When Will My Child Be Fluent?

Language Blog, Other Posts

With all due respect, this question and its answer are not as simple or black-and-white as some would want to believe.  Let’s consider its three main flaws.

1) This is not an immersion school.  While its language classes may be taught 95-100% in the target language, these classes are language-specific, and not the medium of instruction for other subjects (fluency as such is possible at a much faster rate when the bulk of the day is spent in the target language).  Language classes at this school are similar to Math or Science or Music classes in that there is an allotted time for each one.  Specifically, Spanish classes meet twice per week (1st-5th), for 45 minutes each class.  While this is impressive compared to many other elementary language programs out there, it is also misleading for both students and parents to claim that “Joey has been taking Spanish for seven years now”–meaning he began in PK and is now in fifth grade.  Why is this misleading?  Most people are highly disappointed upon discovering that “Joey” is not yet fluent in the target language, most of all, Joey himself.  However, has he actually been taking Spanish for seven years?  Let’s be realistic here and tally up the minutes, just for kicks and giggles.

PK: (15 minutes/day)(3 days/week)(35 weeks) = 1575 minutes/year

K: (30 minutes/day)(3 days/week)(35 weeks) =3150 minutes/year

1: (45 minutes/day)(2 days/week)(35 weeks) = 3150 minutes/year

2: (45 minutes/day)(2 days/week)(35 weeks) = 3150 minutes/year

3: (45 minutes/day)(2 days/week)(35 weeks) = 3150 minutes/year

4: (45 minutes/day)(2 days/week)(35 weeks) = 3150 minutes/year

5: (45 minutes/day)(2 days/week)(35 weeks) = 3150 minutes/year

TOTAL: 14.22 days (not including snow days or holidays)

Conclusion?  In reality, students spend about two weeks with the target language over the course of seven years, or the equivalent of an extended vacation in Mexico (i.e., full immersion, or 24/7 in the target language, and this is assuming you are not speaking to your child in English on the trip).  As I’ve mentioned numerous times before, does a baby speak two weeks out of the womb?  Why are you pressuring your child to produce the target language so soon?  This is discouraging for all parties involved.  In doing so, you implicitly emphasize that the product is more important than the process, or journey, and moreover, that language learning and acquisition ought to happen overnight; but quite frankly, this is not the case.  This sets up your student to buy into the ‘instant-gratification’ mentality; instead, let’s encourage our children and students to develop the strength of character to persevere in the long (but worthwhile) process of language acquisition.  Inspire and motivate, but remember that linguistically, even as a fifth grader, your child is still an infant…

2) Now, let’s talk about fluency.  Online dictionaries define fluency with increasingly vague terms, “the ability to express oneself easily and articulately” or even better, “the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately”.  Well, which is it?  Does fluency encompass speaking or writing–or both?  There are many translators out there who very precisely transfer highly technical, written documents from one language to another with tremendous skill, yet who do not speak the language.  Can they claim fluency?  What about oral cultures?  Are people whose languages lack a written form not fluent?

Even if we concede on the “the ability to speak OR write a foreign language”, the question of “easily and accurately” still poses a great deal of ambiguity.  In what venue, exactly?  I would be lost at sea in English at a medical conference (borborygmi?), just as many would fare poorly at a philosophical one (solipsism?).    In general conversation, perhaps a majority of English speakers–[as evidenced through close observation with people of all education levels, and even in television shows and Hollywood blockbusters]–use “there is” or “there’s” with plurals on a regular basis.  In some regions of the Midwest, people eliminate “to be” altogether (“the paper needs turned in”, “the house needs painted”).  Yes, I may be a language prude, but in terms of fluency, those are both grammatically incorrect.  And what about slang?  Who is fluent in their native tongue, anyway?

Obviously, someone who can only ask, “Where is the bathroom?” is not fluent in that language, but when exactly are they?  It is not an easy question.  Consider a four-year-old: “The typical four-year-old child will have about a 1,500-1,600-word vocabulary.  […]  By the time a child is 12 years old, he/she will understand (have a receptive vocabulary) of about 50,000 words” (Vocabulary Chart).  A ninth grader will not learn the same 1,500-1,600 words in a language that a four-year-old learns on the playground and at school, and each four-year-old’s vocabulary differs as well (though understandably and at a certain point, they do share a common pool).  That said, how can we compare these ‘common pools’ of vocabulary from school to school, when each teacher and school focuses on different words and teaching methodologies?  “Fluency levels” are eventually determined and assessed on the national AP exams, but until then, we remain in the black hole of, as Saussure so elegantly phrases it, “a vague, uncharted nebula”.

3) Lastly, intrinsic and extrinsic motivational factors definitely play a role.  And yet, I have heard numerous times, “Why does my child not speak to me in Spanish at home?”  Let’s be honest: do you speak the target language to them?  I ask the question not to be rude, but rather as a reminder of what is logical.  General politeness mandates that you speak to others in a language they understand.  Therefore, it would be wholly nonsensical for your child to blabber to you on a regular basis in the language they are learning, as they do not associate you with the target language.  Vocabulary recall in your presence is oftentimes more challenging simply because it seems out of place.  The brain constantly networks and categorizes knowledge, information, and sensory input.  Think about it: how many times has SEEING someone jogged your memory?  So visual associations actually play a legitimate role here.   Students remember vocabulary in their teacher’s presence, but at home or in a restaurant, it proves more taxing for the brain, if not practiced consistently.

Extrinsic factors, then, include you pressuring your child to translate words at unexpected times and in unexpected places.  Putting him or her on the spot to produce the target language is 1) having unreasonable expectations (see fluency above); and 2) not being considerate of the fact that you probably aren’t associated with the target language amidst your child’s cerebral gray matter.  That said, do you encourage their study?  Do you encourage them to have fun during the process?  Do you talk about languages and multi-lingual people in a positive light?  Whether your child speaks another language at home (besides English) is yet another contributing factor…

Intrinsic factors are simply motivation-related: does your child have an interest in language(s)?  Do they want to spend time outside of class reviewing, practicing, prancing around the house or running up and down the stairs reciting vocabulary and shouting creative, ridiculous sentences in the target language?  As a language teacher, my hope is YES!, but I am highly aware  that this is not the case for everyone.  This is, however, definitely a factor and can accelerate the language-learning process by leaps and bounds.

To sum up, then, no–I cannot give you a date and time when your child will be fluent–or even conversational–in the target language, just as you could not predict the moment when your child would stutter or stammer their first word or complete sentence in their native tongue.  This treatise is not meant to lower your expectations of what your child will learn here, but rather to give a more realistic assessment of and appreciation for the process of learning/acquiring another language.  It is not as simple as ‘downloading vocabulary’ and then ‘outputting’ a random combination of sounds or letters.  Consider, then, Lower School as the ‘formative years’ [input], or ages 0-2: their brains are receiving a great deal of information re: language rhythms, cadence, vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and intonation, coupled with gestures, culture, and meaningful contexts.  It will take a while for their neural matter to sort out everything.  So please refrain from pressuring your child to speak, unless he or she wants to: children are wildflowers, and will bloom when they are ready.

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