Blog

Pushing Back When the DR. Repeats Language Myths

When the Person Pushing a Language Myth is your Pediatrician

A over a month ago, I was talking to a parent of a toddler and she told me that she “knew” from her pediatrician’s office that bilingualism causes speech delays. She then went on to say that she wanted her son to know more than one language anyway, so she was pursuing language classes for him. Two things about this conversation struck me. Firstly, the myth that bilingualism causes speech delays still is not dead yet. Secondly, I was impressed that this parent was willing to risk the disapproval of her pediatrician to do something that she believed was beneficial for her son.

photo of toddler pulling his hat down
I don’t to hear any more myths about bilingualism and speech delays!

Survey Results

It is surprising to me to hear that there are still people who work in pediatrics who repeat this myth about bilingualism and speech delays to anxious parents. I wanted to learn more about this phenomenon, so I decided to ask people. Through a survey on Google Forms, I asked parents in bilingual (or multilingual) families about this topic. I learned that there are a lot of educated people in my network. Of all respondents, 46.2% had a master’s degree, almost 8% had a phD. I also found out that even these highly educated people hear the myth about bilingualism and speech delays from medical professionals. Almost a quarter of respondents said that they had heard that bilingualism causes speech delays from a medical professional.

screen shot of parent education levels from survey
The parents who responded to my survey about raising bilingual children are an educated group!

So many of the people who responded to my survey are so educated. The languages that they speak also skew towards high status (e.g. French and Japanese). I wonder if the how the results would be different for parents with less education. Or if they would be different for parents who speak languages that are less high-status in the US, such as Spanish or Yoruba.

photo of pie chart
Percentage of parents in blue who have heard from a medical professional directly involved in their child’s care that bilingualism causes speech delays

How to Move Forward

It is really sad to hear that parents are making choices about how they raise their children and what educational opportunities they pursue based on misinformation. The parent I mentioned in the beginning of this post is my inspiration. Hopefully more parents in the future will push back (gently) when they hear someone repeat the myth that bilingualism causes speech delays. Sometimes I fear that the pro-bilingual crowd can come across as a little smug. I can see how an endless list of articles and social media posts about how bilingual children and smarter, etc can be off-putting.

In the future, I hope that all parents have access to the same, high quality information about language learning. Until then, may those of us who do have access to the latest research on bilingualism be able to push back against myths.  Hopefully in a nice way! In that way, we can bring people over to our side instead of ruffling feathers.

More information about speech development and bilingualism:

Late Blooming or Language Problem?

Expert Advice from a Speech Therapist

More on Language Myths:

Myth of Chinese as Too Hard Even for Chinese People

Myths and False Beliefs that Hold Students Back

Learning Large Numbers in Chinese with Real Estate Ads

How are Large Numbers in Chinese Different?

Chinese numbers can be annoying for language students. The numbers for 1-100 seem easy enough. Twenty (二十) is literally “two ten” and thirty (三十) is literally “three ten” and so on. It is the large numbers that give students trouble. In English, one million is 1,000,000 but in Chinese we write it as 100万, which is more like “one hundred ten thousand.”

For students, thinking one million as “one hundred times ten thousand” can seem like… a lot of math. This can be especially distressing for students who chose to study Mandarin Chinese because they want a challenge that is not a STEM class. So do students have to do multiplication problems with large numbers just to use numbers in Chinese? No they don’t. Just like any other aspect of language, students will be able to use the correct words as long as they have heard and read enough input that includes those numbers. Students can learn anything with enough repetition.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Even though students can learn anything (when it comes to language) with enough repetition, we still have what Stephen Krashen calls the affective filter. As mentioned in an earlier post, high levels of anxiety, embarrassment, etc. can raise students affective filters and make it more difficult for students to learn. When students first encounter large numbers the Chinese way, they often resist because they are different to how we write large numbers in English. Giving students lots of input that included large numbers in context is one way to lessen the natural feelings of anxiety about Chinese numbers.

Getting Input with Real Estate Advertisements from Chinese Cities

The key to language acquisition is comprehensible input. Comprehensible input is language that students hear/read and (crucially) understand. For adult students, one way to give students a lot of input that includes large numbers is through…. real estate advertisements! Looking at real estate ads, we see the “easy” numbers. For example, the apartment is on the 16th floor, and it is 80 square meters. Ads also have large numbers for the prices. If you look at real estate ads for Shanghai or Beijing you are guaranteed to see prices that are in the millions and tens of millions (RMB).

Real estate ads are also a way to use authentic resources (authres) in the classroom. They are short so the students do not get overwhelmed. They are also a good spring board for further cultural discussions. Buying a home is very important in both American and Chinese cultures. But there are differences in the age of first time home buyers, living arrangements and what people value in a home.

photo of Chinese real estate ads
This could be a basis of a discussion on buying a home in China vs the US

Conclusion

As with everything else in language learning, students learn through getting input in a meaningful context. When we focus on creating meaning and using repetition, students can acquire anything. Even something as annoying as large numbers in Chinese!

What is the Skill-Building Hypothesis

The Skill-Building Hypothesis VS Comprehensible Input

The rival to the comprehensible input hypothesis for language learning (the one that I follow) is the skill-building hypothesis. The skill-building hypothesis of language acquisition theorizes that learners acquire language by learning grammar rules and memorizing vocabulary. Next, they combine their knowledge of grammar and vocabulary by speaking and writing. Learners refine their knowledge of the language be receiving feedback from a teacher or perhaps native speakers. Most Americans probably subscribe to some version of the skill building hypothesis. I do not think that this is because most people read the research on second language acquisition. Rather, I think it is just a default assumption.

What Happens in School

How do we learn most subjects in school? Teachers provide instruction in skills (multiplication, essay writing, volleyball) and then the students practice these skills. Most Americans learn a world language in school, so it is not unreasonable to assume that language learning happens the same way.

There are supporters of the skill-building hypothesis in academia. The research, however, time and time again shows that students learn better through receiving lots of comprehensible input (through listening and reading language that they can understand). A longer response to the skill building hypothesis is here.

Typical Language Classes

Most Americans should be skeptical of the skill-building hypothesis, even though the content to most language classes seems to be aligned to this hypothesis. Why? Because most Americans can barely string a sentence together in the language that they learned in high school. Most language classes are still a combination of explicit grammar instruction, memorizing vocabulary, and then asking students to eek out a few sentences to make sure that they are “learning.”

This dismal state of language fluency that students have after 4 years of high school Spanish should be enough to convince most people that there should be another way. It is likely, however, that most people don’t put that much thought into how language learning works. So when it comes time to learn another language, they just assume that there will be a textbook with grammar rules and lists of vocabulary.

How Are Lotus Chinese Learning Classes Different?

Classes at Lotus Chinese Learning are designed based on the idea that language is too complex to learn by learning grammar rules and memorizing words. There are plenty of books (like the ones mentioned here, here and here), but no textbooks. I also use the grammar that I need to use to express my meaning. I “shelter” words (that is, provide their meaning through pictures or English translations). In contrast, I do not shelter grammar. Think of how absurd it would be to only speak in the present tense to a young child! No parent would instinctually do that, and yet many teachers try to only speak to students in “simple” grammar. It is hard for the teacher to do, and frustrating for the students.

Unfortunately, I think that the skill-building hypothesis has its supporters by default. Learners think that language classes should be like other subjects in school. So they do not question it when teachers start lecturing about grammar and hand out a text book. Students, however, do learn better by getting lots of input in the target language, no textbook or grammar lesson required.

Chinese paper cutting, or how to incorporate culture into language classes

Making Culture Level and Age Appropriate

Most language educators agree that it is important to include at least some component of culture in a language class. Chinese culture is of course, very rich. Chinese civilization has a long history from which to draw. It is also true however, that we have to do what works with our students. Adult students can sit through (and enjoy!) a 45-minute presentation on gift-giving in China, but that would be a disaster for lower elementary students. Culture lessons need to be appropriate for their audience.

Chinese Paper Cutting with a Halloween Theme

When holidays come around, it can be a nice time to work in more culture to the material. However, the calendar does not always cooperate. Chinese Valentine’s Day (七夕) can be a good story for kids, but it occurs in summer when we are out of class. Likewise, there is a big yawning gap for major Chinese holidays between Mid-Autumn Festival (typically in September) and Chinese New Year (late January-February). To channel the holiday enthusiasm and include more Chinese culture in the curriculum, this year I combined Halloween with Chinese paper cutting.

photo of CHinese paper cutting activity
Example of Pumpkin Chinese Paper Cutting

Chinese paper cutting is a traditional handicraft. Generally, paper cuttings are just used for decoration in China. Halloween is not “a thing” in China really, but I do have a book of paper cutting designs that are meant for kids. In it are plenty of paper cuttings that fit a Halloween theme.

As long as the kids understand that Halloween is not really a Chinese holiday, then I think that doing Chinese paper cutting for a special class on or near Halloween works. We can cover at least one aspect of culture (a traditional handicraft) while also recognizing that kids are usually bouncing off the walls around Halloween. We probably won’t be able to cover as much material as we do normally, so it is good to channel that energy to something else.

photo of Chinese paper cut bat
It’s a bat!

Chinese Paper Cutting with Other Holidays and Festivals

This year, with some of my kiddos, we made Chinese paper cuttings of bats, pumpkins and spiders. This same idea, of combining Chinese paper cutting with the non-Chinese holiday of Halloween could work with other holidays. My book of paper cutting ideas for kids has Christmas trees and presents designs (if your school observes Christmas). It also has ears of corn, pumpkins and apples that could tie into Thanksgiving… and many more possibilities.

It is a challenge to incorporate culture into a language class in a way that is age and language level appropriate. Do you have any additional ideas for how to do it? Share in the comments!

photo of Chinese paper cutting book
Paper Cutting Book for Kids

Learner Errors

Against Correcting Learner Errors

Most students (and parents) who sign up for Mandarin Chinese classes are pretty motivated. They want a challenge and they want to do a good job. They are also usually familiar with other language classes in which students who make a mistake get an immediate correction from the teacher (or perhaps a particularly eager classmate.) In general, however, I do not correct learner errors in Lotus Chinese Learning classes. There are several reasons why I do not correct learner errors in class.

Why I Usually Don’t Correct Errors

Firstly, class time is a zero sum game. Every minute we spend doing one thing is a minute that we do not spend doing something else. We know that students learn a language like Mandarin Chinese through comprehensible input. My focus in class time is making sure that they get as much comprehensible input as is possible. If I spend 5 minutes talking about why XYZ is wrong, that is 5 minutes that the students do not get comprehensible input.

Secondly, students don’t really learn from explicit correction. An error that beginner students often make in Mandarin Chinese has to do with sentence order. They will often place the location after the verb when it should go before the verb. The way to make sure that students get it right is to speak to them with the correct verb order using meaningful language. It is not to write the rule on the board and hope that students get it. In fact, in my experience, students acquire Chinese sentence order much faster if they pick it up from listening and reading than if I try to teach a rule.

Another important reason to not explicitly correct students has to do with the social-emotional aspect of learner. Students probably will not like a class in which they hear a constant stream of correction. Students acquire language more easily if they feel relaxed, and positive. According to Stephen Krashen’s theory, when the affective filter is high, because of anxiety, low self-esteem, etc., students have a harder time learning languages.

photo of child with head in hands
Chin up! Don’t worry about errors in language learning

When Correcting Errors is Actually Helpful

There are times however, in which error correction can help students better acquire language. If a teacher notices a misunderstanding on the part of the learner, correcting that error can help refine the understanding of language in a student’s head. A common phrase that I use in class with the kiddos is 我们回家了 (We are going home). A student with a more literal (and incorrect) understanding of Chinese might think that this phrase means “We have gone home.” In this case the 了 does not mean that we have completed the action of going home, as is might in other contexts. Rather it means that we have now transitioned to the activity of going home. Sometimes there is a misunderstanding that needs correction so a student can refine their understanding of what a phrase or word means. However, most of the time they just need more and more input so that they can successfully acquire the language.

I find that not only do students learn more if we just focus on getting the input, but class time is much more pleasant!

More on why Lotus Chinese Learning Classes might be different than how you learned a language in high school