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UPPER WEST SIDE — Elizabeth Willaum, the director of HudsonWay Immersion School, doesn't speak too much English with the school's 60 or so students, some of whom are as young as 2 years old.
Instead, she spends a lot of time watching and listening as teachers give instructions in Mandarin. And even though she sees it happen every day, she said she's always astounded when toddlers and young children, most of whose parents only speak English, respond in Mandarin.
Willaum, 67, joined HudsonWay last year as the director of both its Summit, N.J., and Upper West Side campuses to guide the school in its mission to immerse students in another language. In New Jersey, preschoolers and elementary students learn Spanish and Mandarin and in New York they take Mandarin.
The New York City campus on Riverside Boulevard started five years ago as the preschool Bilingual Buds, and formally changed its name this past fall. The school has grown to serve children from preschool through third grade.
"It is one of a kind as an immersion setting," Willaum said. "It starts full immersion with 2 year olds, unlike most private schools and public schools."
Willaum jumped at the opportunity to lead the school because it would let her design curriculum and watch development from such a young age, she said.
"When you see the magic is when you hear from parents 'my child was dreaming last night and they were dreaming in Mandarin.' That’s magic!" she said.
DNAinfo sat down with Willaum to find out more about HudsonWay and why she believes Mandarin is so vital.
What is your history with bilingualism?
We came from Cuba in 1953. When I came to this country, I spoke only Spanish. I am now more dominant in English.
Like most families who come to this country, the language was going to be lost. By the third generation, the first or heritage language is lost.
I was lucky enough to find this school that was one of the first to do bilingual education in New York City. I became a teacher in a bilingual setting at a small public school. Eventually I started implementing and designing language immersion programs here and in New Jersey.
Why do you advocate for full language immersion as early as possible?
By starting in middle school, [the U.S. is] teaching foreign languages at a time when the brain is closing as opposed to when the brain is demanding language. The brain research distinctly states you can learn another language at age 12, but not with the [same] proficiency.
If I could start it at three months I’d be happier. The brain demands language. Between birth and age 12, the brain has the capacity to learn up to eight languages.
The younger they start, the more native-like they speak. You want bi-literacy and bi-cognition: You want the children to be able to think in the language.
A child that comes in at 2 — by the time that child is 8 years old, you will not know if that is a native speaker who was born in China or a child that comes from a [non-Mandarin] speaking home.
Why do you support immersion in Mandarin specifically?
Mandarin has continued to be a critical language — critical because [China] is the fastest-growing economy. The learning of Mandarin is an asset to children: It makes them marketable in their adulthood. That’s one of the strongest reasons.
There's also the [positive] impact on the brain of learning a language that is so completely different from English. It makes for children who grow up to be highly efficient and sharper in their thinking. The more different the language, the brain has to work harder and the cellular structure has become denser.
HudsonWay's marketing literature says the school creates "global citizens." What does that mean?
Language is like the window to a culture. When children learn other languages, they open up a window into that culture. It provides children an environment in which they learn to tolerate and appreciate people who are not like them. It allows them that multicultural lens and the ability to really navigate other cultures.
There are not a lot of Mandarin immersion options — or many full immersion options in other languages for that matter — at the middle and high school levels in New York City. What do your families to do to keep up their child's fluency?
They would have to commit to support [the second language.] They understand the challenge because within a 10-year period of having been educated only in English, so many heritage-language children have lost their first language. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Usually we recommend they have to continue supporting it by an afterschool program.
You could support it also by travel to China. You ensure your child has buddies who are also target language speakers.