March 24, 2006

About Language Barriers

Posted by Xun  |  9 comments

My friend Jing and I have a couple of email exchanges about the difficulty of non-English-speaking toddlers facing when they go to an only-English-speaking preschool or the like. I think they are worthwhile to be posted here. I hope when we look back at these posts, two or three years later, the worries / concerns would have long long vanished like dust. Of course, we habitually worrying parents would be worrying about something else at that time.

Jing started the conversation:

As regards to the preschools, for a non-english speaking kid, no matter
how good the daily activities are organized in school, he/she is really
hard to get involved in. So when I looked for the preschools, I only
focused on the teacher/children ratio. If there are more teachers, the
kids have more opportunities to communicate with the teachers, catch on
english more quickly, and feel more secure. My friend's 3 years old boy
has been in a highly commended Montessouri school for a year, but he still
can't communicate with teachers, just understands basic commands, and has
no friends there. The T/C ratio there is 1:10 - I guess that's the reason.
I learned from a couple of my friends, and also from them heard other kids
stories, that for toddlers, really it's not that easy for them to
live/learn in a different language enviornment. It's far more difficult
than what we thought. They'll have serious separation anxiety, and they'll
feel lonely all day along as not being understood/understanding others,
and become very frustrated, sometimes aggressive, at the end of the day.
Even though with the initial conflicts with the teachers in UIC's, I am
still happy with the care quality there because Leo's teachers really pay
attention to children attachment to teachers. They give him special care
when he has difficulty to let others understand his needs.

I am not worried too much about language barrier, I also have heard a lot of stories, including one from my colleague. I believe language is natural to children, they would get used to it in no time. Leo has some families here, once their children go to school, they would go so far that they would not speak Chinese anymore. But a high teacher-student ratio is always a good thing, it is always good that children get a lot of attention.

I agree with you that language is natural to children. They would get
used to it in no time, only if no time = 3 + years. What I observed in the
UIC's preschool is the kids from non-english speaking families are quiet,
play alone, not talkative. They don't tend to approach adults other than
teachers, they don't show a strong desire to communicate with others. I
threw my doubts to the director there by asking her how well the
non-english speaking kids adapt to the school, and how soon they can talk
english. She said they'll get used to it quickly (my hope raised up a
bit). Then I asked how quick, she replied in 6 months, they'll start to
talk in english telling teachers their needs, and in 12 months they'll
explain what's going on a little bit(my heart dropped as I expected
"quickly" means 3 or 4 months). So I asked if she thinks the non-english
speaking kids can talk or write like a english speaking kid in 2 years.
She said no "in no time", "they need more time to do that". Later I
realized that just like a kid can't learn english by watching tv, they
can't learn by listening to others' talk. We teach a baby language by
repetition. But in school, everyone "uses" english, no one is going to
slow down the talk, explain word by word, until the non-english speaking
kids understand, and learn every single word. The kids can't remember or
learn fresh words flooded to their little ears.

I just hope the painful long process won't have negative effect on Leo's
personality development. I expect Leo to be a happy confident kid, but now
I can feel his frustration at the end of school day even though he can't
express it.

You probably are right about getting used to English. I once talked a teacher from an Evanston preschool, 6 months to 1 year is about the time a non english-speaking kid gets over the barrier. But there is also a lot of nonverbal communication among kids. They can play together without saying a lot.

Also if this is the price non-english speaking kid needs to pay, then so be it. Remember they already gain the advantage of being bilingual. I am sure language barrier alone cannot harm a child. There are just so so so-ooo many kids growing up bilingual or trilingual. Leo's big family here (4 families, each has two children), all are healthy, strong, happy, wonderful kids.

Friday, March 24, 2006
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writer said...

we see the same problems here in the schools in new mexico. so many children only speak spanish. great post!

leo said...

I am not worried about language barrier. I am very happy that Emma is a bilingual.

Xun said...

But I am sure later in their life they become quite americanized, that includes language. I read an article in Time just exploring the problem of how Mexicans get into America and their kids become Americanized, yet for legal reasons they have to go back to Mexico and they need to go through a new sort of transition.

Shahzad said...

It was kind of hard for me to overcome this language barrier too. For eg. gefore leaving a voice mail I would pratice/rehearse in English and then leave a message. Leaving a message in English was so scary! I was scared I was stumble. But I guess for children it is comes quite naturally as you said.

Xun said...

woo, I would not believe this. Your English is so much better than mine, you do not even have much accent. I guess there is always some trepidation/fear/uncertaintyinside everyone.

mengchi said...

I am having this problem too. I sent my son to English speaking preschool. He is 37 months old now. Today is the 3rd day. And he is kind of anxious to go. What should I do?

Xun said...

What language do you use?

From my experience, language barriers exist only for adults, somehow we lose the ability to learn and adapt, but for little kids, they pick up whatever language you feed them so quickly that it is very beneficial to expose them to as many languages as you can.

My little girl Emma went to preschool when she was 2 and half, in two months she started talking, in a year, she was as good as any other kids, if not better.

mengchi said...

thank you for your comment. We speak Mandarin at home mostly. Maybe several reasons contribute his anxiety to school. It is nice that you journalized your experiences with Emma. I found pretty useful if you don't mind my reading. Thanks again.

Xun said...

Not at all. I am grateful for your comments. And I am so glad you speak Chinese. Me too! So glad that somehow my blog enables me to meet friend unexpectedly.

If you do not mind we can talk through Emails. My email address is I have two little girls at home.

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