Ages 6-9EducationLanguageRace, Ethnicity & Culture


新年快乐 – Happy New Year!

We spent the afternoon on Saturday celebrating the Chinese New Year. It was a great afternoon of a dragon dance, songs, and dancing. This isn’t something that’s part of my heritage or my wife’s heritage, so why did J and I do this for the third straight year? Because our boys are students at The Chinese School at the St. Louis Language Immersion Schools (SLLIS). Yep, D and M spend their days learning all their school subjects in Mandarin Chinese.

Year of the Goat
Year of the Goat

A lot of people ask us why we sent the boys to an immersion school, and why specifically Chinese. Of course, many parents have no interest at all in this sort of school, but it was an obvious choice for J and me. Both of us studied languages when were kids and adults, and we were fortunate to live in Germany for a few months before we had kids. We love the idea of making sure our children are exposed to multiple cultures as early as possible, and Chinese seems like it’s likely to be one of the most important languages and cultures for the next century (Spanish and French were our other options at SLLIS).

There are lots of different types of schools we could have considered. We are fortunate to live in a school district with some of the best public schools in the state, so we could have gone with the simplest option and probably would have been fine (it’s by far the closest option – we literally could have walked to the school instead of driving 15 miles to SLLIS). We also could have applied to several different types of charter schools, focusing on anything from Math and Science to Entrepreneurship. But those didn’t seems as compelling to us as a language school; not only does it seem that early learning is very important for language skills, but also we can help our kids learn math, science, and reading at home much more than we can help them in foreign languages.

So, when we found out that our kids were eligible to attend a language immersion program for free, we jumped at the idea of D joining the first kindergarten class at the new Chinese School (the French and Spanish Schools had been founded three years previously).

Dragon Crafts
Dragon Crafts

D is now in 2nd Grade, with his little brother having joined him there as a Kindergartner, so we’ve had Chinese language and culture as part of our lives for two and a half years. It’s been very interesting to see how Chinese culture has grown in and infused our lives over the years. When D was in kindergarten, he loved the school, but we couldn’t get him to speak much Chinese at home. In contrast, now in our third year in the school with both boys learning Mandarin, they frequently talk, sing, babble, and even argue in Chinese (and yes, they have started using Chinese at times to keep Mommy and Daddy from knowing what they are saying – that’s inevitable). It’s really wonderful to see these young kids learning and knowing something that their parents don’t know – I love it.

I think a big part of why M is so much more talkative at home than D was at the same age is that M has watched his brother speaking Chinese for two years. Simply put, for D, Chinese was something new in the house, and for M it has just part of his home environment for years. Relatedly, M has D to talk to, whereas D didn’t have anyone to talk to at home. But the final big piece is something that I haven’t mentioned yet: the interns.

Chinese Banner
Chinese Banner

Partway through D’s 1st grade year, a young woman from Taiwan came to St. Louis to be an assistant teacher at SLLIS, and she lived with us for seven months. And this entire school year, we have had two women from mainland China living with us. Having these native speakers live with us has been a boon in many ways. We learn about Chinese culture and language in our house every day; we have the opportunity as both adults and children to ask about and learn about other cultures (including the differences between Taiwan and mainland China); and the boys have native speakers in our house to learn from and talk with (at dinner last night, the two boys and the two women spoke to each other in Chinese for quite a while, and then one of them read a Chinese book to the boys before bed). And finally, they occasionally treat us to wonderful home-cooked authentic Chinese meals. Having the interns live with us is an advantage that we are really enjoying, and I think we will continue hosting interns for a few years.

It has also been interesting to see American culture through their eyes. We have taken the interns on small road trips in the Midwest, and we have also exposed them to American cultural experiences from camping to Lenten Fish Fries to baseball and basketball to carving pumpkins and baking Christmas cookies.

At this point in the boys’ studies, the instruction at school is nearly 100% in Chinese, though the homework is in English, so that we can help. Within a couple years, they will transition to having more of the instruction be in English for various subjects. In sixth grade, they will be combined with the other schools in The International School and will have the opportunity to add a third language of their own choosing.

Through this, we hope our kids will be fully bilingual and biliterate, and they will have experience with Chinese, French, and Spanish culture by the time they leave for college.

The experience of SLLIS hasn’t been perfect – there are issues with facilities, communication, fewer resources than wealthier schools have, etc. But overall, we’re really happy with the experience of language immersion. Our boys are learning something that we couldn’t have taught them. They go to a city school that is much more diverse than the suburban school they might have otherwise attended. And they are growing up with a vision of the world a lot larger than they would have had at a typical St. Louis-area school.

恭喜发财 – Wishing You to be Prosperous in the Coming Year

All images credit: The author, all rights reserved


Lance is the father of two boys, a software developer, and an occasional world traveler. Now an active member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, he grew up in an Evangelical Lutheran home in which he took Christianity very seriously. Fortunately, going to college helped him break through to see that he believed because he thought he was supposed to, not because it makes sense. Now he's glad to be more than just a SIWOTI skeptic. @LMFinney

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