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.

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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.

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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.

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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 Parents Don’t Like About Their Children’s Language Classes

From the Lotus Chinese Learning Mail Bag

I get many emails from parents who are frustrated with their children’s current or previous Mandarin Chinese classes. These parens often say that they don’t like how the teachers teach the classes. They also often complain that their children did not really learn much from the class. Those two complaints are probably related. Students don’t learn much from most language classes because many language teachers use methods that don’t work.

What the Wal-Mart Test Tells Us

Through some teacher professional development (I can’t remember exactly what) I learned of something called the Wal-Mart test. The Wal-Mart test basically involves going to a Wal-Mart, tapping a stranger on the shoulder, and asking two questions. The first question is: “What language did you study in high school?” The second question is “Do you speak it?” Most of the time the answers are “Spanish” and “no.” Why do so few Americans retain a language they probably spent at least a few years studying? Is it us or is it the system? I think that it is the system. The human brain is built to learn languages. So where are we going wrong?

Some Problems with Legacy Teaching Methods (There are More!)

Most students in the US learn a foreign/second language in school through legacy methods. This is the old “teach and practice” model. The teacher will teach a grammar point, such as “In contrast to English, in Mandarin, we often put the question words at the end. For example we ask 你喜欢喝什么?” (What do you like to drink?). Then the teacher will ask the students to practice by coming up with their own sentences. There are several reasons why this does not work. One of the most important reasons is that students do not get enough input in the target language. They only hear the structure a couple times and then they need to repeat it. In reality, students need to hear words and structures repeated dozens of times before they “sink in.” Students are not ready to use language after hearing a word or phrase just a few times.

Another reason that “teach and practice” does not work is because the practice usually has no purpose. Students just say things in Mandarin Chinese because they need to tick a box. The students are not actually trying to learn something about each other or themselves. If language has no purpose, then there is something in our brains that shuts off and the words the students say don’t “stick.” Many teachers and parents might say, “but wait, isn’t the purpose to practice saying what we like to drink?” It is an understandable objection, but the purpose of what we say in class must be something other than language. We can talk about what we like to drink all day, but unless we are trying to find out the most popular drink in the class, or find out if more girls than boys like sweet tea.

Good Classes Don’t All Look the Same, But They Have a Few Things in Common

A blog post is not long enough to go over every single problem with legacy methods. This post covers just two: asking students to use words and structures before they are ready and asking students to practice language without a real purpose. A better class will make sure that the students hear input (speech) dozens of times before they need to actually produce language. A good teacher can repeat a word or structure 50-100 times within an hour long class. After that hour, most students will be able to use that word or structure, although there are individual differences. A good class will also not use language just for the sake of using language. Pretending to order pizza is not a good purpose: it is not real. Actually planning a real pizza party that could happen in class could work. The task has a real objective (one that the students will surely be interested in, too!)

What was the best language class you’ve taken? What was the worst? Share in the comments!

For more on why “traditional” or legacy teaching methods don’t wont for languages, check out:

Do Mandarin Classes Need to Teach Grammar?

Repetition in Mandarin Chinese Classes

Tips for Family Language Learning

Language Learning and Family

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.photo of a family in silohuette

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!

Library Resources for Second Language Learning

Free Chinese Books in San Antonio

I teach Chinese in San Antonio, so this post has to do with finding resources for learning Chinese in the San Antonio (Bexar county) public library system. Similar resources should be available in other large cities, or even smaller ones, consult your local library.

As I wrote about for the Rivard Report, reading is very helpful for learning a second language. The kind of reading that people do for pleasure is especially useful, meaning that it is helpful to find material on your own, that interests you. This is where the public library comes in. It is not that easy to find Chinese-language books* in the San Antonio public library system, but it can be done!

How to Find Chinese Books at SAPL

First, visit MySAPL.org and find the library catalog under the services section on the menu bar.

library catalog

Click on the library catalog. From the scroll down menu, choose the advanced search. The next part is where it gets a little clunky, you have to put something in the search field so I put an “A.” There are more than books of course at the library, but I ticked only “books” for the type of material. The next set of boxes is the important part, this is where you check “Chinese” for the language. Then hit “search”!

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There are lots of results that come up, including textbooks, children’s books and novels. The children’s books are a great resource for parents who would like a resource for helping their children acquire a language outside of the classroom.

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If I scroll down, I see that there is a copy of Farewell, My Concubine. I have already watched the movie so I might like the book too. This copy is published by HarperPerennial. Based on the thumbnail picture of the cover, it is probably an English translation.

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They also have a copy of the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber (Hong Lou Meng).

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If I click on the details, I see that this version of Dream of the Red Chamber has both Chinese characters and pinyin. It is also published by a children’s publishing company (name is in pinyin in the listing). It is hard to tell without actually looking at the book. This book could be appropriate for intermediate-high level Chinese learners.

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If I want to see if there are any works by authors that I like, such as Lu Xun, I can do that. All I need to do is search for just those using the search field. Read the catalog listing carefully however, before going down to the library or requesting the book from your librarian. The one search result that I can see for “Lu Xun” at San Antonio public library is actually from the Beijing Foreign Language press.  It is probably in English and not Chinese.

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Searching for Chinese language books at SAPL shows that you really do have to poke around. Students have to make sure that results are actually in Chinese and are what you’re looking for. It is not a perfect system, but it’s free! If you’re not sure about what you (or your child’s) should be reading, talk to your (or your child’s) teacher.

*There are also Spanish, Portuguese, Farsi, French, Japanese books and more.