This fall at East Light Academy, a Mandarin language immersion school, teachers in pre-kindergarten through first grade will speak only Mandarin to their students for most of the day.
"It's like dropping somebody in the water, and they have to do something to survive," said Principal Przemyslaw Murczkiewicz.
While Mandarin Chinese is the most commonly spoken language on earth, Mandarin language programs are a rarity in South Carolina: East Light Academy is the first public school of its kind in the Charleston area. The school opened Monday serving about 150 students in a converted medical supply warehouse off Clements Ferry Road in Berkeley County.
It may be the first of its kind, but it likely won't be the last. Demand for Mandarin language instruction is on the rise, as highlighted in a 2016 report by the International Association of Language Centres. The report surveyed agents for study-abroad language programs and showed rising demand for German and Mandarin educational opportunities worldwide, prompted in part by the centrality of Germany and China in the global economy.
The report's authors also noted a change in students' motivation: "The purpose of learning a foreign language abroad is moving away from personal reasons (fun, desire to learn the language, travel component), towards career reasons (current or future studies, employment prospects)."
A handful of private and public schools in South Carolina's metropolitan areas have begun offering Mandarin language instruction. The private Christian school Charleston Bilingual Academy, for example, offers bilingual programs for young children in Spanish and Mandarin.
East Light Academy, modeled after West Columbia's East Point Academy, started this year serving students in 4-year-old pre-kindergarten (4K) through second grade and plans to add a grade every year up to eighth grade. Because the school is a member of the S.C. Public Charter School District, it accepts students from any South Carolina county, but parents must provide transportation.
Giselle Koubenec drives about an hour each way from St. Stephen so her daughter Zoe can attend 4K at East Light. After meeting the teachers and reviewing the curriculum, she thinks the drive is well worth it.
"I've been picky about schools here because South Carolina doesn't rank high in education," Koubenec said.
She said her husband already had taught Zoe a few Mandarin phrases after returning from business trips to Taiwan, but she did not know until recently that her daughter could learn the language in a public school.
"We didn't even think it was a possibility," she said.
East Light is a public school and does not charge tuition for the upper grades, but parents of 4K students must pay a yearly fee of $5,500. School co-founder Hong Lee said this is because the state does not fund full-day 4K programs for charter schools.
The sink-or-swim approach to language learning permeates most subjects at East Light. In a kindergarten classroom Monday, teacher Tina Bo wore a lanyard around her neck with flashcards showing images of basic instructions: Sit cross-legged, listen, et cetera. She'll speak to the students in Mandarin, and they'll pick up her meaning without her translating.
"I mainly just use the pictures to show them, and also gestures, and the kids can say, oh, it means 'Clean up!'" Bo said.
Teachers lead morning exercises in Mandarin, the music teacher introduces basic musical concepts in Mandarin, and math will be taught in the Chinese style — multiplication first, then addition and subtraction.
Most of the students do not come from Chinese-American families, but the theory is that students can learn the language like native speakers if they are immersed at an early age.
"They will not only speak the language, but they will feel the language," Murczkiewicz said. That means using idioms properly and gaining appreciation for the culture, he said.
Murczkiewicz knows something about sink-or-swim language learning. He arrived in the U.S. in 1997 at age 29 speaking fluent Polish but no English. He worked for a while at a Catholic school where many of the students and teachers spoke Spanish or Italian, and he learned to adapt.
"In the beginning it's annoying, and then you understand it's part of the reality," he said.
Will he pick up Mandarin now that he's leading a Mandarin school?
"I will try," he said.
The opening of a public Mandarin-language school could be a business boon for the Charleston area, according to Michael Graney, vice president of global business development for the Charleston Regional Development Alliance.
Not only are Mandarin language skills a resume-booster for students going into international business, but Graney said the state also can use the school as a recruiting tool to lure international investment and business.
"Having a school where Chinese employees would feel comfortable sending their children — from our perspective, that’s the biggest advantage," Graney said.