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.

Is Listening to the Radio Good Input?

A couple questions from adult students inspired this post. It is about comprehensible input, language learning, and where to get comprehensible input in Mandarin Chinese, especially for beginner students.

Q: Is it helpful to listen to a lot of Mandarin, even if you don’t understand it? Should I listen to talk radio in Mandarin as a beginner student?

A: Lots of students think that it might help them learn Mandarin Chinese if they just listen to a lot of the language. They are probably hoping that language learning happens the way it does for Bart Simpson. He is immersed in French in one episode of the Simpsons and then suddenly starts speaking French (he speaks French at about the 2 minute mark). Language learning does not really work this way. Listening to large amounts of language that you do not understand is not effective. Students need to understand what they heard in order to learn a language.

This is what we call comprehensible input, language that students understand. The comprehension hypothesis states that students acquire language when they understand what they hear and read. If students do not understand what they hear and read, they will never get any meaningful language acquisition from it. This is why listening to the radio in Chinese (or a podcast, or a book on tape) as beginner student is not helpful. It will just be blah, blah, blah in the student’s ear. Stephen Krashen is the most famous researcher of comprehensible input. More information on comprehensible input is available on his website.

Q: Okay, so if I need comprehensible input to learn Mandarin, where can I get it?

A: Good comprehensible input can be tough to find! Authentic materials (i.e. readings meant for native speakers) are very trendy in language education right now. They are often too difficult for beginner students, however. They are not comprehensible.

There are several posts on this blog that can point students towards good input in Chinese for beginners. Each individual student will have to poke around and see what works best for his or her level.

YouTube Videos (mostly for kids, but adults can watch too!)

Graded Readers (intermediate and above)

More YouTube

Remember that comprehensible input is relative to the individual. A book that is comprehensible to one student may not work for another. The important thing is to spend time listening and reading language you can understand. Do not waste time listening to language that is too difficult. It is just blah, blah, blah and will not help you learn the language.

photo of adult students in Chinese class
Some Fabulous Adult Students


The Myth of Mandarin as Too Hard Even for Chinese People to Learn

A Common Myth About Chinese

Usually I write blog posts about how I teach Mandarin Chinese classes. It is important to me to show parents and students how my classes might be different than what they are used to. Today, I am writing about how Mandarin Chinese is stereotyped in journalism or “journalism.” It is really important to question how non-speakers of Chinese negatively portray the language.  Students talk to me all the time on the first day of Chinese class about how hard they think the language is. And yet, after only 10-12 hours of instruction we are able to have a Mandarin class that is 90% conducted in the target language. We would not be able to do that if Mandarin Chinese were so much harder to learn than most other languages. It is a myth that Mandarin is “one of the hardest languages to learn.”

How Long Does it Take Chinese Children to Learn How to Read?

I tweeted last week about a line that I found in an article about teaching creativity in China. The author wrote: “Chinese schools place heavy emphasis on memori[z]ing, not least because mastering Mandarin is so hard; it takes children six years to learn the 3,000 or so characters that it takes to read a newspaper.” This statement rubbed me the wrong way for a couple reasons. Firstly, this kind of argument neglects to compare learning to read Mandarin Chinese as a native speaker to learn any other language as a native speaker.

Lots of people are native speakers of English, how long does them to learn how to read an English-language newspaper? Most US newspapers are written at a 7th-9th grade level. So, assuming that children don’t learn to read until first grade, they need at least seven years of education in order to comfortably read a newspaper! By this comparison, learning to read Chinese does not seem so bad, it is even comparable to learning to read in English.

photo pf page from Chinese dictionary
Is it Really That Bad?

Literacy Rates in China, Taiwan and Japan

What I really disagree with, however, is this idea that “Chinese is so hard even Chinese people can’t learn it.” It is wrong to suggest that memorizing is the only way to learn how to read Chinese. This both discourages people from trying to learn and also manages to insult the native speakers. Sinologists have been debunking the myth that learning to read in Chinese is unreasonably difficult for a long time. William McNaughton and Li Ying write in Reading and Writing Chinese (Revised Edition), “…while it does take some months longer for a Chinese child to master the writing system than it does an American or French child, say, to master their own writing systems, in the long run there is little difference. In Japan, where the writing system is based on the Chinese system, has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.”

If learning Chinese was so hard, then people in Mainland China would have higher literacy rates than people in Taiwan. This is because the Taiwanese use the more complicated traditional characters. But the opposite is true. Taiwan has a higher literacy rate than the Mainland. In Japan, students must learn kanji (based on Chinese characters) in addition to hiragana and katakana. That is three different writing systems! They also have higher literacy rates than Mainland China. There are clearly other factors at play in learning to read than the relative complexity of the writing system.

Myth Busting

I also think that perpetuating this myth that it is “hard” for Chinese people to learn their own writing system is a bit insulting to them. If it really were so objectively difficult to use characters, wouldn’t they have changed by now? Couldn’t the country have switched to an alphabet? Wouldn’t a rational society have switched to an alphabet as soon as one was available? If you think that the answers to these questions is yes, then that also implies that Chinese people are too irrational or too dumb to have thought of this themselves. I’ve seen Chinese characters described as exotic, opaque, inscrutable, irrational, only learnable by very hard workers… Does this sound like anything else? I think that this list also sounds like a list of stereotypes about Chinese people, and people from Asia in general.

Often, our received ideas about a language are really about the people who speak it. How often have you heard Spanish described as “easy” or a good language for the “dumb kids” to study? Aren’t there a lot of negative stereotypes about Spanish-speaking people hidden in those assumptions too?

When we say or write that Chinese (or anything else) is very difficult, we are also giving ourselves a pass for not trying. Likewise, when we say that something is easy like learning Spanish, we are also implying that anyone who speaks it has accomplished something easy.  Or that the accomplishment is inherently less worthy. Do not learn a language because you think it is easier or harder than another. Learn a language because you want to! Ignore the uninformed journalists along the way, too.

Further reading:

FAQs (mostly) on learning Mandarin Chinese

Beginning Chinese Reading (AKA Reading Chinese might not be what you think it is)

More on Language Myths 

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!

Learning to Read in Chinese, It is not Memorizing!

Reading is not Memorizing

Learning to read in Chinese is not an exercise in memorizing 3,000-5,000 different characters. Surprisingly to some, learning to read in Chinese is not that different from learning to read in English. In both languages, readers are mapping sounds that they already know to the written word (or character).

But wait! Many adult students say, isn’t it far easier for young children to start reading in Chinese than adults? Not really, children and adults tend to learn Chinese characters the same way. Since children often have more time to spend on Chinese learning, they have an advantage there. It is not a cognitive advantage, however.

So what is going on inside of people’s heads when they start to learn Chinese characters? First impressions of a Chinese character follow a global prior to part principle.* Readers notice the contour of a character and its edges. Many people believe that Chinese is a completely opaque language, and that there is not phonological component to written Chinese. This simply is not true. Eighty to ninety percent (linguists disagree in the exact percentage) of Chinese characters have a phonological component. Phonological awareness is implicated in reading Chinese, just as it is for reading English. There is evidence that the orthography of Chinese characters becomes more important in later reading, but at the beginning, readers are forming more holistic impressions of characters. I am glossing over many details for the sake of brevity, but the takeaway is that speech and sound have a great deal to do with learning to read in Chinese. Chinese reading is not just a visual exercise.

A Proven Approach to Reading in Chinese

In teaching students how to read Chinese, I have borrowed a great deal from Terry Waltz’s cold character reading. Her method involves introducing characters after students have learned the word orally and using lots of repetition. I have been laughed at (in a good-natured sort of way) by adult students who think that I am pulling their leg when I say that they will be reading sentences by the end of their first two-hour class. Without fail, they are reading at the end of the class. We are only reading words that we already know, and there is a great deal of repetition, but students read with a very high level of comprehension and there is no tedious memorizing of Chinese characters. There is much more to cold character reading than what I can cover in a paragraph. If you would like more information, please click around Terry Waltz’s blog, linked to above.

There is some evidence that it is easier to learn Chinese characters which have fewer than six strokes. I think it is more important to focus on learning the most frequently used characters first, rather than just introducing characters based on the number of strokes. For example, 我 (I/me) is a fairly complicated character, but it is one of the most frequently used Chinese characters so students can and will learn it quickly.

Using Text with Pinyin in Chinese Reading

There are many different types of reading resources available for students learning how to read in Chinese. I favor resources that provide pinyin to help students look up unfamiliar words and a glossary. I am reviewing this version of the story of the monkey king below for my intermediate students. This version is great because it has the pinyin on the opposite page and a full glossary in the back. Students can easily check the opposite page for pinyin if they are unsure of how to pronounce a character and easily look up unfamiliar words. They can also read just the characters without referring to the pinyin if they do not need it.

photo of pages of book with Chinese characters on one side and pinyin on the other side
Text with Chinese characters and pinyin

The below image is actually of a text meant for Chinese children. I do not prefer texts that have the pinyin above the characters. Yes, it does provide the same function as having the pinyin on the opposite page which is to provide pronunciation help. With language students, there is a tendency to ignore characters in favor of pinyin if it is right there. Students will generally just read pinyin and ignore characters if they are included together like this. I would rather have students fluently reading characters from the start of their journey learning to read in Chinese (i.e. through cold character reading) than to limp along with mostly pinyin reading.

photo of text with Chinese characters
Poem by Li Bai with pinyin written above the characters

What about Writing in Chinese?

Like reading, writing Chinese characters does not need to include memorization of thousands of characters. Read more about approaches to writing Chinese in another blog post here.

*I am using the research of Hui Li (2015) here, contact me for a full citation.

What are your experiences in learning to read in Chinese or another language? Share in the comments!