Several years ago, Utah decided to start teaching foreign languages in public schools — beginning in the first grade.
Utah probably isn't the first place you'd think would be at the forefront of language education in the United States. When it comes to per-student spending in public schools, Utah comes in dead last among all 50 states. What's more, Utah passed an "English Only" law 15 years ago, declaring English to be the state's sole official language.
So what accounts for this language push? One man: Republican State Senator Howard Stephenson.
Stephenson has served in the Utah legislature for more than 22 years. He calls himself a "government watchdog" and idolizes Ronald Reagan. He’s even got a page dedicated to the past president on his website. Safe to say, the senator is wary of the government messing in his business.
But during a 2008 trip to China, where the government messes in everyone's business, Stephenson had what he describes as an "epiphany." He met many Chinese students who spoke with him in fluent English. They were bright, eager and articulate.
“On the plane ride home, I was worried about America's future," Stephenson says. "I was excited for the Chinese and their rising nation, but I wondered what could I do as a policymaker to assist in helping the United States connect to these rising nations?”
Stephenson promptly introduced a bill to fund the teaching of critical languages, like Mandarin, in Utah's public schools.
His fellow policy makers weren't exactly on board at first.
“Some legislators were saying you can't expect children to learn such a complicated language as Chinese," he remembers. "And I reminded them that there are hundreds are millions of children in China who are learning it quite well. They do well, why can't our children? Are our children's brains wired differently than a Chinese person's brain? I don't think so."
Stephenson also argued that a multilingual Utah would be good for the state's economic future: A state full of fluent Chinese speakers is a state open for business.
His bill passed.
It was signed into law by then-Governor Jon Huntsman, who speaks Mandarin and later served as the American ambassador to China. Now, seven years after Stephenson's airborne epiphany, there are intensive language programs at 118 schools in Utah, and not just in Mandarin. The program also teaches Spanish, Portuguese, French and German, and the state intends to keep growing the list.
Tiari Puriri is one of the young Utahans learning Mandarin. Now a second-grader, she started learning the language in first grade at her school in Santa Clara. It's a small town in southern Utah more than two hours away from Las Vegas, the closest big city. Think arid, desert landscape, red rock formations and not too many Chinese speakers.
“This is what she brought home yesterday," says her mom, Kristina, who shows off her daughter's math homework. There’s not a word of English on the page, just Chinese characters and some numerals. “If she hadn't put that there, and there weren't pluses and equals, I don't think that I would know that this is math.”
Learning math in Chinese is a part of Utah's 50/50 dual language immersion model. Yes, it's a horrible, jargon-y sounding phrase, but it basically means that half the school day and half the subjects, like math, are taught in the target foreign language and the other half in English.
When Kristina and I went to pick up Tiari from school, she was a bit shy about speaking Chinese on tape. But she readily sang a “clean-up” song in Chinese.
She and her class learned it from Xiao Fung, Tiari's second-grade Chinese teacher. She came to this tiny Utah town from Chongqing, a city of 29 million people, thanks to a teaching exchange program funded by the Chinese government. That's part of the way Utah can afford this program.
“My initial thoughts were like ‘Oh my gosh, there's already so much our kids have to do,'" says Summer Lang, who has two kids at the school. "I push hard on my kids. I expect a lot, but I just think there's a fine line. There's a fine line of pushing. Too much, too hard, too young."
Lang and several other parents started a petition against the program. She wasn't alone in questioning the importance of learning another language in a world in which so many people speak English.
“A lot of countries are fluent in English too, but that's because everybody comes here," Lang argues. "How are we to pick one place where we're going to become fluent as a second language? English is kind of the universal. Everybody speaks it.”
She's also one of Kristina Puriri's very best friends, but things got a little tense between them. “It kind of got ugly there for a while,” Lang admits.
Ultimately, things cooled down. The principal reassured parents that Chinese immersion was optional, and Lang chose not to enroll her children. Still, it's a source of sensitivity.
“I went to Santa Clara Elementary, and we've chosen to stay here and raise our family here because of the tradition," Lang says. "Change is hard whether it's positive [or] negative.”
Change is hard, but Utah just might be in a unique position to pilot this kind of program. Language learning isn't such a wild notion in this very Mormon state: For generations, Mormon missionaries have fanned out across the world, and stop in Utah first to learn the language of the place where they'll serve.
Kristina's husband, Michael, actually jokes about the "Mormon question." “You told her why we're doing this, for the church?” Michael Puriri asks his wife.
The Puriris are both members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In fact, Kristina learned Portuguese on her own mission in Portugal.
“There [are] 88,000 missionaries out in the world today, but if we open up China with all those people, we're going to need, like, another million missionaries," Michael chides his wife. "So we figure with all these kids here learning Chinese —”
“But that's not why we're doing it,” Kristina says. Most Mormons don't think this way, Kristina tells me over and over. And she says she's most excited about the little ways in which learning Chinese will allow her daughter to connect with others right here in the US.
“I'm excited for the future when we can go to a Chinese restaurant or see a Chinese tour bus at Disneyland and she can go back and forth and back and forth,” she says.
Or maybe she'll one day lead that Chinese tour bus through the national parks of Utah. That's what State Senator Stephenson likes to envision: connecting his landlocked state of Utah to the rest of the world.
“Monolingualism is the illiteracy of the 21st century,” he says. “As many nations are rearing children with bi- and triingual abilities, we need to step it up because we're in a world competitive arena.”
A previous version of this story incorrectly named the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.