Students at a Perth primary school are being taught half in Mandarin and half in English in a landmark program that has nearly doubled enrolments at the school in the past three years.

Redcliffe Primary School principal Chad Sexton-Finck said that children from kindergarten to Year 1 were spoken to only in Mandarin for up to two hours a day.

Though they could ask questions in English, the response would always be in Mandarin.

When the Mandarin teacher was not present, the classroom teacher would still use Mandarin as well as English in other subjects.

"They usually work a lesson out together and then run it as team teaching," he said.

Mandarin is one of four priority languages identified in the Federal Government's Asian White Paper as one all schoolchildren should have a chance to learn.

Mr Sexton-Finck speaks three foreign languages and believes the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in it at an early age, so that children can absorb it the same way they learnt their native tongue.

"The young ones have got no inhibitions whatsoever, so they speak it quite easily," he said. "Whereas some of the older kids are frightened of making mistakes."

The program, modelled on a Japanese bilingual school in Victoria Mr Sexton-Finck visited, started just over two years ago.

Many parents had enrolled their children at Redcliffe just so they could learn Mandarin.

Mr Sexton-Finck said the bilingual approach stretched school resources and he hoped the White Paper would lead to extra funding.

Education Department figures show that more than 61,000 public school students studied Mandarin, Japanese or Indonesian this year, compared with about 50,000 who studied a European language. None studied Hindi.

About 540 Year 12 students will sit a WA Certificate of Education exam in an Asian language this year, compared with 888 who will sit a European language exam.

The West Australian

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