It’s only advertising. Let it go.

That is what I told myself today as I read the description of a computer program that promises your child will be “near fluent in two years.”  That is what I always tell myself when I read products that say “your child will be bilingual,” or “your child will be fluent.”   Is it that marketers have a different understanding of these terms than educators do?  No, marketers use “fluent” and “bilingual” precisely because these terms are commonly understood to be the highest levels of mastery of a language.

It’s only advertising.  It’s not your job to set the record straight.

True. But what fun is it to have a blog if you don’t set the record straight?

For the record, learning a second language is a very complex process. The crucial component of this process is exposure to the language. To contend that any one product provides sufficient exposure to a language to make a child nearly fluent, fluent, almost bilingual, or bilingual, is not true.  To use these terms and imply that reaching fluency is easy is also not true.

This does not mean that the products that make these claims are not good language-learning products. In fact, many of them are excellent products, and would be wonderful additions to the rich environment necessary to learning a second language.  However, none of them stands alone. Ideally, parents would not believe far-fetched claims, but most parents are not experts on second language acquisition, and they often accept what they are told as true.

Why does this misrepresentation matter?  It is unfair to parents, and to children, to create unrealistic expectations.  These expectations distract parents from what children do learn. Instead of celebrating what a child accomplishes, parents are discouraged by what they perceive as slow progress, and dismayed at what the child has not learned.

Considering it logically, it is obvious that it is impossible to become fluent by using one product.  No product has the equivalent of, let’s say, the vocabulary that a child acquires in the first three years of elementary school. The average six-year-old has a reading vocabulary of 10,000 words and adds 2,000 to 3,500 words to her reading vocabulary each year.  Given the limited scope of even the most comprehensive language-learning products, how would a child learn all the words that she has never heard or read?  And that is to say nothing of grammatical structures, pronunciation, listening skills, and the myriad of other factors that go into true fluency.  Yet, there are books, computer programs, and DVDs that contend it is not only possible, it is easy!  The result of this misrepresentation is to make parents feel as if they are somehow responsible when their children do not master a second language by listening to CDs or playing computer games.

In my experience, this misrepresentation is unnecessary.  Parents want what is best for their children, not just what is easiest. They are willing to invest time and resources in languages, and they have the right to be informed about the complexity of the task so that they can have realistic expectations.  Undoubtedly, marketers believe that parents will be daunted by the prospect of teaching their child another language and decide not to try. That may be true in some cases, but the opposite is also true. With accurate information, many parents will better understand the process and be more committed to making the necessary investment to expose their children to a second language.

Obviously, children can learn a second, and a third, language.  Children all over the world learn to speak English as a second language. However, they do not do it quickly, easily, or with one product.  They study English in school, take private English classes, watch English language television and film, and listen to music in English.  In many countries there is a much clearer understanding of language learning and more support for the process.

Finally, studying a language has benefits that are not dependent on reaching an advanced level. For example, children who are exposed to other languages are more aware of their first language, have a greater awareness of other cultures, and are more confident language students when they are older.  The advantages are significant, and parents should keep them in mind as their children undertake, and pursue, the study of a language.

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