Multilingual at an early age

South Florida parents want their children to learn multiple languages, reports the Sun-Sentinel.

Nine-year-old Bianca Herlory can strike up a conversation in French, Portuguese, Spanish or English, and recently expressed an interest in learning Mandarin.

“It’s a gymnastic of the mind,” said her mom, Stephanie Herlory, who introduced her daughter to foreign languages at a young age. “Once they’re immersed, it comes very quickly.”

Parents think their bilingual or trilingual kids will be prepared to compete in a “flat” world.

Bilingual parents are not the only ones driving the trend. Parents who speak only English are getting in on it as well.

Years ago, when Japanese automakers were ascendant, a friend of mine helped start a language immersion school in Detroit. Black autoworkers lined up to sign up their children to learn Japanese.

About Joanne


  1. Tracy W says:

    Does this count as a trend? Wasn’t Elizabeth I taught Greek and Latin as a child?

  2. I’ll believe it when I see programs that produce decent results. Around here, many of the additional language courses seem like superficial expansions of programs that don’t do a good job of teaching students to actually speak the language. All this in programs where language learners get little out of existing classes. I mean, why bother with a couple years of Mandarin Chinese when the kids can’t hold a conversation after 4-6 years of Spanish or French? Many of these languages — say, Chinese or Russian — have much higher thresholds before a person can become minimally understood. The courses serve as “cultural diversity” classes more than language acquisition. Most would be better off taking more intense versions of language courses — such as French/Spanish — which are easier to teach. If parents want to pay out of their own pockets — that’s great. But if this money is in the public school budget, I question whether 95% of public schools wouldn’t be better spending this money on other things.

    From my family’s point of view (we are multilingual) the language programs in the schools seem like expensive jokes.

  3. In our district we have a dual language program that’s very effective. Classes have half English speakers and half Spanish speakers, and instruction is alternated between both languages. The program begins at kindergarten and goes up to high school. My daughter’s in it and can actually understand and speak Spanish.

    It’s a lot different from when we went to high school, and spent three years learning “Como esta usted?”

  4. Robert Wright says:

    My son just completed his 9th year in a dual immersion program and though he speaks some Spanish I think after nine years he should be a lot better at it.

    Does anybody ever really learn a language in a classroom?

  5. I’m with ajj. I too will “believe it when I see programs that produce decent results.” Is there any evidence that kids who go through these early language programs become polyglot businesspeople, diplomats, etc.?

    I’m a former professor of linguistics who has formally studied 17 languages, not including languages outside the classroom. I am very much in favor of language learning, but I am also a realist and a skeptic. I think Americans vastly underestimate the difficulty of learning languages. As monolinguals, they are unable to judge just how proficient their children actually are in foreign languages. To get by in a foreign language is a great accomplishment, but to use a foreign language to compete in a flat world is an even greater challenge. Even this native Spanish speaker who came to the US as a teenager said his Spanish “was not sufficient for his professional aims”:

    “Be that as it may, ‘bilingual education programs in the U.S. most definitely fall short of actually producing `bilingual’ students, and Miami is no exception.’ says [the University of Miami’s] Lynch, who has studied the issue extensively.”

    The linguistic standards of the professional world are very high – higher than what’s expected from a teenager.

    My faith in immersion programs was shaken years ago by a conversation I had with an immersion teacher in the US. She told me that after years of immersion, children were still making extremely basic case-marking mistakes: e.g., the equivalent of “me speak English to she.” I later heard similar horror stories about the results of French immersion programs from a French Canadian linguist.

    That linguist advised me to read Hector Hammerly’s book French Immersion. It’s a real eye-opener. From the back of the 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” – e.g., incorrect genders for common nouns (“le grammaire”; p. 17) or the distinction between “tu” and “vous” (p. 19).

    On p. 15, he cites a 1985 study showing that on a 5-point scale (5 = native-like), grade 11 French immersion students scored a 2 in speaking, even though non-immersion adult students could get a 2 or 3 “in less than 700 hours of instruction”. (However, I suspect that immersion students have better listening and reading skills.)

    This article sums up his book:

    “The fact that French Immersion (FI) is a linguistic failure may be the best-kept secret in Canadian education. But why shouldn’t it be a failure? How can a single teacher, who may not even be a native speaker of French, ‘immerse’ 30 students?

    “It has been known since 1975 that there are serious problems with FI. A 1976 article by Irène Spilka showed that the original St. Lambert group — which FI advocates and ‘researchers’ (basically the same people) touted as ‘highly-successful’ — was doing very poorly, with one or more errors in nearly 53% of their simple sentences. Moreover, Spilka found no significant progress in grammaticality from grade two to grade six and a growing, rather than a decreasing, gap between FI students and their Francophone peers.

    “In 1985, a group of students interviewed as they were completing 13 years in FI had an almost identical percentage (53.8%) of incorrect sentences …

    “As I have been saying for 13 years, FI students graduate speaking and writing rapidly in ‘Frenglish’, not French. Frenglish uses French words but mostly English structures. Frenglish might be ‘cute’ at age six, but it is an embarrassment at age 20, as well as an impediment to holding any significant bilingual job (it would be senseless for an employer to put someone who speaks or writes so poorly in charge of the telephone or correspondence). The FI/education establishment, however, has kept these facts from the public. They have acknowledged that there are serious problems with FI, but only in obscure research reports and other such publications. In public, they continue to defend and promote immersion nationally and internationally. A major scandal would have exploded a long time ago if the establishment weren’t so successful in holding a tight lid over the situation.”

    Language education isn’t just about language; it’s about people defending their own institutional interests.

    Robert Wright wrote:

    “Does anybody ever really learn a language in a classroom?”

    If by “learn” you mean “master”, my answer is no. Language learning can’t stop at the classroom door. I lived in Holland, and the Dutch learn English well without immersion classes. But they are exposed to English in their daily lives (e.g., subtitled English-language TV) and I think they realize on a subconscious level that they need another language to communicate with the outside world. This situation is impossible to replicate in, say, a Mandarin bilingual classroom in the Midwest. A kid in such a program knows deep down that Mandarin is useless once he goes home, where he probably won’t be watching Mandarin TV, listening to Mandarin music, surfing Mandarin websites, etc. Monolingual English parents trying to “keep up” at home won’t cut it. Even if a kid goes to Chinatown every once in a while, he’ll be more likely to encounter Cantonese speakers than Mandarin speakers.

    I fear that so much of this talk about early language education is about status-seeking: parents who are more interesting in showing how “global” they are than in actual language proficiency.

    “Driving the need [for Chinese au pairs] more aggressively is the desire among ambitious parents to ensure their children’s worldliness, as such parents assume that China’s expanding influence will make Mandarin the sophisticates’ language decades hence.”

    Has it occurred to any of these parents that without years of subsequent massive growth and reinforcement, their children’s toddler-level Mandarin will be useless in the Chinese business world?

    It wouldn’t even surprise me if a lot of the au pairs spoke their native non-Mandarin language (e.g., Cantonese, Shanghainese, etc.) to the kids. It’s not as if the parents could tell the difference …

  6. I´m a native Portuguese speaker and I took almost ten years to write in English with some confidence. My reading in English is fast and articulate, but sometimes I struggle to write(Note that sometimes I use a Latin Structure while writing in English) and my accent is heavily.

    Maybe the problem is that reading, not writing and talking should be the focus of learning a foreign language. Being able to read Le Figaro, La Stampa, El Pais and the Los Angeles Times on the same time gives you another perspective of the world.

    But it´s not easy. And maybe the problem is the difference between the structure of Latin Languages and English. And that Latin Languages are far more formal than Modern English.

  7. Anthony says:

    I laughed at the bit in the article where they said Spanish was hard to come by in South Florida!

  8. It would be difficult to add to Amritas’ excellent analysis above, so I will just add my own anecdotal experience.

    I have lived about half my life in Japan and half in the US and Canada, and my job requires a reasonable amount of business proficiency in both languages. I recently hired a woman who’d gone from Japan to the US age 12 and done six years of junior/senior high school there.
    The result of her educational experience: Her Japanese ability was like that of an intelligent 14 year old, and her English was about the same. This is not unusual. So the idea that picking up a few languages at infancy will prepare you for an international business career would be funny if it weren’t so sad to think some people take the idea seriously.
    By the way, my first language was Russian, which I stopped using actively around age 5, and even years of night classes through adolescence (and daily contact with relatives) did not help me retain it: I have completely forgotten how to speak it.

  9. Anthony: It depends on what you mean by “Spanish”. I don’t know about Cubans, but the dialect of uneducated Mexicans would be barely recognizable in Madrid – and as out of place in a Spanish boardroom as Ebonics is in an American one.

  10. Andre,

    “Maybe the problem is that reading, not writing and talking should be the focus of learning a foreign language.”

    I too have often wondered if reading should be emphasized over the other three, but in my experience, it’s hard to learn a language without speaking it (I’ve tried).

    “And maybe the problem is the difference between the structure of Latin Languages and English.”

    Yes, and the differences become even larger once one deals with a non-Western European language.

    “Having never studied a day of Spanish, I could read a Spanish newspaper more easily than I could a Chinese newspaper after more than three years of studying Chinese.”

    – David Moser, “Why Chinese Is So **** Hard”


    Thanks for the anecdotes.

    One could argue, “well, you DID hire that bilingual woman, so what’s wrong with speaking like a 14-year-old?” Not much, I think. My English isn’t that much better than it was at 14.

    It is true that a lot of jobs don’t require 100.0% perfect command of a language. After all, many English monolinguals with poor spelling, grammar, diction, etc. are employed in the US. So are many people who speak English at various levels of proficiency. Lots of jobs are fairly nonverbal; if you can converse with your coworkers, that’s enough to get by.

    However, parents who send their kids to programs like this

    “Diversity as Normal as Speaking Chinese”

    have fantasies of their kids making multimillion-dollar business deals in Mandarin.

    But what will really happen at a business meeting, I think, is this:

    The kid, now grown up, will dredge up whatever Mandarin he can remember from years ago. The Chinese will smile, praise him, and think it’s nice he knows a little. Then they’ll get down to business – in English. They want to make a deal, not give a language lesson.

    And that’s assuming the grown-up kid actually does business with Chinese at all!

    The odds that the other party will speak English better than the Anglophone speaks (fill in the blank) are enormous, at least in the boardroom. It’s no wonder that most Anglophone businessmen don’t bother to seriously learn foreign languages.

    But what about jobs outside the boardroom? How much demand is there for Anglophones with moderate language skills? An American programmer with bad Mandarin could theoretically survive as a poorly paid coder in China, but why would he move there and do that, unless he really loved China? I’ve heard of Anglophones with excellent Japanese who have worked as ordinary office workers or even construction and factory workers in Japan. Their language skills were outstanding, but since they weren’t exactly in love with their jobs, I wonder if they lacked other skills necessary for better employment. As a friend told me, “A hundred million Japanese speak Japanese too.” In other words, knowing Japanese doesn’t make anyone special in Japan. If someone who has mastered English shows up in the US, an employer will take his English for granted and ask, “What else can you do?”

    “By the way, my first language was Russian, which I stopped using actively around age 5, and even years of night classes through adolescence (and daily contact with relatives) did not help me retain it: I have completely forgotten how to speak it.”

    As your experience shows, retaining and developing a language is hard! Sending a kid to a preschool to start learning a language is expensive but easy by comparison.

    I think a lot of people don’t understand that a toddler’s Mandarin is not the same thing as an adult’s Mandarin. Even if, for the sake of argument, a toddler understood every word in 金发女孩和三只熊 (Goldilocks and the Three Bears), that doesn’t guarantee they’ll grow up to read the People’s Daily without ever looking up a single Chinese character.

    I have been dealing with polyglots daily in academia and business for years. Some of them have achieved “impersonator” level in their foreign languages – i.e., they are indistinguishable in any way from native speakers. Every single one of them learned their second, third, etc. language in their teens or adulthood. I think a motivated young adult has an edge over a kid whose parents send him to a language program to feel more “multicultural”.

    The Japanese, Koreans, and Taiwanese are sending their kids to English-speaking preschools and private schools. The results have been modest, to say the least.