Teaching Spanish in China

Why teach Spanish in China?

So calling in teaching Spanish in China might be a bit of an exaggeration. I did a bit of teacher training during my last trip to China. The teachers over there teach English to Chinese kids, of course. My purpose was to talk about best practices for language teaching in general. Most people think it sounds a little crazy to tell American language teachers that they don’t need a textbook or to teach grammar rules. Well, to most Chinese teachers it sounds certifiably insane.

It was going to be a challenge to explain what I do here in the United States to a group of highly skeptical teachers in China. I decided to do what I usually do, which is to show and not tell. That is where the idea to teach Spanish* came in. I could explain that you don’t need to teach a grammar word and show the kids a list of words all day long, but seeing is believing. The idea was to teach the teachers a class in Spanish and show them that they could understand everything without a chart that starts with “yo soy.”

What Happened During the Lesson

I did a 20 minute “mini lesson” about my family with the Chinese teachers. This was similar to what I usually do with my students here in the US when we talk about family. I taught the class pretty much the same way I normally do, except instead of me talking in Chinese with English translations on the board, I spoke Spanish while pointing at Chinese translations. I told the students the simple story of my family. Basically: I am from a family of three daughters, my husband is from a family of three boys, we got married, the end. The students demonstrated their comprehension by answering questions about my story. Some examples of questions are: “Who is David?” “Do I have a brother?” “Does Teresa have a daughter?”

photo of Spanish lesson in China
Teaching Spanish in China

It worked. By the end of the 20 minutes, the students answered my questions with ease. They could tell that they understood everything that was in the story. I never explained anything about Spanish grammar. They did not look at a list of vocabulary words before the lesson. I did not quiz them on how to conjugate the verb “tener” (to have) in Spanish. I asked instead comprehension questions about the story that I told them. They got all the questions right.

teacher showing student a picture while teaching Spanish
They’re getting it!

Important Points

Sometimes the students responded to me in English or Chinese, instead of Spanish. They also pointed at names instead of saying them. This is all perfectly fine. It is completely unreasonable to expect students to speak in the target language after only a few minutes of instruction. Honestly, it is unreasonable to expect students to speak in the target language after only a few hours of instruction, too.

I am delighted to have had the opportunity to talk to Chinese teachers of English about what I do here in the United States. There is plenty of room to improve the quality of language teaching all over the world. Below is a summary of what I think are the most important things for language teachers to remember.

1. Go slow. If you do nothing else, going slowly will help the students understand what the teacher is saying. When the students understand the teacher, they can acquire the language.

2. Use lots of repetition. Studies show that students may need to hear a word 50-100 times before they truly can remember it.

3. Teach content, not language. The lesson should be about an interesting topic that will hold everyone’s attention. The students will learn about the topic and through the topic, they will learn the language.

4. Maintain communication throughout the class. We learn language through communication. Talk with the students, not at the students.

5. Keep checking comprehension. The students need to understand what they are hearing in order to learn.

teacher with students
Hanging out with the kids at the center

*I’m not proficient in Spanish (yet) but I can certainly talk simply and slowly about my family in Spanish.

NB- I got the idea to teach a Spanish lesson from the training that I did with Blaine Ray, in which he taught us German through TPRS.

Learn Mandarin Y’All! (Posted on Mandarin Immersion Parents Council)

This post was first published on the very informative Mandarin Immersion Parent’s Council website.

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

***Source: American Community Survey 2009-2013

For more information about Mandarin classes with Lotus Chinese Learning, please get in touch!


Comprehensible Input and Family (a special Thanksgiving post)

Is It Harder to Learn a Language from a Relative?

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.

photo of me and my nephew
My nephew Luka and I at my wedding

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?”