BELVEDERE — He's only 5 years old, but Vaughn Allen, a kindergarten student at Belvedere Elementary, learns new words in Mandarin Chinese every day.

And when Vaughn gets home, he teaches those words to his Mom, Kimmerie Allen, the school's assistant principal.

“He might be teaching me numbers or colors, and he'll say, 'Mama, this is how we say it. Now you say it.' He's the teacher to the teacher,” Allen said with a laugh.

Vaughn is one of about 75 students in Aiken County Public Schools' language immersion program for 5K students, which started last fall. The class is the only Mandarin Chinese language program for children in a 50-mile radius. The closest is at Meadow Glen Elementary in Lexington County.

While Vaughn and his classmates at Belvedere are learning to count in Mandarin – yi for one, er for two and san for three, students at Millbrook Elementary in Aiken are learning eins, zwei, drei in German and students at Clearwater Elementary are counting uno, dos, tres in Spanish.

The students will continue language immersion and culture classes together through 12th grade.

At Belvedere, Yanfei Gao, a native of Beijing, China's capital, teaches science and math classes in Chinese only – no English. Fran Gay, Belvedere's teacher of the year, teaches English language arts and social studies in English. Shannon Parrish is the kindergarten assistant.

On a Wednesday morning in mid-January, 27 students celebrated the Chinese New Year a few days early, showing their parents and family members what they had learned in less than six months.

Belvedere Elementary Chinese immersion DSC_1984

Students in the 5K Mandarin Chinese class at Belvedere Elementary show off the lanterns and posters they made to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Sitting cross-legged on floor mats and with a Panda bear poster looking over their shoulders, they counted by ones from one to 30 and by 10s to 100 in Mandarin, completely engaged in the lesson. They also called out the names of colors and the words for chopsticks and dumplings, a traditional dish at a Chinese New Year feast, in Mandarin.

Gao said Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language around the world, but it can be challenging for English speakers.

“Mandarin Chinese is way different from English,” said Gao, who came to America in 2012 and earned her bachelor's degree and teaching certificate at USC Aiken. “The letters look different and sound different. Also, I try to use only Chinese during class.”

To overcome those challenges, Gao uses visual aids, gestures and physical movements to help the children learn and connect with the Chinese words she's teaching.

“My students love that a lot,” she said.

Belvedere Elementary Chinese immersion DSC_1995

Yanfei Gao, who teaches the 5k Mandarin Chinese language immersion class at Belvedere Elementary, poses with Vaughn Allen, one of her students, after a presentation for parents and family to celebrate Chinese New Year.

And Gao, who will move to first grade with this year's students and also teach the new 5K students next year, said she loves being Aiken County Public Schools' first Chinese Mandarin teacher.

“I'm excited to be this teacher in this program,” she said. “I'm teaching them with my heart, and they are learning it with their hearts. It just makes me happy.”

After the students' presentation, Belvedere Principal Dr. Salvatore Minolfo said, “As you can see, the students are getting it. I didn't understand what they were saying, but I understood it from an instructional perspective. It's just good instruction.”

Minolfo said the program is attracting attention from parents outside the district.

“We have parents from as far away as Columbia County in Georgia who want to get their kids into the program,” he said.

Because it's a magnet program, parents of public and private rising 5K students in the district can register on a first-come, first-served basis, Minolfo said. Parents who live outside Belvedere's attendance zone must provide their own transportation

The school district will hold information meetings at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 18 and 6:30 p.m. April 14 at Belvedere, Clearwater and Millbrook elementary schools for parents to learn about each school's program.

Laura Foley, who teaches the Spanish language immersion program at Clearwater Elementary, said her students “love learning new words and expressing themselves with as much vocabulary as they can recall.”

“They are eager to learn and show great improvement. They understand most common daily phrases and questions and can follow several step directions in Spanish,” she said. “At this time in the year, I'm able to get a couple of complete simple sentences and a few sentences in English with mixed vocabulary words in Spanish. Students are able to process and solve grade-level appropriate arithmetic problems in Spanish. They feel connected to each other and rely on their classmates constantly for support in the class.”

Foley said evidence shows bilingualism correlates with children's increased cognitive development and abilities and can lead to future academic success.

“Learning a second language does not cause language confusion, language delay or cognitive deficit, which have been concerns in the past,” she said. “On the contrary, the benefits can include better cognitive skills and reasoning, diverse problem-solving abilities, increased high-order thinking skills and the ability to multitask, among many others. These cognitive advantages can contribute to a child's future academic success.”

Foley said early immersion in a new language means children are more likely to “quickly attain native-like language proficiency.

“Personally, I love teaching their little minds a sense of belonging, multiculturalism, inclusion and acceptance, which are core values that many young people lack,” she said.

As a school administrator at Belvedere Elementary and a parent, Allen said she was nervous at first whether Vaughn and the other students would be able to learn a new language taught totally in immersion classes. Now, she would tell other parents to try it.

“You know the younger you start, the better it is,” she said. “You would be amazed how quickly they grasp it – I mean from the first day.”

And Vaughn? He wasn't nervous at all.

“Vaughn is really excited to be in the program just to learn a new language, to learn about a different country. It really expands the students' minds and helps them to think more analytically,” his mother said. “He absolutely enjoys coming to school. He hates to miss. Over the break, he was ready to come right back. He absolutely loves learning a new language.”

​Larry Wood covers education for the Aiken Standard.