Let’s not forget: immersion means being underwater. And novice language learners don’t have gills.

An observer of a TPRS-based Chinese class recently commented (using words to this effect):

This is a great program. But you should use less English. You use too much English. If you want to give instructions that are complicated, you should write them on a card in English. That way, the kids aren’t hearing English. And maybe have them read some stories that introduce famous people from Chinese history. Those stories don’t have anything to do with Chinese culture.

These were the same evaluators who had just watched a group of 14 novice language learners, who had started five class days ago with no Chinese whatsoever, read a 350-odd character story (containing about 65 unique characters) without hesitation, using only characters. No Pinyin. No having the teacher read it to them. They were reading and understanding what they read. They were using first-language literacy strategies to recognize known language, instead of decoding syllable by syllable. Oops, that didn’t come out in the comment session!

I know evaluators have to evaluate, and if they can’t find anything to talk about, they’ll be out a job. And obviously there are things that every program can improve. But telling a TPRS teacher not to use English is sort of like telling a swimmer he shouldn’t use his legs to move through the water. Sure, there are other ways to do it, but they’re much, much slower, and sometimes lead to drownings.

If you want to give instructions that are complicated, you should write them on a card in English. That way, the kids aren’t hearing English.

Okay. As soon as you explain to me what the difference is. What is the difference between having kids stop hearing Chinese and switch to their native language to hear five seconds of instructions, versus having kids stop hearing Chinese and switch to their native language to read for two minutes (including the time to get those cards passed out, and to answer the inevitable follow-on questions, somehow without using oral English)?

Either way, the kids are using English. They have to. They don’t know Chinese. That’s why they’re here. If we never tell them what Chinese means, they can only guess. If we rely on mime and dancing and photographs and realia to “tell them” what Chinese means, we think we’ve told them, only to find that what they thought we meant wasn’t what we thought we meant.

Yes, it’s true that if you’re teaching Chinese to a group of Swahili-speakers who have no English and no Mandarin, and you don’t speak Swahili, you’re going to have to find another way to communicate meaning. But I’m willing to bet that most in-service teachers in the US don’t teach primarily to completely non-English-speaking populations. It’s a nice theoretical point, but it has little to do with the reality of the classroom in the US.

And maybe have them read some stories that introduce famous people from Chinese history. Those [TPRS] stories don’t have anything to do with Chinese culture.

Well, you got me there, all right. That reading that those kids were doing in characters after five days of Chinese instruction wasn’t about filial piety, or General Tsao, or the last emperor, or the question of the one-child policy in China. It was about a robot finding his penpal by going to different American fast-food restaurants and asking questions. Oddly enough, the robot was doing things and asking things that the students had acquired in Chinese.

There is such an emphasis on “culture” these days that I believe people are losing sight of what culture is. Culture is what you think is normal. It’s not a set of historical facts, the names of past political leaders, two foods you eat at a given holiday, and the capitals of the provinces of China. Those can be important information, depending on what you’re doing. But those are things that can be gotten from a variety of sources. They’re facts. If you had a chance to live in close proximity with over a dozen native Chinese speakers, all of whom were willing to talk to you as much as you wanted, would you ask them to list the main exports of China, or would you ask about their lives, and share information with them about your life?

You might find it more difficult to do that if you only had vocabulary concerning ancient Chinese generals.

But the most disturbing thing about these comments was the fact that the point of comparison was another “immersion” program in a state that shall remain unnamed. This Program was notable because it Uses No English At All! So, you see, it is Possible to Do This!

No one stopped to ask whether it was desirable or not, though. And no one presented any data showing fluency or proficiency outcomes.

Mentioning this or that program is fine. We can all borrow and steal great ideas from each other. But if you’re not willing to show me an objective outcome for what your students have achieved — and acquired — within the time of that program, I’m not going to pay serious attention to the idea that what I’m doing is not as good just because I use English in a very principled way during instruction. Let’s set up some comparable measurements and see which approach is better — if either one is better. But without doing any sort of assessment of either program, the basic message is really “it looks better with no English, so lose the English”.