but for English speakers it typically takes a little longer to learn due to the fact that it is both a tonal and a non-Roman alphabet language."

Posted by palo alto resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 8, 2014 at 12:49 pm

Chris Kenrick - I know Paly and Gunn offer Mandarin,but that doesn't help a middle school student. I'm impressed that 5th grade students are at the level of a 3rd year student in high school in terms of World Language. If they are already at that level at the age of 10 or 11, shouldn't we be continuing to teach them throughout Middle School instead of expecting them to do nothing for 3 years and then take AP Chinese in high school? In addition, AP classes are discouraged in 9th grade. After spending 6 years education elementary students in a language, we should continue to support them as they become middle school students.

Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 8, 2014 at 1:54 pm

This is exactly what was one of the many reasons why many of us were against MI at the start. The poorly thought out scheme never addressed what would happen in middle school. The 6th grade curriculum does not allow for a language class as it stands at present although 7th and 8th grades could have an elective class of Mandarin/Spanish for Mandarin/Spanish speakers. However, that has never been properly addressed and it seems that it is not something that is going to happen, at least in the next year or two.

Posted by Did It
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 8, 2014 at 2:19 pm

When I was in middle school in Cupertino, I took Mandarin, and continued all through high school. At that time ( the 70's and 80's), it was an honors course provided by Stanford University ( they provided the books and teachers).

It was quite easy, no declensions or conjugations, just four tones ( some Asian languages have nine). The calligraphy was fairly easy, especially if one has some artistic ability.

However, many parents made their children drop Mandarin after a couple of years for Latin, Greek, Spanish, or French, and eventually due to declining enrollment and interest in the program, it was discontinued. Also, unless you went to Stanford, no other college taught it at an advanced level. So, as a engineering major at the time, I switched to learning German, which, along with Russian, was THE language of the math sciences at the time.

Amazing that Cupertino schools, of all places, dropped Mandarin ( although they taught Japanese as an honors course for many years). Unfortunately, they never taught any foreign language in elementary school there, because with so many foreign students at the time, the focus was on English.

Posted by Daughn M Spahn
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 5, 2014 at 1:06 pm

StarTalk is a terrific program and I highly suggest it for all students in various languages. My son, high school rising junior, just finished the month-long immersion program in Mandarin and earned 6 college credits. The class also satisfied a year of high school foreign language credit. He was awarded a scholarship for a summer university residential program, therefore, no cost to us. He will return next summer to take the 2nd year of Mandarin and have the foreign language requirement for almost any undergrad degree out of the way. Plus, he will NOT have to take an SAT subject test because he already has the credits OR a second year of a high school foreign language.
As most of us know, many college credits earned in high school are not transferable. Credits for foreign language, however, are among the easiest to transfer, especially if it not their intended major and degree requirements are fulfilled. This frees our kids up to take more courses within their designated discipline.

Posted by Grace Mah
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 9, 2014 at 1:42 am

The Middle School Mandarin Immersion (MSMI) after school class that I am still working on is an advanced class, like the Spanish Immersion class at Jordan. This class is not for beginners.

For the MSMI class, it is after school because the 6th grade pull out model that works at Jordan for SI is not easily implemented and has the awkward artifact of pulling out SI students from their core classes. 6th graders do not have any elective classes during the day, and a zero period class (before school) is also logistically difficult to implement with enough time for transportation to students' home middle school.

At this time, I am working with the district administrators on the possibility of starting this middle school class this fall - in two weeks!

The new superintendent is aware of the request for the class along with all the board members. I've have a copy of the MSMI survey summary and will send it to you if you like, let me know.

There is a high chance that the class may run 3 – 5p, twice a week, for a total of four hours a week, like all other middle school classes. For the class to be for credit, it needs to have enough educational hours.

The location for the class is still not determined. It will be held at JLS or Jordan, not both. Any PAUSD middle school student may attend the class, with transportation arranged by themselves. That is, the student may be a Terman student or JLS or Jordan student and arrange their own transportation to the location of the MSMI class.

The schedule of the teacher must also be considered when scheduling and locating the class. At this time, I have identified a few possible teachers for the class whom the district may consider.

To hold the class, the district needs to have a commitment from 25 PAUSD students to hold a class. This would be open to 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, from any middle school. Students would need to pass an assessment test to meet Ohlone Mandarin Immersion-level bilingual and biliteracy skills.

And even though it’s a chicken and egg problem, I need to have parents show a strong commitment, although we don't have the final days or location determined. Please pass this along to others who have students in middle school this fall.

***So, please Forward the following short survey to me:***

___ (Yes/No) My child will very likely take this after school middle school Mandarin Immersion class.

Please chose as many as possible:

___ He / She can attend JLS from 3p – 5p on Mon and Wed
___ He / She can attend Jordan from 3p – 5p on Mon and Wed
___ He / She can attend JLS from 3p – 5p on Tue and Thu
___ He / She can attend Jordan from 3p – 5p on Tue and Thu

Student Name(s) / Grade ________________________________
Parent Name ___________________________________

Thank you for your support! With this information, I hope to convince the school board and administration to hold this class, and I need your help!!


Posted by OhlonePar
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 15, 2014 at 3:01 am

Ah Grace Mah as single-minded as ever. I remember when she vowed that she'd help with getting foreign language for all students. Nope, never happened. She wasn't even one of the MI parents who helped run Ohlone's established after-school FL program.

Then there was the moment at the school board meeting when the ill-thought MI program was voted through, but with the understanding that there would be no middle-school program. Grace was there and she knew that was the agreement--didn't stop her from lobbying for a middle-school program a few years later. Did anyone think it would?

MI was a poorly thought-out program that turned Ohlone into a 600-plus student school. Also, there continues to be a problem with getting enough fluent speakers and integrating MI's needs with the rest of the school--I'm not surprised that Ohlone burned through a principal in three years.

The irony of all this is that Grace Mah is now publicly begging for support for an afterschool MI program after trying earlier to get an MI program at one of the middle schools. She might get some support for it if she had actually done something about foreign languages for the kids who weren't in the MI program, but she didn't.

It seems ridiculous to go on the warpath for an afterschool MI program when there are several private, competent and affordable after-school and weekend Chinese classes around here. Enough with niche programs that only give a handful of kids a benefit. While MI may be officially cost neutral, it's not in the demands it's put on school and district staff.

Posted by 6th Grade JLS Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Aug 21, 2014 at 9:53 pm

Grace, what was the outcome of the survey?
As an after school program, is this incremental to student's regular curriculum (ie: 8th period for these students?) Will there be a cost to participants?

Posted by Parent
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 22, 2014 at 10:31 am

To OhlonePar -- Was/Is Grace's child in the MI program? Just curious.

Posted by Common sense
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 22, 2014 at 11:27 am

I don't have a child in the district any more, but why in the world would we have Chinese in elementary school but not middle school? China is the most important foreign country in the world. Of course we should have foreign language for ALL elementary school students, AND Chinese in middle school.

Posted by 6th Grade JLS Parent
a resident of JLS Middle School
on Aug 23, 2014 at 11:06 am

Actually, rather than any arguments, as a parent of an incoming 6th grader at JLS, I'm really just interested in understanding if this survey was enough to get it rolling, was it implemented (as it sounded like they were shooting for fall), if so what the details are?

Posted by mom of teenagers
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 23, 2014 at 1:34 pm

mom of teenagers is a registered user.

@ 6th Grade JLS Parent - Ms. Mah's survey of the graduating class of Ohlone Mandarin Immersion student's parents last spring did NOT show enough interest to warrant a middle school program. If your child is interested in Mandarin, he/she can sign up for it in 7th grade at JLS.

Posted by More important
a resident of Greene Middle School
on Aug 24, 2014 at 12:24 pm

From the observations of many people and teachers, it is very important that the students from China, and their parents, become more proficient at reading, speaking, and writing in correct, understandable English. They are in America, and need to address that issue rather than telling us that we all need to speak Mandarin ( only one of 200 dialects in China).

Personally, I learned Mandarin from 7th to 10th grade, and it was still insufficient for ordinary conversation in that language ( and I am very, very good with languages, speaking three proficiently). If Mandarin Immersion is going to be done at all, it should be started at kindergarten level when a child's language learning is more plastic, and carried on through high school, for true proficiency. It is far more difficult to write than speak!

But first, let's worry about the Chinese natives already here, and getting them proficient in English.

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