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


To Label or Not to Label

Can you learn new words through labels on your stuff?

There are many places to spend your money if you want to learn a second (or third!) language. There are classes, tutors, paid apps, Rosetta Stone, etc. You can even buy stickers to label all the stuff in your house in the target language. If you would like to learn a language such as Mandarin Chinese, should you buy stickers and spend the time and money to put them all over your house?

The short answer is no. Sticking labels on your fridge, coffee pot, and television won’t help you learn those words. There are two reasons for this. The first reason has to do with how we actually learn new words. The second reason has to do with how our minds work in general.

photo of television labelled in Chinese
Will this label help you learn the word for television in Chinese? Probably not!

How we acquire new words

We learn new works when we encounter them in a meaningful context. Say that you are a highly motivated adult student or a parent who wants to help her child learn Chinese. You look up the words for sofa, lamp, table, computer, etc and then print out the words and paste them around the house. You’ve got the words, but you are missing the meaningful context. You don’t look at a sofa and think “yep, that is a sofa.”

We can’t even learn a new word in our native languages without a meaningful context. Say I told you that the word “puce” means a purplish brown color. If I asked you one year from now what the word “puce” means, then maybe you would remember, but more likely you wouldn’t. Say instead that your Aunt Mavis knits you a sweater for your birthday. You open up the gifts and see the lumpy bundle of yarn and she tells you, “the color is puce.” Your birthday is a memorable context. You’ve got the color right in front of you. Add to that the emotional resonance of the awkward birthday present. I promise you’ll remember that the color puce is a purplish brown.

photo of dishwasher labelled in Chinese
Is labelling your dishwasher a good use of your time? Not really!

Looking without seeing (or reading)

There is another reason that putting stickers with vocabulary words around your house does not work. Our brains are very good at ignoring what is in our visual environments. We just do not “see” what is there. Very quickly, those stickers will fade into  the background and you or your child won’t even notice that it says 洗碗机 on your dishwasher. This psychological phenomenon is called inattentional blindness. Maybe a highly diligent student will look at the sticker and say 冰箱 every time she opens the fridge, but most of us won’t.

Save your time and money. Labelling stuff around your house won’t help you learn new words in Mandarin Chinese (or any other language). You are better off seeking out compelling input (through listening and reading) to build your vocabulary in Chinese. The impulse to label stuff around your house is understandable. Learning a second language is a big undertaking and students want to feel like they are doing something. It is not worth the effort.

More on how we learn new words:

Can You Learn a Language from an App?

Tips for Adult Language Learners

Is language learning hopeless for adult students?

photo of adults learning
Should these folks just give up? No! Adults can learn a language too.

So you are an adult who wants to learn Mandarin Chinese. It probably seems like the cards are stacked against you. Lots of people think that it is hopeless for adults to become fluent in a second language. It is also hard to find the time to learn a language when you have a busy adult schedule. The good news is that while there is evidence that older learners will likely not become native-like speakers, they can still achieve high levels of fluency. There is plenty of hope for adult learners. Below are some tips for adult students who want to learn Mandarin Chinese.

Motivation counts for a lot

Most of my adult students lament the fact that they are not starting as young kids. Most people believe that young children have an easier time learning a second language. While young kids (i.e. children <8 years old) may have some advantages, they lack the motivation of adult students. Motivation drives students to sit down an study for hours, attend classes in their spare time, and seek out resources for language learning. Highly motivated students really can achieve high levels of proficiency. Many of my adult students feel self-conscious on their first day of class. What they don’t realize is that just being there already says a lot about them. Adult students who seek out Chinese classes are usually very motivated people who are high achievers in other areas of their lives. Slackers never make it in the door.

venn diagram of showing adults who learn Chinese
If you are in a Chinese language class, you probably already have many qualities that will help you in the learning process, such as drive, discipline and motivation.

Don’t try to speak right away

Highly motivated students often have a couple bad habits that don’t help them in the language learning process. They are so eager to learn that they usually want to speak right away. They fret over their pronunciation and want to “practice” to get it right as quickly as possible. To really have good pronunciation, learners need to listen. Only with lots of input (i.e. hearing something over and over again), can students really say something correctly. It may seem too “passive” to just sit there and listen, but this is exactly what students must do in order to improve.

It is a marathon, not a sprint

Language acquisition is a slow, ordered, and complex process. Learners simply cannot leap-frog the steps of language learning. Sometimes students can fake their way through complex interactions in Chinese, but they can’t fool their brains. Becoming proficient in Mandarin Chinese does not happen over night. Students need to be patient and accept that their progress will probably be slower than they’d like.

Interested in adult classes? NEISD organizes my adult group classes, more information is on their website: https://communityed.neisd.net

Interested in private lessons? Use the contact page to get in touch.

Do you have a short-term need to learn some Chinese, for a business trip or vacation to China? China Boot Camp classes might be the best choice for you. More information is on the Mandarin Classes page.