Every so often I post answers to common questions about language learning that I hear from students, their parents or potential students. Below are three answers to three common questions.

At what age should my child start learning a second language?

In America, we have a curious relationship with second language learning. I have noticed an interesting contrast whenever I talk with new people about teaching Mandarin Chinese to children. On the one hand, many strangers enthusiastically tell me how quickly young children learn languages. They believe that it is best for them to start young. On the other hand, many parents admit that they “know” that exposing very young children to more than one language will cause speech delays. Which one is it? Is it good for children to learn a second language? It seems that in America at least, we have two different answers. We appear to think that it is good for young children (say, ages 3-5) while bad for babies and toddlers. For my two cents, the best time for a child to start learning a second language when it works best for you as a family.

If you’re in the US and want to speak to your child in a home language and wait till he or she is in preschool to exposure your child to English, do that. If you want to go to a mommy and me language class to learn a second language at 18 months, that is fine too. There is no evidence that speaking more than one language causes speech delays. If readers don’t believe me, but perhaps you will find the American Academy of Pediatrics more convincing.

How Many Hours Per Week Should I Study Chinese?

Has anyone ever told you that you must have gas in the car before you drive it? Or that you shouldn’t attempt to de-board an airplane when it is in mid-air? Probably not. If something is truly necessary, like having fuel in the gas tank or staying on the inside of an airplane while it is moving, no one tell you to do it. So if someone tells you “you absolutely must have at least 2 hours of class per week” then they’re just trying to help their bottom line. The same goes for textbooks and language learning apps.

A student (whether an adult or a child) should spend as much time studying Chinese as he or she can. The math problem is pretty simple. A student who spends 5 hours in class every week is going to learn more than a student who spends 1 hour per week. The student who spends 1 hour per week learning Chinese will also learn more than the student who has an hour-long class every other week. The quality of the class will of course have an effect on how much the student learns. In general, more input (i.e. through class time) will lead to more learning. Spend as much time as you can getting input in Chinese, but be reasonable about what is workable for your own situation. Don’t make yourself go crazy.

I have been Using Duolingo for Month Now, Why is my pronunciation Still So Terrible?

Apps like Duolingo never killed anybody, but they are not an effective way to learn languages. They are at best a memorization tool. They don’t give learners the communicatively embedded input necessary to learn a language. Students often find it frustrating that the AI in programs like Rosetta Stone don’t recognize their attempts at speaking Mandarin Chinese. Many students assume that they have a unique problem with pronunciation. They probably do not. The most likely explanation for why students are not “getting it” is that they have not gotten enough input. They simply have not heard enough spoken Chinese (or Korean, or Spanish, or Swedish) to be able to speak at all.

If students think that they have a problem with pronunciation because a computer program says so, they should first put the phone or iPad down. Then, go and find opportunities to actually hear the target language in a communicative context.

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More common questions and common misconceptions about language learning:


Language Myths that hold students back

The Myth of Mandarin as Too Hard Even for Chinese People to Learn



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