It is Okay to Just Listen

Some of my students start classes with me with some bad habits. One of these habits is a tendency to just repeat whatever I say. Many of these students do not realize that we are supposed to be having a conversation (limited as it may be). They’re not supposed to just parrot back to me what I say. Real listening is so important and just parroting back words is not something that students should spend their time doing.

We learn languages through communicatively-embedded input. Listening to a teacher and then repeating exactly what she says is not communication. I’m not sure what it is, but it is not communication. What is communication? Communication is the expression, interpretation and sometimes negotiation of meaning in a given context. When students just repeat stuff, they’re not getting any meaning. It is not real communication and students won’t really learn much from this type of interaction. It is also pretty boring.

Since it is a waste of time to be just repeating whatever the teacher says, what else should students do? It really is okay to just listen. Many people want to “see” some evidence of learning. They want to know if the classes are working or not. There are ways to get an idea if students are learning without forcing them to talk. Students can show their comprehension through pointing, nodding, following directions, laughing, drawing.. the list goes on. A good lesson plan for students, especially beginner, will have lots of opportunities for students to show what they know.

 

Why My MIL is a Good Language Teacher

How Do You Teach Languages?

My mother-in-law, Tere Fuentes, is a great Spanish teacher. Why? Because she talks to me in Spanish. She also talks slowly and uses gestures, pointing and rephrasing when I don’t understand. That is it really. I did not know any Spanish when I met her son in 2014. I’d never taken any Spanish classes. I’ve learned all the Spanish that I know in the past through year through listening to people speak Spanish.*

photo of me, husband and MIL
I’ve learned a lot of Spanish from my MIL

Learning a Second Language Vs. Learning A First

Learning a second language is very similar to learning your first. How did you learn your first language? Your parents talked to you. Maybe other adults or older children talked to you too. You learned to say a few words within two years, and were reasonably fluent within five years. No one sat you down at a tiny chalkboard to teach you how to conjugate verbs. Sure, some parents spend their money on flashcards. Millions of children, however, seem to learn words perfectly well without any flashcards.

My mother-in-law taught three kids how to speak Spanish. Now she is teaching me using pretty much the same method. She just talks to me. She doesn’t get annoyed when I answer with one word, or in English. Like all other learners, I will learn Spanish through hearing and reading it.

Letting Mistakes Slide

My mother-in-law has another great teaching habit that helps language learning. She does not explicitly correct my mistakes. If I make a mistake in Spanish, she either uses the correct wording in her response to me or she just ignores it. This is effective because explicit error correction does not help students learn a language. If anything, it hurts the language learning process by raising a student’s affective filter.

While she is not a language teacher by training, Tere is a teacher. She has owned her own dance school in Monterrey for forty years. Although not every teacher is a great language teacher, and not every person who speaks a language can be a teacher, I do think that her experience has been useful to her. As evidenced by her willingness to speak slowly and use words that I know, she is very patient.

*I took one 8 week Spanish class three years ago. I’ve written elsewhere that the only thing I learned was “El mono es curioso.”

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

Interesting in helping your child become bilingual? Get in touch via the contact page.

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.

Interested in learning more about Mandarin Chinese classes at Lotus Chinese Learning? Use the contact page to get in touch.

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