Fluency expectations for Mandarin Immersion

Many students or their parents have seen ads on the internet that promise fluency in Mandarin Chinese in three months, or maybe one month. These results almost certainly won’t happen. Students may have honest questions about how long it takes to learn Chinese. Many people talk about (or complain about) studying Spanish for two or three years in high school, with dismal results. Many Chinese immersion programs promise high degrees of fluency by a certain grade level. Linking Chinese language fluency to a number of years of study is not really that useful, however. The key to building fluency is the amount of comprehensible input a child gets in a foreign language. This is more accurately measured in hours of exposure to the target language, rather than months or years. Quality of input matters a great deal, but that is a topic for a separate post.

How Much is Enough Immersion?

When I was doing research for my master’s degree at a kindergarten in China, the school had a bit of a crisis. Chinese kindergartens usually have at least three grade levels, analogous to pre-k 3, pre-k4 and kindergarten in America. The school where I was, teaches English as part of its program. They had several teachers from outside China.* The tuition (like many kindergartens in China, this is a private school) is correspondingly expensive: about US$800/month. The crisis came when a group of parents decided that after spending $800/month for two years, their children could not speak any English. Since I was a graduate student in education, they asked for my opinion on assessing English language learning.

Since I was doing research on language acquisition, I had actual data to inform my answer. I had been spending weeks in a classroom, recording the teachers and students talking to each other and taking detailed notes about language use. From what I observed, the students got very little input in English. They heard English for only 20-30 minutes per day. Again, this was not just a casual observation. I was there to observe, record video and take detailed notes on what the children and teachers were doing in the classroom. The parents might have gotten the impression that their children were immersed in English for eight hours a day, but that was not what was happening.

Myths and Misconceptions

The common misconception that children learn languages rapidly and the school’s expensive tuition created a perception amongst the parents that their children should be speaking English as fluently as they did Chinese. No one believed me that the children were generally doing very well with what they had been provided. The students could obey commands, engage in basic conversation, and would spontaneously speak English. On my first day, a girl pointed to the image on the washcloth she was using to clean her face and said “elephant.” This spontaneous use of English for communication was a good sign. The child was building an implicit understanding of English in her head. But she did not say “this is an elephant, my favorite animal.” Her output was limited to one word and this level of language use is what disappointed the parents.

We expect children to be able to have a reasonable conversation with an adult at the age of six. By that time, children have heard about 14,500 hours** of input in their mother tongue.

The kids in the class with the unhappy parents were a bit younger, 4 and 5 years old. They had been in school for about a year and a half. Kindergarten in China runs for twelve months a year. Kindergarteners in China have a few weeks off for vacations around Chinese New Year and other holidays, another week off for sick days. I observed about 30 minutes/day input in English. That works out to 170 hours of English input (68 weeks*2.5 hours of English input/week). This is a rough estimation, but that is just over 1% of the input a child gets in her first language by the age of six. With this kind of discrepancy, it is little wonder that the children in the Chinese kindergarten were not speaking English fluently.

Language Learning is Slow, Ordered, and Complex, No Matter What

Parents, teachers, policy makers and other education stakeholders often have high expectations when children are learning a second language. Quality input in the target language is the necessary ingredient in building fluency in that language. No one wants to waste time in a poorly thought out program. Often, however, parents and others base their expectations on the wrong metric. The key to language learning is quality input in the target language. Only the number of hours that students spend getting this input that can really help us determine whether progress is adequate. The kids in the kindergarten learned English for about a year and a half. They only spent a small portion of the week listening to English, however. It showed. While there is truth in the saying “you get what you pay for,”*** money spent on tuition is also not a metric against which you can measure progress. Language learning is slow, ordered and complex. No amount of tuition dollars can help a student leapfrog the developmental stages of language learning.

kid reading Chinese kindergarten
Kid reading in kindergarten where I did research

*my research had nothing to do with this, my focus was on the Chinese teachers

**I’m getting this number from While We are on the Topic from the great Bill VanPatten

***It is such a good saying that I know three equivalents in Chinese: 一分钱一分货/好货不便宜,便宜没有好货/贱的不贱,贵的不贵. Know any others? Share in the comments!

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