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.

Resources for when there is no Mandarin class

Even When School is Closed, Students Can Still Listen and Lean Mandarin

It is December, so that means that most Mandarin classes will be taking a 1-2 week (or possibly longer-eeek!) break. Many parents and adult students worry about their kids, or themselves, losing some of their language over the break. Below is a roundup of some resources for continuing to get input in Mandarin Chinese (either through listening or reading). There is a mixture of traditional and simplified characters used in the different resources below. I teach simplified characters, but there is no harm in being familiar with both systems.

For preschool students and those who are just beginning Chinese:

This little ditty covers the very basics of hello and goodbye. It uses traditional characters with pinyin.

I like this song because it describes the different family members in a simple way. In addition to learning mom, dad, etc., students also learn that “mom’s mom is 外婆 and dad’s mom is 奶奶.” It doesn’t get started until about 25 seconds in.

For elementary students who can sit through a story entirely in Chinese:

This Chinese-language version of Don’t Let the Goose Drive the Bus uses traditional characters and bopomofo.

This version of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What do you See? is also in traditional characters. I like it for comprehensible input because it is a story that students are almost guaranteed to be familiar with and it repeats the same structures over and over.

I like Are You My Mother? for the same reasons that I like Brown Bear. This version uses simplified characters and pinyin.

I got the tip for the Little Fox series from Twitter. There are many videos in this series, some are familiar, like this story of Little Red Riding Hood in Chinese, and others appear to be original stories. These videos do not have Chinese or pinyin subtitles. Since the vocabulary is fairly advanced (e.g. going to the vet in one story) I only recommend for students who have had at least 75-100 hours of Chinese study.

For middle school students and older who have been learning Chinese for at least 400 hours:

The American Mandarin Society has put together a list of all the places online you can watch (binge :)) Chinese television. You’ll have to click around the links because not all shows are available outside of China. I recommend watching romance(爱情) or comedy (喜剧) shows, because they tend to take place in present-day. Programs about ancient China or kungfu (武侠) tend to have a lot of specialized vocabulary that a student would not know, or need to know.

The BBC has many articles in Chinese, both in simplified and traditional characters. You can read about North Korea, or even just keep up with Prince Harry and Megan Markle over the break.

More free stuff:

Are you an adult student who is not ready to read news articles in Chinese, but wants to practice reading? I am working on a novella in Chinese that is a comfortable read for students who have had 200 hours of Chinese. With a dictionary and patience, it would be an achievable read for a student with 100+ hours of Chinese study. Get in touch with me and I will send you a copy when it is ready (hopefully before December 24, 2017).

Language-learning Glossary (especially for parents)

There are many terms used in this blog that relate to language-learning which might not be familiar to parents of students, or adults who are thinking about taking up learning Chinese. In alphabetical order, below is a glossary of definitions that might be helpful:

bilingual education= Classes in which content is taught in two languages. Bilingual education is generally designed for English language learners.

comprehensible input= Language that can be understood by the listener, although the listener may not be 100% familiar with all vocabulary and structures used in it.

dual-language= This term is used most often by public schools to describe programs in which content and literacy is taught in two languages. In the US, this means English and a target language such as Spanish, Chinese, or French. Students usually start with receiving 90% of instruction in the target language. This percentage is lowered as students progress through the grade levels.

FLES (foreign language in elementary schools)= An umbrella terms for programs for children who are in elementary school. There is a great deal of variation in FLES programs, some may have class for only an hour a week.

immersion= Immersion is often used synonymously with dual-language. The goal of an immersion program is proficiency in a target language, such as Chinese, Spanish or French.

legacy methods= These include using verb charts, teaching lists of vocabulary, doing fill-in-the-blank activities, etc. Legacy methods tend to teach students about a language (i.e. describing the grammar) at the expense of helping them become proficient in the target language.

output= Output is the language that the students produce.

proficiency= This is a high degree of ability in a language. Proficiency can be tested, while we tend to think of fluency as something more subjective.

SLA (second-language acquisition)= The process by which learners acquire a second language. Remember that humans have been acquiring second (and more) languages since before we had schools.

tasks= Tasks are more than just activities to do during class. Tasks have a purpose and always include an outcome that is not language. Tasks may include: filling in a chart, creating a list of interview questions, drawing something, making an oral report, creating a survey, etc.

two-way immersion= Two-way immersion is a for of dual-language education. In a TWI class in the US, there are roughly equal numbers of native English speakers and native speakers of another language such as Spanish.


Can Do Statements

What Are Can-Do Statements?

Can-do statements are a way for students to track their progress. They do more than that of course, but an immediate use for them is to help students recognize what they “can do” in the target language. Language classrooms that are based on comprehensible input often do not use textbooks.  This is because most textbooks actually don’t contain that much L2 that is comprehensible to students. In lesson 6 of a widely-used textbook for college Chinese classes, there is actually more text in English explaining a dialogue than there is actual Chinese-language content for the students to read! So if students are not using a textbook, how can they (or their parents) recognize their progress? The answer is in can-do statements.

An Example

Pictured below is a sample of can do statements made by a group of elementary students. I wrote their answers on a mini white board, but the actual content came from the students. These kids have had about 7 hours of Chinese and they say that they can understand and talk about families, colors, numbers, and likes/dislikes. There is no page in a textbook that we can point to and say “We have come this far,” however these can do statements show that they are acquiring language and they know it.

Photo of white board with can do statement written
Can do statement in my very poor handwriting!

What is pictured is pretty informal, and a mini version of what the American Language on the Teaching of Foreign Languages promotes. A can do statement for a first semester college course might be more like: “I can describe my family members and what they look like.” Can-do statements can be much more than this. They are a great tool to demonstrate to students (and their parents) what progress they have made.

More on Assessment in the language classroom