I recently had an interesting conversation with some friends. They informed me that their daughter is learning Chinese. Their first-grade daughter.

Now, I didn’t know that first-grade students even had the option of learning Chinese. Aren’t they busy learning things like the alphabet? Or basic arithmetic?

It turns out that their daughter Madelyn is participating in a Chinese dual-immersion program. These types of programs are nothing new. Spanish immersion programs are largely more common than Chinese programs; however, Chinese programs are also becoming very popular. The programs typically start in kindergarten or first grade and continue for several years, often into middle school. The objective of these programs is not only to teach students another language but also to help them appreciate another culture.

But isn’t it overwhelming for the student? Does her learning suffer?

Madelyn’s father, Matt Garber, doesn’t think so. “She showed some interest, and we knew that learning a language as a child is easier than learning it as an adult,” he said. “We believe that learning and speaking another language will stimulate her mind and show her that it is possible to do hard things and be a successful learner.”

Matt’s belief is backed up by this statement found on the Utah Chinese Dual Immersion website: “Immersion students typically develop greater cognitive flexibility, demonstrating increased attention control, better memory, and superior problem solving skills as well as an enhanced understanding of their primary language.”

Matt’s wife, Kiley, sees additional benefits for Madelyn. “We thought it would be a unique experience that would enlarge her perspective on the world—and ours as well. She has really enjoyed learning about Chinese culture. She had a hard time falling asleep the night before the Chinese New Year celebration because she was so excited.”

Madelyn’s teacher, Susan Shumway, was born in Taiwan but has lived in the United States since she was two years old. She teaches the students in Chinese for half of the day; for the other half of the day, the students are taught in English. But Ms. Shumway isn’t just teaching the students Mandarin Chinese. She is also teaching them math, science, social studies, and music—all while speaking only Chinese. And the students are more than capable of the task. “The children are doing incredibly!” Ms. Shumway said. “I am amazed every day at what they pick up and how much they have learned in this short time.”

Utah is at the forefront in the Chinese dual-immersion movement. An article in the Salt Lake-based Deseret News said that in 2012, Utah will have approximately one-third of all Chinese immersion programs in the country. Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman Jr., who recently finished his service as President Obama’s ambassador to China, is a big proponent of implementing these programs into Utah’s public schools.

“Studying a language does something magical,” Huntsman said in a video on the Utah Chinese Immersion website. “It opens the mind. And it allows them [students] to understand and embrace differences.”

Matt and Kiley are thrilled about the opportunity Madelyn has been given. “We’re glad she’s in the program,” said Matt. “And we can’t wait for her younger brother to start as well.”

Do any of you teach in dual-immersion environments? Or do any of you have children who are participating in such programs? How has your experience been?