Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Bilingualism scam and tips for langauge learning

My wife came home from a parent-teacher meeting the other day, mad as hell.

Why? Because the whole meeting was in Spanish. Both my wife and I can follow Spanish a bit, but she'd have been totally lost if she hadn't known what the agenda of the meeting was.

Our boy goes to Headstart preschool at a local church. We wanted him to have a social life, and admittedly to get him out of the house for a few hours during the day. He was born just two weeks shy of the limit that would get him into regular kindergarten so this was a good alternative for a poor grad student. He goes to preschool with a bunch of mostly Mexican kids and a very few Anglos. Each class has two teachers, one of them Spanish-speaking and all notices are in English and Spanish.

Well, how is it working?

In a word, it isn't. The Spanish-speaking kids aren't learning English - and our boy isn't learning Spanish beyond a few words. One committee is chaired by a woman who doesn't speak English at all, so the English-speaking parents just get left off the phone tree and don't hear about crucial events.

My wife is not a native speaker of English, but she speaks it better than a great many who are. My Polish is not up to the level of her English, but I did learn the language well enough to get around the country by myself and communicate for all practical purposes, and though I doubt I'll be invited to lecture at a university in Polish any time soon I have had compliments on my accent. Monika gets vexed that other people resident in the US don't learn English at least well enough to function in society without special help.

So what does work?

My wife's best friend is a Mexican woman who doesn't get out of the house a lot, so she's happy to have Monika over so she can practice her English. And I think it takes some of the stress off her to know that it's a second language for Monika too. With her mother in the house helping with the kids, naturally they didn't learn English. That is, until her eldest daughter went to elementary school. She picked it up in two months. There is no bilingual education at her school.

My boys playmates at home are from Kenya and Sri Lanka, respectively native speakers of Swahili and Sinhalese. They speak English perfectly.

It's called "total immersion" and that doesn't mean the thing Baptists do. Kids are like language sponges, throw them into the linguistic environment and "poof" they learn to speak it. My boy understood English from the beginning because he heard his mother and I speak it, but spoke Polish by preference (and his grandmother also had a lot to do with that). After a few months in America he finally got that nobody understood him and started speaking English - literally overnight. It was like flipping a light switch, one day he was an English speaker, just like that. Now we have to work at keeping his Polish up to speed.

So since we know what works, why are they trying to reinvent the wheel? Well, perhaps the fact that total immersion just happens, and doesn't require a paid specialist has something to do with it. And some folks just can't accept that good things happen without their help.

Funny thing, a while ago I had this conversation with a professor who mentioned that he or somebody in his family was involved in 'bilingual education' programs of some sort or other. I mentioned that I'd heard it was pretty much considered a disaster in California. He said, "No" and gave a longish explanation about how it either hadn't been done right or had been sabotaged. Now here's the funny (or tragicomic) part; he knew very well that I have a bilingual household and that we are raising our kids as English and Polish speakers. Did he think to ask how my wife and kid learned English? Did he think to ask even a single question about our experience that might be relevant to the issue? Do I even have to answer that question?


Tips on learning a language.

When I went to Poland, I found out that Polish has a really complicated grammar - and that's not just a point of view thing. I told one of my high school classes once, "Wow, Polish grammar is really complicated, but then I suppose you think the same thing about English." They looked blank for a moment, then one replied, "Oh no Steve, English grammar is much simpler than Polish."

I later found that it's a trade-off in some ways. English grammar is more complicated than Polish in the verb tenses, the conditionals and the negative prefixes. (To give you an idea, Polish has two: "nie" which answers for; no, not, un-, in-, im-, a-, ab- etc, and "bez" which is a prefix but covers the English suffix -less or "without".) Polish is more complicated in that it has a case structure, i.e. every noun and adjective has several different forms depending on gender and whether is is used as a subject, direct or indirect object, location, instrumentality etc.

So how to deal with this if you go to live in another country, or are just travelling? A Polish philosopher gave me this advice, "Steve, just ignore the case endings. Everybody will know what you mean anyway."

In language teaching (or "applied linguistics" we like to call it because it sounds more important) we call it the difference between 'fluency' and 'accuracy'. Fluency is the ability to understand and make yourself understood. Accuracy is getting it exactly right according to the local rules of grammar, syntax and usage. I speak Polish fluently but not accurately.

Unfortunately, formal language courses in America make people feel insecure because they concentrate on getting it just right for tests. Vocabulary is where it's at if you want to be understood folks. Learn a lot of words, worry about getting the grammar right later.

So what words? First words you should learn are: please, thank you and excuse me. These go far. Then learn the numbers - very useful in shops, and that's where you're going to be doing a lot of practicing. As Kipling said, there are few linguistic barriers between a willing buyer and a willing seller. So next you might learn, "Please can I see that?" (point).

Another tip, say it confidently. It's amazing how people just don't hear your mistakes if you speak with an air of confidence, just like you know what you're doing.

The rewards are great, most people really warm to someone who tries to learn their language even a little and are extravagant in their compliments. (Well, except the French. They insult you for the way you speak their langauge and now they wonder why French isn't the universal langauge any more.)

And the nice thing about teaching English in Poland was that unlike the French and Germans, Poles always knew that Polish wasn't going to be the universal language. Mostly they just thank God it isn't Russian.


  • At 3:05 PM, Blogger dchamil said…

    I can confirm that "vocabulary is where it's at..." You can be understood if you know the words but not the grammar, but it's a lot harder if your difficulties are the other way around. The problem is that there are so very many words. If you want a vocabulary of 20,000 words and learn 10 new words a day (and that's a lot to learn every day), it will take you 5.5 years. Foreign-language teachers should inform first-year students of the dimensions of the problem. I speak French and Russian fairly well for an American, and have some familiarity with Spanish, German, and Fortran.

  • At 4:18 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    It also depends on the langauge. An Austrian once told me that he thought you could get along in English with a vocabulary of 500 words, but that you'd need a minimum of 1,500 to get around in German.

  • At 8:49 AM, Blogger AlanL said…

    Learning a foreign language as an adult is completely different, and far harder, than growing up bilingual. A friend told me he saw a study showing that understanding/speaking languages one learned as an adult lights up completely different parts of the brain.

    I am a native English speaker who has lived in Germany for eight years and works in a predominantly German-speaking environment - I cope, and do a responsible job, but I don't believe I will ever be what I would regard as fully fluent.

    My son, on the other hand, is growing up trilingual (at least) - English father, Russian mother, growing up in Bavaria. We decided early on to each speak our mother tongue with him, and to send him to German-speaking Kindergarten not to an international (English) one. He's doing fine. Speaks English and Russian to me and his mother respectively, gramatically correct in each case but with a fair sprinkling of German words thrown in. Doesn't seem yet to have grasped the difference between Bavarian dialect as spoken by our neighbours, and Hochdeutsch as spoken at school, but I expect he will soon enough.

  • At 7:55 PM, Blogger Eduardo said…

    I'm in the elementary ed program at the University. I had this argument last semester with a professor who honestly believes that education in America will be "underfunded" and "substandard" until every student is learning in their own L1.

    So aside from imagining the expense to individual districts for that little pipe dream, I asked how she supposed the US survived wave after wave of immigration without having translators in every classroom. Her answer: cultural imperialism.

    So I say, forgive me for asking this, but if I moved my children to Brazil and insisted that they be taught in English while there, who would you call the imperialist?

    She answered, "You" without missing a beat or catching the contradiction.

    I garnered more education in that five minute exchange than I did the entire semester, I can tell you that. And I don't know what worried me more, the fact that she believed such a thing, or the fact that my fellow teachers-to-be nodded unquestioningly.

  • At 11:43 AM, Blogger Paula said…

    I completely agree with your points made above, and I am distressed that America continues to cling to "bilingualism." My mother entered first grade without a word of English, in an era when bilingualism was unheard of, and within a few months she was right on target. Similarly, my husband immigrated to the states from Poland as a nineteen-year-old, with very weak conversational English -- and entered an American college the following year. Like your wife, he, too, is very frustrated when he hears about others who are not willing to learn English. He has worked hard to become fluent in English, and never asked for or received any language crutches. Now we are living in Poland, and I would hardly expect anyone here to communicate with me in English! I am grateful for the opportunity to improve my Polish (though I will, sadly, never conquer this grammar) and cannot imagine things being otherwise. People hurt themselves and others when they cannot communicate effectively in the language of the place where they live. And when it comes to children, despite study after study and personal experience to the contrary, why do many educators continue to undervalue the amazing ability of the young brain to absorb new languages? Sounds like public policy is in the stranglehold of a few whose harmful agenda is being foisted upon our kids.


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