Let's Stop the Nonsense

Legislation in California concerning ESL instruction reflects a huge lack of understanding of what it takes for the human brain to learn another language, writes Parviz Parsafar.

December 19, 2018
Istockphoto.com/guzaliia filimonova

Last year, California passed legislation that states “that a student enrolled in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction will enter and complete degree and transfer requirements in English within a timeframe of three years.” Seriously?

I have five graduate degrees, three of which I received from Yale University: a master’s in linguistics, a Ph.D. in linguistics and a master’s in philosophy. I also have two other master’s degrees, one in linguistics and another in education. Moreover, I taught ESL at Yuba College in California for 28 years and have taught it for about 43 years in all. I know four languages, and through my 14 years of studying different branches of linguistics, I have some familiarity with the syntax and morphology of a few other languages, as well.

My background leads me to think that the California legislators must have been geniuses to have come up with such a powerful potion. Apparently, they have resolved a 1,000-year-old mystery. They have found the magic tablet: take one a day for three years and you will have mastered English. That seems so much better than the usual six to 10 or more years that it often takes most people to learn and become proficient in another language. Amazing!

Admittedly, if those politicians who came up with the three-year time frame had come to someone like me for an opinion before the bill became law, I, for example, would have asked them to stop the nonsense. Obviously, they have no idea about what language learning means or the effort it takes the human brain to learn another language.

Through the years, I have heard this question repeatedly: “So how long would it take to learn another language?” The shortest answer is, “It depends on so many factors.” Let me briefly explain some of the factors involved in the complex process of language leaning.

Educational background. What is already stored in the brain of the language learner has a great impact on how well and how fast they can learn the target language. That is, when it comes to language learning, one size does not fit all. Student populations differ from college to college. For example, at Yuba College, many of the students come from Mexican or South American villages and have little or no education. Or they are from a war-stricken country like Afghanistan, where many children have had to stay home for years just to be safe, so they don’t have much schooling, either.

In contrast, before coming to Yuba, I taught ESL at the Adult Education Center in New Haven, Conn. There, the majority of my students were the spouses of Yale graduate students, some of whom were my own classmates. Many were highly educated people, and some had Ph.D.s from their own countries. Similarly, before teaching in New Haven, I taught ESL at places like Tehran University and Isfahan University of Technology, where students were the cream of the crop because they had to take one of the most difficult entrance exams in the world to get into those universities.

Can we put all these groups of students in the same category and expect all of them to learn English in three years?

Age difference. The younger you are, the easier it is to learn another language. The best time to learn two or more languages is from birth to when you are about 5 years old. The second stage is from age 5 until puberty. The third stage is from puberty until about 18 or 20 years old. After that, it becomes gradually more difficult -- with, of course, some exceptions.

Family environment. Language learning is generally much more difficult for a student who has children, takes care of an elderly person, has to work while studying or lives in a dysfunctional family environment than it is for a student who is single and has none of those issues.

Economic status. A student who is worried daily about who is going to give them a ride to college, how they are going to earn money to put food on their table or what happens if their financial aid stops if they fail a class cannot learn a language as well as or faster than a student who doesn’t have such concerns.

Linguistic affiliation. There are several language families, each containing many languages. And languages themselves, whether across families or subfamilies, are classified into many types, such as tonal versus nontonal, stress-timed versus nonstress, isolating versus agglutinating, inflectional versus polysynthetic, syllabic versus analytical and so on. The differences among each one of those classifications create various degrees of difficulty for the speakers from different language families or different branches of the same language family when they attempt to learn a second language.

For example, learning English is a lot easier for a German speaker (both languages are from the same branch) than a Farsi speaker (all three belonging to the Indo-European family), while it is much more difficult for a Hmong speaker (from the Hmong-Mien language family, which is, unlike these other languages, a tonal language with seven distinct tones) or for an Arabic speaker (from the Semitic language family). So how can we put all these students in one classroom and expect them to learn English in three years?

Practice and repetition. The number of hours of daily practice and repetition, especially outside of the classroom, is another crucial factor.

When I was 20 years old and an undergraduate freshman at a university in Tehran, I chose to study French as my third language. I loved learning French, and I had already memorized some sentences because of my previous year’s job as a receptionist in a hotel where many French-speaking as well as English-speaking tourists stayed.

The French class met five hours a week, but I was practicing and doing a lot of written homework on my own about three hours a day. I was both a full-time student and working full-time at another hotel as a receptionist. I spent about 26 hours a week, including the classroom hours, practicing French. After three years, I was quite fluent in it, and I could read a simplified version of Les Misérables.

But you obviously cannot equate my case with that of an illiterate Hmong student who was a farmer in the mountains of Laos and is now enrolled in an ESL class in California. It is such a shame and injustice on the part of our educational system to expect this student, and hundreds of others in similar conditions, to learn English in three years!

Now, put some adult learners in a language learning class that meets three to five hours a week. It could take roughly 10,000 hours for them to become fluent in the second language, according to Sarah Elaine Eaton, K. Anders Ericsson and others. So the question now is, does 10,000 hours amount to three years of study? Even if a student studies and practices ESL for 30 hours a week, it would take them about six and a half years to learn English.

Motivation. One of the most important factors in language learning is motivation or determination. In some cases, that factor alone can compensate for most of the others. But the motivation is all internal, not external. The necessity that the person feels to learn the second language is what makes the difference, but that feeling comes in various degrees.

We are lucky that the overwhelming majority of ESL students at community colleges have felt some necessity to learn, and that is exactly why they attend ESL classes. Yet the degree of necessity varies greatly among them, and, in many cases, other factors -- like the ever-present struggle to survive financially -- are a hindrance.

In other words, the necessity to learn feels urgent. For example, when my wife and I came here many years ago, my daughter was 2 and a half years old, and she didn’t know English at all. My wife and I let her play with our neighbors’ children every day, and at home she watched cartoons and children’s shows and movies in English. After about 15 months, she was easily and fully communicating with her American friends in English.

What was her motivation? It was the powerful feeling of necessity and the burning desire to be able to understand and communicate well with her friends; she wanted to be one of them, not an outsider. (I am, of course, aware that age and other factors are involved, as well, especially the fact that all of her necessities were provided for her.)

Other factors. These can include the mental pressures that a person might feel on any day of their lives, including how many courses they are taking in a semester. Another factor is the difference in people’s learning styles. That one alone could affect a teacher’s plans for the entire semester, as it might require creating exercises and lectures that target visual, aural, verbal, physical, logical, social and solitary learners. Generally, a teacher can’t consider all of these styles; therefore, it would definitely have an impact on how well and how fast the students can learn the language.

But in California, a group of politicians have told us that they have found the magic pill: acceleration. In other words, they’ve figured out how everyone can learn English and graduate in three years (or less).

Frankly, a few years ago, when I first heard about the so-called research on acceleration, I didn’t take it seriously. I was certain that when the real educators found out about that project, they would never buy in to that bogus and misguided concept. I am indeed flabbergasted that they have proven me wrong!

I hope you won’t misunderstand me. To me acceleration is of two kinds. One is that which I call “selective acceleration,” while the other is a “blanket acceleration.” The first one is a great service to our society, while the second one is an insult to our educational system and our students.

For as long as I remember, I have implemented selective acceleration on my own. At the end of every semester, I’ve had a few students who excelled to the extent that I was sure they could skip a level, or sometimes two. Therefore, I always encouraged those students to enroll in the higher level the following semester.

As for the blanket or one-size-fits-all model, I hope I have shown that this kind of acceleration will be a disastrous hurricane hitting our colleges and undermining our students’ hopes.

In sum, I feel sympathy for the future of our educational system and our students. I am truly disheartened by the whole shambles, and I am guessing that it will take about 10 years for the educators to wake up, by which time we will have ruined the lives of thousands of students and wasted millions of dollars. I could bring up a similar argument against acceleration in English and math, but I will leave that to the English and math teachers.

I hope the politicians will one day come to their senses and stop relying on the kind of pseudo-research that promotes “magic pill” solutions for complex problems.


Parviz Parsafar recently retired as a professor of English as a second language at Yuba College in California.


Back to Top