kitchen table math, the sequel: Why we switched from Chinese to French

Monday, November 14, 2011

Why we switched from Chinese to French

Before I started home schooling my 10-year-old daughter last year, she attended the one child-oriented foreign language program our neighborhood has to offer: a once-a-week Mandarin program at the local art center. It's a largely art and play-based program, and, after about three years of it, she'd learned perhaps a couple of dozen words and phrases and a few characters (many of which she'd forget each summer).

When I started homeschooling her, I figured we'd intensify the Chinese instruction one way or another. My Mandarin is quite rusty, but I'd had an intensive year in grad school (following an intensive year with Cantonese in Hong Kong), and I thought learning it with my daughter would be a great opportunity to polish things up and make some new headway, especially with the written language.

A few months later I found myself abandoning this and switching over to French. As a linguist, I do love the idea of exposing myself and others to non-Indoeuropean languages. But the more time we spent on Chinese, the more aware I became of various practical challenges that aren't such an issue with French.

One has to do with available resources (and, of course, my familiarity with what's out there). I've had a long history with French and have long known about French in Action, which is the best available, child-accessible, audio-visual language curriculum I'm aware of for any language. In particular, try as I might, I haven't been able to find anything comparable for young English speakers learning Mandarin. There are a number of software programs out there that purport to teach all sorts of languages (most notoriously, Rosetta Stone), but these, imho, are so highly deficient they they aren't worth bothering with--even if they didn't cost hundreds of dollars.

Then there's the issue of retention. In comparison with French and other Indoeuropean languages, Chinese presents two disadvantages. One is its writing system. Mastering the thousands of Chinese characters required for basic literacy demands hours of daily practice. I've seen first hand how a short hiatus can result in massive forgetting. One simply cannot learn to read anything of substance in Chinese without a long-term commitement to significant daily practice. Another is its vocabulary. Chinese words are especially challenging for English speakers to remember because they bear no resemblance to English words.

So here's how I ended up viewing my options. If my goal is for my daughter to learn a language spoken by billions that may someday become a job-opportunity-expanding lingua franca, or a language whose pronunciation, vocabulary, and written form (though not so much its morpho-syntax) differs greatly from English, and I can commit both her and myself to the hours, days, and years of instruction (or if I don't care about her learning the written form of the language), Chinese is just the ticket. But if my goal is fast mastery and easy retention of a spoken and written language, my daughter is better off with one that uses an alphabet and whose words bear some resemblance to English words.

Which brings me back the original lingua franca. Like other Indoeuropean languages, French shares not only our basic writing system, but also tons of cognates (glace-glacier; sympathique-sympathetic; regarder-regard; to name just a few my daughter has recently observed). This means that English-speaking French learners are immersed in mnemonic devises. The effect of these cognates goes in the other direction as well: learning a Romance language like French enhances one's acquisition of many of the more sophisticated elements of English vocabulary. Cognates aside, French difers from English along the more linguistically interesting dimension of morpho-syntax, arguably at least as much as Chinese does. It therefore presents a nice combination of (1) mutual reinforcement with English vocabulary and an easily-mastered writing system, and (2) morpho-syntactic challenge and a window into some of the morpho-syntactic variability of the world's languages.

Other Romance languages--Spanish, Italian, and, of course, Latin--offer a similar combo. But today's world offers few opportunities for aural/oral practice, and zero real-life conversational opportunities, in Latin. And, much as I'd love to relearn Spanish or learn Italian, I haven't come across anything like a Spanish in Action or Italian in Action. Meanwhile, I'm seeing the tremendous efficacy of Pierre Capretz and his French in Acttion play out daily in the huge progress my daughter has made since last February, which I estimate to be already well over the equivalent of a year of 7th grade French.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

One advantage of Spanish, at least in California, is that there are huge amounts of Spanish-language material sitting around: local newspapers, signs in shops, bilingual government announcements, radio stations, overheard conversations on the bus, … . I suppose that French offers similar advantages in Canada (at least in parts of Canada).

My son is considering learning a non-Indoeuropean language after he has reached what he considers an adequate level in Spanish (probably when he has exhausted Spanish language classes at the community college and would have to switch to literature classes).

SATVerbalTutor. said...

Just wanted to point out that the whole cognate thing can be a double-edged sword in French: yes, lots of cognates have pretty much identical meanings, but there are also lots and lots of "false friends" (e.g. "sympathique" does not mean "sympathetic"). You really have to watch out. When I tutor French, I usually spend some time with my more advanced students running through the most common ones and making sure that they don't accidentally say something seriously embarrassing.

But yes, French in Action is absolutely fantastic -- Barry Lydgate, who helped developed the program along with Pierre Capretz, still teaches at Wellesley, and when I was there, his intensive intro. French class was always overflowing. A fair number of the people who took it actually went on to major in French. It's incredible how fluent people can become in a year using it.

ChemProf said...

Use is key. I was amazed how much closer to fluent I got in a three week trip. I took four years of high school french, but then didn't use it for a decade or so. After three weeks, I could handle most normal conversations, and had stopped trying out English first (which caused a funny moment at EuroDisney when I panicked a young Englishman who worked there and had way less French than I did).

I remember the "false friends" issue in high school French, especially for students who depended too much on the English/French dictionary. Although that didn't excuse the kid who picked "corpse" when he wanted "corps" (dead body vs. body for the non-French speakers -- the first one does mean its English cognate).

Catherine Johnson said...

That's amazing --- I have never heard of this program.

Can adults use it?

I wish to heck there were a Spanish version. I like Fluenz pretty much, but I stopped using it...which may have happened with any program.

I'm constantly taking up subjects & then getting sidetracked by other subjects I need either to deal with an academic situation of Chris's (SAT math most recently, which involved working my way through more than half of AoPS Counting; linguistics, grammar, composition, and literary text for my class; etc.) OR returning to subjects I've taken up over the years off and on (most recently economics - but macroeconomics this go round).

Catherine Johnson said...

The two languages I studied when I was young are Spanish and French, neither of which I learned to fluency. (Spanish much closer than French; I considered majoring in Spanish - at Wellesley!)

But today I remember **lots** of both languages; picking back up again with Fluenz wasn't hard at all.

Becoming fluent would be hard, but becoming semi-fluent -- AND being able to read pretty well in either language -- wouldn't.

Catherine Johnson said...

Katharine - if you're around - how difficult is it for an English speaking to learn Arabic?

Glen said...

The rough equivalent of French in Action for Spanish is called Destinos. Destinos has the same 52 half-hour video segments as FIA, was funded by the same people, and has accompanying written and audio-only materials. Destinos is more immersive, in the sense that it jumps right into conversation without FIA's slow build up, which makes it less useful for absolute beginners than FIA, and Destinos has less material outside the videos, but then there is plenty of such material for Spanish learners available from other sources.

FIA is more of a self-contained world if you get all of the materials. Destinos is more of an addition to other Spanish study.

The videos for French in Action and Destinos are available online (streaming) for free, but the streaming is restricted to North Americans. You could just buy the videos, but they charge so much for the DVDs that, well, forget it, and they don't make them available to Netflix. Ah, the economics of the enlightened not-for-profit foundation....

The creation of something like Mandarin in Action would require about four times as much video, four times as much audio-only programming, and about six times as much textbook material to account for the huge additional challenge of Chinese characters and vocabulary.

I'm not holding my breath.

Glen said...

Catherine, it takes between three and four times as many hours of intensive study for an English speaker to reach equivalent proficiency in Arabic as in Spanish or French. The US Foreign Service Institute and the Defense Language Institute both consider it roughly as difficult as Mandarin, while the British Foreign Office considers it a bit easier, but not much.

For example, the Foreign Service Institute (State Dept.) thinks it takes about 480 hours of intensive training in Spanish or French vs. about 1320 hours in Mandarin or Arabic to bring an average, native English-speaking, above-college-age adult State Dept. employee with an interest in language learning up to what is probably the lowest threshold of language proficiency that they have any use for "in country" (ILR Level 2: "Limited Working Proficiency").

Cassandra said...

Katharine, Is your daughter using the French in Action workbooks, or simply immersing herself in the videos? How much time per day is she spending on this? Very intriguing.

Katharine Beals said...

"the whole cognate thing can be a double-edged sword in French: yes, lots of cognates have pretty much identical meanings, but there are also lots and lots of "false friends" (e.g. "sympathique" does not mean "sympathetic")."

Agreed! Though, interestingly, my daughter seems to see the false friends for what they are, recognizing that there are connections, but not necessarily identity relationships, between them.

If these faux amis are recognized for what they are, it seems to me that they are still powerful mnemonics.

The question is how to make sure students remember the differences as well as the similarities. Any thoughts?

Katharine Beals said...

"how difficult is it for an English speaking to learn Arabic?"

Glen answered this much better than I can, but I'd just add that, while learning Mandarin and learning Arabic may take similar numbers of hours, what eats up the time is different in the two situations. While the bulk of time learning Mandarin goes to memorizing characters, the Arabic alphabet can be learned in a few weeks, and the bulk of time goes instead into memorizing the morpho-syntax. Arabic is a highly inflected language, and language where much of the grammar is encoded in inflection systems take longer to master than others. Chinese, by contrast, is an *un*inflected "isolating" language whose grammar is instead encoded in word order, which is much easier for non-native speakers to master than inflections are.

Katharine Beals said...

"The rough equivalent of French in Action for Spanish is called Destinos."
Thanks, Glen, for sharing this! I had never heard of Destinos before (I'm guessing that it's not as well-known as FIA?). I followed your link and took a quick look; it does look similar, and similarly good. I hope to return an relearn some Spanish.

Katharine Beals said...

"Katharine, Is your daughter using the French in Action workbooks, or simply immersing herself in the videos"
Mostly the latter, but she's also worked through a different (more accssible) workbook I found called French-- Middle/High School, and, now, an old ALM beginning French book.

Genevieve said...

My daughter has now taken 3 1/2 years of French before school at her elementary school. She really hasn't learned much. However, I looked and it seems as though the books associated with French in Action are a little expensive.
Do you think the videos would be enough to help her? Are there any cheaper workbooks that would work?

Katharine Beals said...

"Do you think the videos would be enough to help her? Are there any cheaper workbooks that would work? "

My daughter spends the bulk of her time on the videos. We've also used the textbook I mention above, which is quite cheap ( )
as well as an old ALM book whose price and provenance I'm unsure of!

Bostonian said...

The jobs that require fluency in Chinese and English will largely go to Chinese-Americans who have grown up in China or spent years going to Chinese school here. It will be very difficult to compete with them on language grounds. It is more practical and IMO more interesting to learn programming languages than foreign languages.

Anonymous said...


For what it's worth, the BBC has online language learning resources, including in Spanish an online video novella called Mi Vida Loca. It is aimed at adult beginning learners. I tried to interest my tween in it, but she wasn't interested.

I haven't looked at their offerings in other languages.

Here's a link to Mi Vida Loca:

le radical galoisien said...

I know both Chinese and French. (My French is stronger.)

You can teach in pinyin. I forgot characters routinely, but I easily know their pronunciations.

Also my greatest pet peeve are American students who use the cognate relationships as a crutch. Remember, the lexical similarity of French to English is 24% (in comparison, English, which is a Germanic language, has a lexical similarity of about 60%).

The result is American students coming into advanced literature classes still regularly mauling the pronunciation of "la culture". peeve peeve peeeeeeve.

also with Chinese you suddenly gain an expansion into Chinese literature (it's not just the business side), and possibly, Japanese.

le radical galoisien said...

(I meant that the English-German lexical similarity is 60%. sorry!)

le radical galoisien said...

aussi (en parlant aux américains) g kelkefoi l'habitude d'ékrire le texto. y sont forcés d'utiliser les oreilles, pas les yeux.

[you don't need to do this in Chinese. just French in particular. or else you risk not internalising the language by overdependence on cognates. ]

Glen said...

Bostonian, you're sort of right, but that doesn't tell the whole story. There are extraordinarily interesting opportunities available to people who can supplement their professional skills (such as programming) with foreign language skills that, while obviously non-native, are still good enough to get things done.

These opportunities can offer more fun and profit than the "jobs that require fluency." I think every job I've ever had as an adult has required programming, but my language skills have paid my tuition, gotten me a 50% raise at a defense contractor, gotten me overseas jobs with expat benefits, enabled me to join expeditions, enabled me to escape police custody (ahem, twice), gotten me seats on technical standards committees, increased my survival rate during layoffs (though not to 100%), and so on.

I started teaching each of my kids to program at age seven. Practical and interesting don't begin to cover what I think of programming languages. Not being able to program in the 21st century is like not being able to use mechanized transportation. It's unimaginable to me.

But whether programming languages are MORE practical and interesting than foreign languages....hmm. Are my arms more practical than my eyes?

Anonymous said...

One of my professors taught at Middlebury College's summer school and a nun (full,long,habit and veil) came into class late one day, with the uttered excuse that she had betrayed her sailor last night. What she meant to say was that she had had an uncomfortable mattress.