It takes time, folks

“Rome wasn’t built in a day.”

“Time heals all wounds.”

“Less haste, less waste.”

While I might have butchered the last two quotes, you get the idea. Folk wisdom realizes it takes time to develop or achieve good results. And no where is this more apparent than with language acquisition.

Communication vs. Academic Proficiency

Jim Cummins is one of the leading authorities on teaching and learning English as a second language. He introduced an important distinction in the kinds of English proficiency that are attained by English learners. The first is called Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills. BICS is often picked up quite quickly by students, often within a year or two in English language environments. I’ve observed this first hand. A student will arrive without knowing their alphabet and having all their teachers muttering under their breaths about the impossibility of teaching this student and the likelihood of serious learning disabilities that are preventing them from learning. And then, the student is communicating effectively in English, navigating the playground with enough competence to make school enjoyable.

It’s the next level of English that is much more difficult to attain. Cummins called it Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency. This is school English. The stuff you need to succeed in university. CALP takes up to seven years to acquire a native level of proficiency. Many language learners do not proceed that far, but many English learners do eventually surpass native English speakers in terms of CALP.

I’ve written elsewhere about what it exactly means to “know a language“, and it’s here that there is a lot of confusion. For many parents who do not speak a target language fluently or with a native-like accent (however problematic this idea is), witnessing children pull this off in a relatively short period can be exciting. It can also be disappointing if the student doesn’t progress even if this shouldn’t be surprising. Students’ temperaments, confidence levels, interest in the target language, and relationships are all influences on their language acquisition. Kids are not sponges.

I see this disappointment in missed expectations borne out in parent teacher meetings at my own English medium of instruction school. I also see it through a Facebook community for parents with children in the Hong Kong Chinese medium public schools.

As a teacher, I often field questions from parents wondering when their child can exit the ESL program at our school. It’s common to see the children enrolled in many after school language programs as well receiving instruction from private tutors. Of course these activities may offer considerable benefit, but often times the additional increase in time and money may not directly correspond to a satisfying increase in proficiency.

However, in most cases the student has been making progress. It’s just that our metrics for measuring progress are not helpful. This is particularly the case with children who come to the school without any English. After two years, it’s just not reasonable to expect students to be writing and reading at grade level even if their spoken English superficially seems fluent and natural. Call it linguistic privilege. Not everyone starts at the same point or faces the same obstacles, though too often they are judged in absolute terms.

Conversely, among parents in the expat community of Hong Kong, their can be considerable disappointment when their children do not acquire much proficiency in spoken Chinese, even if this is one of the primary reasons for enrolling students within the local system. This can be particularly distressing as the learning curve for acquiring Chinese literacy is much higher than English. The feeling that there were no benefits in pursuing this atypical route of schooling. The result is that very few expat parents keep their children in the Hong Kong Chinese public schools beyond grade 6.

For both groups, I must stress, it takes time.

In a world where so much is malleable, improvable, and algorithamatizable*, where biological processes can be tweaked, crops modified, and now, even, DNA edited, it’s humbling to see some natural limits put on our ambition. The brain, the seat of language, took a long time to get where it is. However amazing and miraculous it is, there are some limitations.

Not all parents have the luxury of planning the language futures of their children. Yet, paradoxically, for many of those parents who don’t have the choice and who have to remain committed to a language for an extended period of time in one locale, they are able to reap the benefits of this consistency. It’s uncommon to see an internationally educated student in Hong Kong apart from dual-language schools bilingual and biliterate in more than one language. Yet it’s very common to see this within the local system.

For the parents that do have options, have some perspective. There is often more learning going on than meets the eye, even if this learning is not automatic. Remember, one of the most important ingredients in acquiring language for children, is time.

Interesting research done in dual-language schools in the United States saw that students studying using two languages were behind in terms of grade level proficiency in either language, initially. But after about five years, on average, they met or exceeded the grade level expectations of native English-speaking students (Arias, 12). This was within an English-Spanish learning context, but there is application elsewhere.

Not all parents have 5-7 years to wait around to see the fruition of the language learning process. Those that do, whether by choice or not, be patient. There might be a whole lot less stress if expectations meshed with the reality of language learning a little better.


Arias, M. Beatriz, and Molly Fee. Profiles of Dual Language Education in the 21st Century. Multilingual Matters, 2018.

Cummins, Jim. “BICS and CALP: Empirical and theoretical status of the distinction.” Encyclopedia of language and education. Springer, Boston, MA, 2008. 487-499.

*I’m going to make the word. Google doesn’t show it being used. Could I be the first?

 

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