Fluency & Mandarin Immersion: How Much Input are Students Actually Getting?

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!

Language Myths & False Beliefs That Hold Students Back

Don’t let language myths prevent you (or your child) from learning a second language

As a language teacher, I hear so many reasons from people why learning Chinese or any other language is not an option for them or another person in their lives. People are free to make their own choices, but I want to talk about the myths and beliefs that incorrectly limit individuals and families from pursuing bilingualism. I’ve written before about incorrect folk beliefs about language that limit people’s horizons. Below, I am responding to statements I have heard many times over the years. In person, it is hard to respond in the moment, because I do not want to rub people the wrong way, and in my classes students (or their parents) are paying to learn Chinese, not to get a lecture about language myths. So I am writing about it here, hoping that folks will find this resource on their own.

My daughter was a premie, so I was told that bilingualism would delay her speech even more.

Children who are born prematurely sometimes have speech delays. Sometimes children with speech delays will need special attention, and sometimes they catch up on their own. Bilingualism, however, does not cause speech delays. This is a myth that has stuck around with the tenacity of a bad cold. This does not mean that a bilingual child uses each language the exact same way, nor does it mean bilingual children are exactly the same as monolingual children. There is evidence that bilingual children have smaller vocabularies* than comparable monolingual children, so it is not purely wine and roses for bilingual children. The reasons for this probably have more to do with the amount of exposure children get in each language, rather than any internal factors.

If parents of premie children want to devote time and resources to only one language, that is perfectly fine. Time and resources are a zero-sum game and parents often have to make difficult choices about what they provide to their children. Potential speech delays should not be a reason to avoid bilingualism, however. There is no evidence that there is a connection between the two.

I have dyslexia, so I can’t learn a second language.

Dyslexia (an unexpected difficulty in reading that may be connected to phonological processing) can make it harder for people to learn a second language. Dyslexia is also the most common learning disability. This does not mean that it is impossible for a dyslexic person to learn a second language. Salma Hayek is bilingual and dyslexic (as are many other people), and she learned her second language (English) as an adult. If someone who has dyslexia wants to learn a second language, I recommend finding a teacher who has knowledge of dyslexia and learning disabilities. It is not a given that all language teachers will have this type of training.

My mom speaks to my son in Chinese, and he only answers her in English. He can’t learn Chinese for some reason.

I hear a variation of this statement almost every time I start a new class. So many of my adult students, or parents of younger students, bring up some version of this story: “Relative(s) always speaks L2 to Child and Child only responds in L1/does not understand.” There seems to be an assumption out there that if a child hears a second language at home, he should immediately be bilingual. If not, there is something wrong. I cannot get inside each person’s head, but there are some principles here that people should think about before concluding that a child can’t learn a second language because he is still talking to grandma in English:

  1. Understanding more than you can say is a stage in language acquisition. If a child hears a question from grandma in Chinese and responds coherently in English, that means that he understands the question! Perhaps he does not get enough input in Chinese to move to speaking Chinese, but he has acquired enough language to understand and should get credit for that.
  2. Children are emotional beings too. Adults get embarrassed in L2 contexts all the time, but so do kids. There is a myth that children are less prone to embarrassment than adults. They can feel self-conscious about mistakes the way adults do. Adults tend to be generous with praise and encouragement with children in early childhood. But they pull back when the children reach middle childhood. Children should be encouraged in pursuing a second language, just as they are when developing the first. Getting annoyed with a child who is not immediately speaking the L2 is not helpful.
  3. Play the long game. Think of language learning like a savings bond. When I was a kid, one uncle in particular sent me a savings bond for every birthday and Christmas. You know what a savings bond is when you are a kid? Fake money. It looks sort of like money, it allegedly has similar properties to money, but you can’t use it as money! Writing thank you notes was torture: “Dear Uncle X, thanks for the tease.” Cut to a few decades later when those savings bonds have matured and I am very, very grateful to Uncle X. He had the foresight and resources for helping me fund my education and get out of a couple jams. Right now, it might not seem like a child is getting anything from talking to grandma in Chinese. Give it time. Maybe someday he will study in China.  Maybe he will watch a Chinese movie and it will change his life. Or maybe he will be an important diplomat, be patient.
The word "bilingual" written in Chinese characters
Bilingual in Chinese

*I’m getting this from the research of Ellen Bialystok

What language myths have you encountered? How did you respond? Share in the comments.

How Immersion (Should) Work

The promise of language immersion

Last semester, I pointed out to different groups of classes (or their parents) that I was using almost 100% Chinese in class after about ten hours of class time (the exact number of hours was different for different classes and different age groups). These are the kind of results that encourage boosters of immersion or dual-language programs. It looks like evidence that students can be put into an immersion class where the teacher only speaks in the target language and students simply “pick up the language” in a short amount of time. The reality is, a language class that is near to 100% Chinese in the early days uses very different language than a group pf native speakers would.

Immersion as illusion

First, let’s take a look at a poorly done immersion class for kindergarteners, assuming they do not come from families who speak the target language. Italics represent the target language:

Teacher: During circle time today we are going to talk about the parts of a flower. (Pulls out book on flowers). This is a flower, right? Okay, these are petals. (Goes over parts of a flower in target language)… Great, now we are going to make our own flowers with tissue paper. Go get a pair of scissors from the arts and crafts corner and go back to your seats.**

What the students hear: Blah, circle time, blah blah blah blah flower. Blah, book, blah blah blah blah blah blah flower, blah blah blah blah. Blah blah blah blah….. Blah blah arts and crafts corner blah blah blah your seat.

Students do not have a magical way to understand the target language after only a short time of instruction. What outside observers might see is an illusion: students appear to be understanding because they are sitting quietly and looking at the teacher, but they are really not comprehending what is said because it is being spoken too quickly, with too many unfamiliar words and with sentences that are too long.

If a class is going to be conducted using the target language at least 90% of the time, as ACTFL recommends, then teachers need to use language that students can comprehend. After 10 hours or so of class time with a group of young learners, we are not going over the parts of a flower. That vocabulary is way too complicated for them, and it is likely that they do not even have this information in their home language, making comprehension even more difficult.

Appropriate Language for a Beginner Immersion Class

A better approach to conducting a beginner class in nearly 100% target language would go something like this:

Teacher: What is this? This is a flower? Is it a book? No, it is not a book. Is it a tree? No it is not a tree, it is a flower. What color is the flower? The flower is red. Is the flower blue? No, the flower is not blue. The flower is red. It is red.

Students might be able to answer the questions the teacher is asking, or they can follow as she answers herself. This input lends itself to a neat little task for kindergarteners. They can make guesses about the different colors of flowers they might find around the playground, go outside and count, and then make a nice chart showing the results. This task is about more than just language and incorporates counting, which American kindergarteners usually need more practice doing.

Why does immersion work when it works?

Immersion can be an effective approach for language learning because it leads students to attend to meaning when hearing the target language. In a tradition “teach and practice” class, a teacher would introduce target vocabulary and grammar and then have students practice. (Don’t ask me how to do this with kindergarteners, I have no idea). There is no evidence that this “teach and practice” strategy works well to build language acquisition. There is no meaning, or very little meaning, attached to the language in these types of classes. There is, however, a great deal of evidence that language acquisition happens most effectively when students have access to input in the target language that is comprehensible to them. When students are working in the target language in an immersion classes, they are thinking about meaning in the target language. They are not thinking about verb agreement, articles, particles or any of the nuts and bolts of language that teachers tend to focus on in traditional classes. Students in my example above with the task on flowers are colors are busy counting and they only need a small number of vocabulary words (flower, various colors, numbers) in order to do this meaningful task.

Immersion goes wrong when students and parents expect that a student can be immersed in 100% native-like language from day 1 and learn as normally as they would in an L1 class. Immersion education is not magic. The target language used in an immersion environment needs to be comprehensible to the students, or else all they will hear mostly blah, blah, blah, blah.

*I’m conflating immersion classes that happen as part of dual-language programs in k-12 schools and immersion classes that could be part of an FLES program, private classes, Saturday school classes, etc. There are many differences in these types of classes, but their similarities are what I am talking about today.

**I’ve changed the details, but this example is based on a kindergarten immersion class that I observed

What do you think about language immersion education? Share in the comments.

Novice Tasks & Classroom Management

What is a Task in Language Learning?

What are good tasks to do with novice students? We should start by defining a task. A task for a language class always has a purpose that is not language. So if we are going around the room naming the colors that students are wearing, that is not a task. We are just naming colors for the sake of using the words for red, blue, green, etc.  A task would be to make a tally of all the colors we are wearing. Then to compare that tally to the school colors. The task has purpose because we are trying to find out something: whether there is a relationship between the school’s colors and the colors that students like to wear. (This might be a very boring task at a school where students wear uniforms.)

Tasks are great for learning languages, but creating tasks for novice students can be a challenge because they just do not have a great deal of language at their disposal. When the novice language learners are young children there is an additional challenge because they do not have the self-control that adults have. Classroom management is a challenge for any teacher, but when we are in language teaching, there is an extra layer of pressure to use the target language while also maintaining order.

A Task for Beginner Students in Chinese

One task that I have done with different groups of children is to read the book 大卫,不可以 (No, David!) with the kids. Then we make a list of things that are okay (可以)and not okay (不可以)to do in class. The book provides a great deal of comprehensible input, it is repetitive and probably already a familiar story to the kids. Once we have gone over 可以 and 不可以 over and over in the story, then it is time for our task. Together, we make a list of things that are okay and not okay to do in class. Children can act out their suggestions and use English if needed. These suggestions all get compiled into a shared document that functions as a list of classroom rules-a classroom management bonus. With a task like this, there probably is not enough repetition for the students to acquire a phrase like 打人 (to hit somebody). They definitely can acquire 可以 and 不可以 and use those phrases with gusto.

pages from No David!
Photo from inside pages of Chinese-language version of No David!

If they students can use 可以 and 不可以, that means they understand when the teacher uses these words too! This brings us closer to our goal of using the target language for classroom management.

Picture of whiteboard with class rules in Chinese
Class rules should be included in a way that children can understand. A picture of someone raising a hand is more effective than writing: 举手。

Vocabulary in the L2 Classroom: Less is More

Too Many New Words is Too Much

Before discovering comprehensible input for second language learning, I used to be very concerned about packing as many words as possible into each lesson. I did not think that there was a maximum number of words for each lesson’s focus. It is understandable that language teachers want to get as much out of each lesson as possible. Many of my students only have class for an hour or two each week, so they (or their parents) also want to get the most out of their time. Contrary to my previous beliefs, when it comes to target vocabulary words per class, less is more.

Seasoned language teachers who use comprehensible input to teach a target language, however, tend to focus on just a few structures per class. The problem with trying to squeeze as many words as possible into an hour of Chinese class is that there is not enough time to repeat the words the number of times needed for them to really sink in to the students’ brains.

Students Need Repetition

For younger students, a classic story with lots of repetition is a great tool for helping students acquire new words. As I have written previously, I like Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do you See? because of the repetition of the structure “to see something.” After reading this story, the structure “你看什么/我看见XX” can be used to do a task for listing all the things the students see in their classroom.

Just A Handful of New Words Per Class

A unit on family is a must-do for novice classes. Often my adult students would get caught up in nailing down the vocabulary word for every single family member they have. We spent too much time going over the words for “father’s elder brother, ex-wife, older female cousin on my father’s side, and etc.” Undoubtedly, my students wanted to learn the proper terms for important people in their lives, but it just was not possible to include all the different possible family members with sufficient repetition. The solution was to talk about a family (often, I present my family) using just the basic members of a nuclear family, mom, dad, elder brother, elder sister, younger sister, and younger brother. These are just six new words, which is about right for an hour-long novice class. The cool thing about family, is that members can be described in more than one way. For example, Uncle Bob can also be described as “dad’s elder brother,” so students can keep using the simple terms until they are ready to use the actual Chinese word for father’s elder brother (伯伯). Just as with vocabulary acquisition for children, the goal is to work in as many repetitions of the new words as possible.

To recap, a class that starts with a long list of vocabulary words is probably not setting out on the right foot. When it comes to vocabulary learning, less is more. Students need to hear vocabulary words spoken over and over again in order to retain them. There simply are not enough minutes per class to focus on the long lists of “new words” that accompany most legacy method textbooks. Instead, a tight focus on a small group of vocabulary words or structures is a better use of class time.

photo of part of vocab list for advanced Chinese class
Too many new words!