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.*
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.”
I did a little bit of or back of the envelope math the other day, and I found that about half of my current Mandarin students speak Spanish at home with at least one parent. When I worked in Austin, I noticed a similar trend. Many of our students had family connections to China/Taiwan, but others did not. Many of these students also spoke a language other than English at home, but it was not Mandarin. Our school had many multilingual families. It probably seems obvious that many people want to learn (or want their children to learn) Mandarin because of a family connection to the language. And yet we had so many families who spoke languages other than English at home. It was common to hear Thai, Korean, Spanish and other languages at pick up. These families seemed to push back against the idea that “everyone speaks English anyway” and invested in learning more languages, rather than sticking with the home language plus English.
Most Mandarin immersion programs advertise themselves as teaching children a second language. In many communities with Mandarin immersion programs*, it is assumed that children come from English-speaking homes and they will build their Mandarin knowledge entirely through this program. In three years of looking at these programs, I have never come across any parent literature that says “Yeah, it is probably a good idea if at least one parent can speak some Chinese.” In fact, they all say the opposite: families do not need any. They also do not explicitly encourage families who are already speaking a language other than English at home to apply for their programs. Utah, the state with the highest percentage of dual language programs, does not require its programs’ English teachers to have an ESL endorsement. This is a clue about who they assume will enroll in their dual language programs. Despite this, if what I have seen over the past few years is not a fluke, then there really is a trend of families adding Mandarin as a third language for children who are already growing up bilingual.
If you look at this graph of Mandarin immersion programs in the US, you will see that the line starts trending up during the late 90s and early 2000s. This was also around the time that California, Arizona and Massachusetts (1998, 2000 and 2002, respectively) passed their English-Only education laws.** Looking back, Mandarin immersion programs look like they were ahead of the curve because they embraced linguistic diversity instead of fighting it. In my experience in Texas, families are pushing for more languages, not fewer. They speak Spanish (or Korean or Turkish) at home, and want more languages at school. Thirty-five percent of Texans over the age of five speak a language other than English at home. Of these, 7 million speak Spanish. In Bexar county (San Antonio), where I live, the percentage of the population that speaks Spanish at home is higher: 38%.*** These families want to participate in Mandarin programs, and that means for their kids, Mandarin will be a third language (or maybe a fourth!).
If my husband and I are fortunate enough to have children, we will be one of the many Texas families for whom language-learning at school means learning a third or fourth language. My husband is a native Spanish speaker from Mexico and I teach Mandarin. We may choose to add in French or Portuguese, or stick with Spanish, Mandarin and English. In any case, our family won’t be made of English-monolinguals gaining bilingualism through a new immersion program. Like so many people around us, we are already a multilingual family.
Does the embrace of languages such as Mandarin by already bilingual families mean the end of the US as an English-speaking country? Not likely. Fears of a generation of young people growing up without English drove language education trends in the 1990s, as we have seen. Those fears were unfounded then, and still are today. What people who feel threatened by linguistic diversity do not take into account is the asymmetry of language. If a group of Mandarin teachers in a Mandarin immersion program in Utah have a meeting with their principal, they will speak English. When bilingual children are on the playground in San Antonio with English monolinguals, they will speak English too. The language of the group will always be the language of the monolingual person, even if there is only one of them. Language is asymmetrical, monolinguals have more power than they assume!
The State of Texas has a long history of multilingualism, hinted at by our history of having “six flags over Texas.” From my perspective, as an educator in the Mandarin language, our families want to keep it that way. They do not want to subtract languages by having schools be “English only” spaces, they want more languages. They speak Spanish, Korean, Turkish, Thai, and others at home, and they want their kids to learn Mandarin too.
*I’m talking specifically about dual-language programs, not two-way dual-language programs. In a two-way dual language program (also called two-way immersion (TWI)), a class is made up of 50% English speakers and 50% native speakers of the target language. In a dual language program (also called one-way immersion), none of the students are expected to speak the target language at home, although some students surely do.
** These laws have since been repealed in California and Massachusetts
So many people want to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to communication better with family members. Or they want their children to learn Mandarin Chinese in order to communicate better with family members. Or they want to learn a language other than Chinese in order to communicate at home. No matter what the details are, this is a great thing, but there are several points to keep in mind to keep the process of learning a new language free from frustration.
We do not learn language by practicing it. Parents and other adults often want the language learner to “practice” the target language. We do not learn language by forcing ourselves to speak. People learn language by hearing (and reading) comprehensible input. Forcing a learner to speak the target language when he or she is not ready is actually counter-productive since the learner is not spending his or her time receiving input.
Since we learn language by receiving comprehensible input, this means that family members who speak the target language need to do A LOT of talking, especially at the beginning. Family members need to expose the learner to the target language. Family members need to talk to the learner slowly, with short sentences, and using (mostly) words that the learner already knows.
Give credit where credit is due. Many adults complain that they talk to their children in the target language that they child answers back in English. They say that the child “doesn’t speak” the target language. But if a child responds accurately to a question, then s/he has understood the question in the first place! Acknowledging that accomplishment will go a long way to fostering positive feelings towards the target language.
Give up the petty arguments. There are many monolingual adults who tell a version of this story: “My mom is from Mexico and my dad is Puerto Rican, they could never agree on the kind of Spanish to teach me so we spoke English at home.” It can be confusing at the beginning to use both “habichuela” and “frijole” but a petty disagreement is just another hump to get over. Use both synonyms and move on. Do not lose the forest for the trees.
When the time comes that the learner starts speaking (remember, don’t force it!) let the mistakes slide. This is really hard, because our instinct is always to correct learners when they say something wrong. Research shows that explicitly correcting learner mistakes does not work. Worse still, explicitly correcting errors leads to feelings of frustration which deter language learning. Asking for clarification is fine, but try not to offer explicit corrections for the learner.
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:
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.
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.
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.
*I’m getting this from the research of Ellen Bialystok
What language myths have you encountered? How did you respond? Share in the comments.
It is Thanksgiving week here in the US and in honor of family I am taking a break from writing about Chinese and second language learning to write about Spanish! Over the years, I have had many students with Chinese-speaking family members, usually a spouse, parent or grandparent. Often we joke about how the student should just learn for free at home, but the chuckles we share are usually punctuated with the same refrain: “my parent/spouse/grandparent just can’t teach me or I can’t learn from him/her.” We joke that it should be as simple as being in the same household as someone who speaks another language, but it really is just a joke because language learning is much more complex than that.
A Struggle With Spanish
I have my own jokes too, about how I could learn Chinese while living in China but I can’t seem to learn Spanish living under the same roof as my Mexican husband. I never quite believed that my brain was uniquely incapable of learning Spanish, or that my ordinarily very competent husband could not teach basic Spanish. But as our lives chugged on, I learned a few phrases but never felt like I made any progress in speaking more Spanish at home. Then something happened, and by this I mean that my nephew Luka came to stay with us for the summer from Mexico. Towards the end of the visit, I noticed myself speaking and understanding more Spanish. Either Luka had brought the magical fairy dust from Mexico that helps people learn Spanish or something else afoot. Turns out, second language acquisition theory tells us exactly what was going on.
Getting Comprehensible Input in Spanish
When Luka was living with us, I got loads more comprehensible input in Spanish. When it is just me and my husband at home, we talk about the things that married people tend to talk about, city council elections, renovating the kitchen, problems at work (only my husband has those ;)). These topics are really difficult to tackle in Spanish for someone with only a novice level of the language. They are abstract, use specialized vocabulary, and need a great deal of nuance. In Spanish, they are very much beyond frustration level for me.
With Luka in our house, however, the Spanish input I received changed. Before, it was either the same two responses to “tienes hambre?” (are you hungry) or a phrase that was too far beyond my level for me to understand anything. My husband talked to Luka about what he wanted for breakfast, chores he needed to do, the movies we watched as a family. All of these topics were very concrete, repetitive. There are only so many things a boy will eat for lunch. All of these things were comprehensible for me. Additionally, with two people speaking Spanish in front of me, I got twice the amount of input in Spanish than I received before. Really it was more like ten times the amount of Spanish because before. In the past, I only heard more than basic responses when my husband was on the phone.
In Language, More is More
It has been several months since Luka left and my Spanish is coming along. This is the cool thing about language, more creates more. This was the shot in the arm I needed, hearing everyday conversation between two people. With this, I was able to build more of the implicit structure of the language in my head. Because I can understand more, I can say more. Since I can say more, my husband responds more (in Spanish). The other day we had a…. lively debate… about who had more shoes, all in Spanish! It was not the scintillating discussion that great relationships are made of, but it was an improvement over ““tienes hambre?”