"Ni jiao shen me ming zi?" (what's your name), I ask one of my students who's been in a Chinese immersion program for the past 3 years. In response, I get a blank look and no answer. After several prompts, she finally gives me only her name, not using a single Chinese word . I see this all the time. By now, I've seen a good number of dual immersion programs. I've even helped build some of them. The hardest piece to get right is building conversational ability. In enrichment style programs where time is limited, often far too much time is spent focusing on limited structures. In more intensive dual immersion programs, the focus is overly academic; children sit and listen a lot and build passive academic knowledge, but can't answer everyday questions like "What do you want to play?"
So how do you build conversational ability? Well, in an enrichment program with limited time, each class must include fluency practice. This is a part of the lesson where children are guided to participate in largely self-directed conversations, best done in role-play form or as part of a project. The teacher needs to help build the language with the children, but the real key is having them use all of their linguistic resources in real-time conversation to truly work towards proficiency. Human conversation is incredibly rapid and requires a large cognitive load from the brain. Anybody learning a language needs a lot of practice to build up the speed and complexity needed to take part in even the smallest of everyday conversations. Guided fluency practice helps accomplish this.
For the dual immersion program where 50-90% of the day is spent in the target language, it's still not uncommon to see children revert to the community language when discussing amongst themselves in class, at lunch, or on the playground. Why does this happen? It's because what they're learning in class is often content-focused. It doesn't include regular language like "what's your name", "what's your favorite toy" or "Snow White is my favorite Disney princess". In the dual immersion classroom, everyday language has to be mindfully built into the curriculum and classroom routines. By doing so, children will become confident and competent enough with everyday functional language to use it on their own.
If you're a parent looking for a language program for your child, be sure to ask how they build everyday conversational ability. It won't just happen, it needs to be a well-designed part of each class. If you're an bilingual educator, think about what kind of everyday language your students needs and think about how to build it into your class.
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