Trilingual education

A new charter school in Sacramento will teach students in three languages, reports the Sacramento Bee.

Students will be taught in English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese by teachers who are native speakers. They will practice by participating in video conferences with students in Beijing, Shanghai and Mexico City.

The program will teach about 120 students from kindergarten through third grade in the North Sacramento School District, where many students come from poor immigrant families. About 83 percent of the district’s students qualify for subsidized lunches, and 39 percent are not fluent in English.

This sounds way too ambitious. With only half the day spent learning in English, there’s a risk students won’t achieve fluency in any language.

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  1. “there’s a risk students won’t achieve fluency in any language.”

    I think many will end up with acceptable spoken English, as the whole world outside their school is in English. I am less confident about their reading and writing skills in English, and am very skeptical about their skill in the other two languages. They will develop very strong aural skills in all three languages but – for example – I doubt their written Chinese will ever get above an elementary level. My doubts about programs like these were strengthened by this book (recommended to me by a French Canadian linguist):

    Hector Hammerly, French Immersion: Myths and Reality

    “In this book, Hector Hammerly shows that because French Immersion is based on incorrect assumptions about second language learning in the classroom, it is not producing bilinguals but speakers of English and ‘Frenglish,’ a mixture of French and English with frequent errors of the most basic kind.”

    Similarly, I’d expect speakers of English, Spanglish, and Manglish.

    It is interesting that the charter school students will be speaking to students in Shanghai, where the native language is Shanghainese, not standard Mandarin.

    Shanghainese and standard Mandarin are not mutually intelligible (though most call them “dialects” of the “same language”). Related words are hard to recognize (the Shanghainese for “Shanghai” is “Zãhe”) and common words are not related at all (“we” is “women” in Mandarin but “ala” in Shanghainese).

    The Shanghai students will surely be speaking in Mandarin, but they won’t be native speakers. Ditto for the teachers in Shanghai. I don’t think this is necessarily bad. The level of standard Mandarin in Shanghai is much better than that of parts of rural China. However, I wonder if anyone else realized that the Shanghainese are not “native speakers” of Mandarin.

    (The concept of “native speaker” has come under fire, but that’s another discussion …)

  2. “Students at the Lindsay Global Language Academy will spend half the day working in English and the other half in Spanish and Mandarin.”

    This 50/25/25 split makes me really doubt that their Chinese reading and writing skills will go very far. Without more reinforcement, it’ll be hard to retain all those characters. And 25% of the day – though a larger percentage of the day than a normal foreign language class – is still short of the larger percentage in French immersion in Canada (whose effectiveness has been questioned).

    “Ventriglia developed the school with federal grant money intended to encourage more schools to teach languages such as Mandarin that are considered vital to commerce and national security.”

    I have long wondered if _any_ childhood learners of foreign languages in US programs like this ever end up in commerce or in national security. My guess is that the US is better off with businesspeople and agents who mastered languages as adults than with those who are “semispeaker” graduates of immersion programs.

    I would love to hear any stories of immersion graduates in the US who have gone on to use their skills in adult life.

  3. Cardinal Fang says:

    Kids in other countries who learn English in school seem to know English well enough to function in English-speaking businesses. I’ve known many such people from several different countries, including Sweden,Germany, Spain, Mexico and India. If other countries can do it, why can’t the US?

  4. “If other countries can do it, why can’t the US?”

    Language learning is not just a matter of taking classes, but is also dependent on motivation.

    Motivated Americans certainly do master foreign languages, often as adults: e.g., military linguists and missionaries.

    The students of this charter school are not likely to master Mandarin because Mandarin has no value in their lives off campus, unlike English and even Spanish. And what will happens after they leave the third grade of this school? How will their Mandarin skills be supported?

    Korea and Japan spend vast amounts of resources on English teaching, but get poor results.

    “The amount [spent on English] corresponds to a staggering 1.9 percent of Korea’s GDP of W806.6 trillion, and 47.5 percent of the W30.1 trillion budget for education. But despite that, Koreans’ command of the English language remains quite poor”

    Motivation is among the many reasons for this. English has NO relevance to the daily lives of most Koreans and Japanese. But those who need English (e.g., businessmen) to deal with foreigners do learn it.

    I used to live in Holland. When I first saw Dutch TV, I was struck by how much of it was in foreign languages (English, French, and German). I went to see a couple of American movies in Holland and they were subbed, not dubbed. The audience could clearly understand the dialogue even before the subtitles appeared a couple of seconds too late. The construction workers outside my office were listening to a radio station blaring American music. The record stores were dominated by English-language music, including songs by Dutch singers … in English. And I would get on a train headed for another country and realize that

    (1) the signs and announcements were in foreign languages (English, French, and German)

    (2) before I knew it, I would be out of Holland and in, say, Germany, whereas I could spend hours and hours crossing the US without needing another language

    I would imagine that the average Dutch person feels that foreign languages are relevant to them because they know that Dutch has little utility outside the Nederlandse Taalunie (Language Union).

    Contrast that with the American situation. My all-time favorite post about this is by Toren Smith:

    “… the fact is that if you speak any other language than English, and then learn English, you can go practically anywhere in the world and communicate since it is the second language of choice nearly worldwide. So the motivation value is high and the rewards substantial, plus, many countries teach it to children at an age when they can soak up an extra language with ease.

    “I know French (from having grown up in Canada) but I’ve hardly used it for twenty years. I know Japanese, but it’s generally of little use outside Japan …

    “It’s just that if you’re raised speaking English, one of the primary motivations for learning a second language is nullified.”

    In short, learning English outside the US cannot be compared to learning a foreign language in the US. Unless one has strong motivation to learn a language other than English, the deck of cards is stacked in favor of English for both Anglophones and non-Anglophones.

    Consider this: Many Americans study Spanish, the foreign language that is arguably not “foreign” to America. Spanish is everywhere in America. There is no shortage of opportunities to practice it. And yet few Anglophone Americans truly achieve Spanish profiency. If that is the case with a relevant (and relatively easier) language like Spanish, how would Mandarin learners fare?

    My guess would be that they would be worse off (in terms of their Mandarin) than these grade 12 French immersion students from British Columbia who were interviewed in French:

    (from Hammerly’s book [referenced above])

    “The students had spent nearly 13 years in immersion programs considered very good in quality …

    “The six students volunteered for the interviews, so it is safe to assume that they felt competent and confident in Frnech — and that they probably were among the best in the class …

    “On average, 54 percent of the [French] sentences produced by the students contained one or more significant errors in grammar or vocabulary … the strongest had errors in 40.3 percent of her sentences, the weakest had errors in 72.4 percent of hers …

    “… the first few sentences in each group interview yielded essentially correct and linguistically sophisticated responses. Obviously these students must have been asked these and most of the general questions in these interviews several times before. With less-predictable questions, even on familiar topics, the students expressed themselves in very simple sentences – almost childishly simple – and made frequent false starts as well as many errors with very basic structures.”

    A simple example of an error is “la mot” instead of “le mot” – after thirteen years of bilingual education!

    I don’t mean to say that I think foreign language education in an Anglophone environment is worthless. These BC students have come a long way, and their French is functional. Unfortunately, as one French immersion graduate from the top 10 percent of her class said, errors were

    “ingrained in [her] speech pattern … I am so angry that I was led to believe that after 12 years of French I would be bilingual and there would be no problem. It hasn’t – I can’t even apply for jobs that require French-speaking persons, and here I was told all these years that you are learning French and that FI [French immersion] is going to help you as far as jobs are concerned. I don’t think so. I do not feel qualified to act as the French-speaking person within a department …

    “The general public would say that I spoke like a native speaker, but I would know I dídn’t speak like [one]. The native spakers would realize that there was a big problem …

    “… speaking French better than most people [i.e., Canadians who took normal French classes] is not the same as being native-like …

    “… they [other immersion graduates] defend the FI [French immersion] system vehemently, but they would never apply for a job where French was required.

    “They know what their limitations are. They are saying that they speak like native speakers, but they don’t think they are qualified to work in positions that require French.”

    So I don’t see the graduates of this charter school getting very far with their Mandarin after only four years (K-3) of 25% Mandarin as opposed to that person’s twelve years of French immersion. Spanish, maybe. English, definitely. Even if the graduates somehow managed to achieve native speaker proficiency in Mandarin (doubtful) and managed to maintain it after years of non-use (even more doubtful), they would still be at a third-grade level, which is certainly useful but not enough to function in the Chinese business world.

    I think studying foreign languages can only be a good thing. But let’s not fool ourselves into overestimating how good the students’ proficiency will be.

  5. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    Indeed, here I am in south TX, doing what I can to learn the Russian language, and it is quite difficult without people with which to practice the skills with. There is no substitute for real-world practice to achieve language proficiency.

  6. I believe that the students attending the class will already be fluent in English.

  7. ernest rheault says:

    It might be a scarry thought but why not teach English in schools?, As most of the schools fail to teach English,Math,or Science to a literate degree, They seem to be more concerned about feel good and so called rights of the students. If the students want a foreigh language it can be offered for extra credits in college.
    The average highschool graduate will enter the work force where the only foreign launguage they will encounter is Mexican.

  8. Catch Thirty-Thr33 says:

    If by Mexican, you mean the Mexican dialect of SPANISH.

    ernest, what is the harm in learning a foreign language in high school? Or even earlier? Knowing a foreign language makes you more marketable in the workplace; not to mention that knowing the nuts and bolts of another language will teach you about the nuts and bolts of your own. (For example: I am looking at articles in a whole different light thanks to my study of Russian, a language devoid of articles.)

  9. Peter,

    You wrote,

    “I believe that the students attending the class will already be fluent in English.”

    However, the article says “39 percent [of the students] are not fluent in English.”


    You wrote,

    “It might be a scarry thought but why not teach English in schools?”

    This charter school will teach in English half the time. The school is not intended to deprive the kids of English.

    “The average highschool graduate will enter the work force where the only foreign launguage they will encounter is Mexican.”

    Which is probably why this school has instruction in Spanish and Mandarin as well as English. Chinese is often thought to be the business language of the future, and Spanish is the most likely language that the students will encounter in the U.S.

    I would guess that the students are 60% English speaking / 40% Spanish speaking and that they’re supposed to teach each other their native languages and bond with each other as they all struggle with Mandarin together. But I have my doubts.