Languages by Difficulty for English Speakers

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) of the US Department of State has compiled approximate learning expectations for a number of languages based on the length of time it takes to achieve Speaking 3: General Professional Proficiency in Speaking (S3) and Reading 3: General Professional Proficiency in Reading (R3). The list is limited to languages taught at the Foreign Service Institute. Below we have a table of these languages and their difficulty for English speakers. For more information on the FSI scale, known as the ILR Scale, go to the Interagency Language Roundtable site, for an overview of the history of the ILR Language Proficiency Skill level descriptions and scale information.

* Languages preceded by asterisks are typically somewhat more difficult for native English speakers to learn than other languages in the same category.
Category I: Languages closely related to English
23-24 weeks (575-600 class hours)
Category I: Languages closely related to English
30-36 weeks (750-900 class hours)
German (30 weeks / 750 class hours)
Indonesian (36 weeks / 900 class hours)
Javanese (36 weeks / 900 class hours)
Malay (36 weeks / 900 class hours)
Swahili (36 weeks / 900 class hours)
Category II: Languages with significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English
44 weeks (1100 class hours)
Persian (Dari, Farsi, Tajik)
Category III: Languages which are quite difficult for native English speakers
88 weeks (2200 class hours; about half that time preferably spent studying in-country)
Cantonese (Chinese)
Mandarin (Chinese)
Taiwanese (Chinese)

One step back, two steps forward — How family affinity groups start conversations about race in schools

black-childrenI am a mixed-race black parent and educator whose children attend a majority Chinese-American public school in San Francisco. Recently I began hosting a Black Family Breakfast at my girls’ school for black and mixed-race families as part of a collaborative effort with the principal to “explore race and culture.”

For the past several years I have been an active school volunteer and I also serve on multiple parent leadership groups. Last year, an incident occurred where a Chinese-American student called a black student a racial slur. The situation was resolved quickly. Nonetheless, in talking about the need to address race and culture more proactively in our school, teachers suggested parents become involved in the process, as they often undermine educator efforts in shifting school culture.

So, inspired by these conversations and those with other black families, I decided to initiate an informal get-together to share support and resources to ensure our school is an even more welcoming place.

Surprise, Surprise… Folks “Get Concerned” When black people Get Together

To my surprise, my “great idea” of bringing black families together was not met with open arms by all staff. A few days after sending out invitations for our second meeting I learned some teachers were “voicing concerns” about our group. (?!) This happened even at a school with an enlightened and supportive principal! At this moment I realized there was still a LOT of work to be done.

What was all the hubbub about? The largest concern voiced by staff was that our group (also known as an “affinity group”) would be too “exclusive” and could potentially be seen as unfair by parents of other racial and cultural groups at the school.

As a black woman who is constantly having to navigate white (and Asian) spaces, I understand the importance of being able to “tell it like it is” in a room full of folks who “get it.” I also understand how important it is to be able to speak about my experience without having to worry about defensive reactions or #whitetears.

Moving Forward, Despite Discomfort

With support from the principal (which was KEY), I moved forward anyway. He decided to use the incident as a “teachable moment” and reminded staff that exploring race meant accepting the discomfort that invariably comes up. I offered to answer any questions staff had about the purpose of the group, and we both agreed that if staff felt other affinity groups should be formed, we would encourage and support them in doing so.

In an effort to support the principal, I also shared with him an article illustrating how affinity groups can support those who are often marginalized in schools. Even though the article was focused on students, I saw many benefits that translated to families as well (emphasis on mine), including:

“[Affinity groups] allow students who share an identity — usually a marginalized identity — to gather, talk in a safe space about issues related to that identity, and transfer that discussion into action that makes for a more equitable experience at school.”

Even though I experienced some initial pushback, I’m glad we moved forward anyway. After just a few days, it has been reaffirming to see the positive outcomes of moving forward DESPITE resistance.

First, it has become very clear that YES… our teachers actually NEED to talk about race. Even if it’s just exploring how they feel about talking about it. (A good first step, right?) I am also learning that this work is ESPECIALLY important in schools with language programs such as ours which has a bilingual Chinese pathway.

As a former high school and middle school teacher in both Oakland and San Francisco, I have roughly 20 years experience working in high-poverty, urban schools. In all my years as a teacher I have never had an option to NOT talk about race.

In contrast, at my daughters’ school, where half of the classrooms are bilingual Chinese, there are many experienced teachers who might never have never been confronted with issues of anti-black racism in their classrooms. They might never have taught black students or worked with black families, and thus have little exposure to black culture in general.

Additionally, there are no black folks on staff (as you may have guessed) and most of the teachers are Asian or white.

So, I’m realizing even though my daughters attend an urban, high-poverty school, I have to readjust my assumptions about teachers’ expected comfort level or knowledge about addressing race/culture with students and families. This might be even more true for Asian-Americans teaching in mostly Asian-American schools, because as people of color themselves, they might get “checked” less often on their own implicit biases and privileges by folks of other disenfranchised groups. (e.g. “I can’t be racist… I’m Asian!)

I am also learning how parents can start conversations among staff by indirectly taking action on their own behalf. In starting black family breakfasts, we didn’t ask anything of teachers. (It’s 100 percent parent initiated and supported!) Nonetheless, the conversation about whether we should or shouldn’t have a black family affinity group (or other affinity groups for that matter) has inspired more conversation about race and the need to create cultural visibility for underrepresented groups at our school.

I am now seeing people coming out of the woodwork to form an informal support network of change-makers committed to elevating  important conversations about equity and culture at our school. This has, in turn, led to a clearer purpose and resolve to push for change around how we celebrate our cultural differences and communicate with students, staff and families about race.

  • A teacher sought me out one morning to tell me how she’s been “fuming” about some of the ignorance and resistance of her teacher peers. The experience of listening to other staff voicing questions and concerns, is spurring her to speak up more to give a voice to our most underrepresented kids (including LGBT, Spanish-speaking, low-income, etc.).
  • Our literacy specialist and the school social worker have (on their own initiative) decided to take on the idea of creating a K-5 book talk curriculum for all teachers in the school addressing race and culture in the classroom. (WOHOOO!)
  • Our principal has committed to working with school staff to increase the number of books with main characters and authors of color in our school and classroom libraries. #WeNeedDiverseBooks!


Families Have Power to Drive Conversation in their School Communities

All of this has not directly been driven by families. Nonetheless, this dialogue would never be happening if black, Latino, Asian and white families hadn’t started the conversation last year.

As an active member of our school community, I believe there has always been agreement that we “should” talk about race. Nonetheless, over the past five years of my involvement, it has never been on the front burner. The fact that all this new activity is happening is a direct result of families starting the conversation. It’s one thing to have a principal make demands of staff (among all the other demands made of teachers each day.) It is quite another for parents and grandparents to make direct requests from teachers on behalf of their kids.

I am tired of feeling like the “angry black parent” every time I bring up the need to address race in our schools. Talking with other black families, and (Latinx, Asian, and white allies) I see I’m not alone. Together, we are making “requests” (aka: nice demands) of staff at our school to meet the needs of our children and families, such as:

  • ALL children deserve to see positive images of black culture in their curriculum and books. All children should see themselves and their peers represented.
  • In order for ALL our children to feel safe and valued at our school, teachers to TALK about race.
  • Underrepresented groups at our school need and deserve enhanced outreach and support.

Now that black parents and grandparents have an affinity group at our school, we no longer feel isolated and alone. The culture of silence is starting to shift. After five years of asking (and waiting for others to take initiative), we finally decided to start the conversation ourselves. Now our school community is moving out of the comfort zone — things are starting to change.

Reposted from


Ali Collins is an educator, parent organizer, and public school advocate living in the Bay Area. She writes about race, parenting and education on her blog SF Public School Mom. To read her musing on being a public school parent and educator, and to download resources to spur change at your child’s school, go to or connect with her via Twitter:, LinkedIn: or Facebook:


A Kindergartener’s Year In A Mandarin-Immersion School

FAQ MIKindergarten is a huge moment in a child’s life. So imagine if your parents sent you to a school where they teach most of the day in a language you don’t speak, like Spanish or German or Japanese. In California, a growing number of families are choosing schools like this. It’s called dual-language immersion. Reporter Deepa Fernandes followed the Gomez family this past year as their daughter, Gemma, attended a public school that teaches in Mandarin.

(reposted from

Despite a slightly nervous start to the school year last August, Duarte mom Brooke Gomez has one word for her daughter’s nine months of kindergarten: amazing.

Many parents experience the anxiety of their first child starting school. But for parents sending their kindergarteners into a dual-language immersion classroom, especially when the language being taught is not used at home, the questions and doubts abound. In some cases, it’s a leap of faith.

“We are an English-only speaking family,” Gomez said, the day before school started last August. “We’re not just non-Chinese, we don’t speak any other language than English in our house.”

As the number of dual immersion schools proliferate in California, many parents wonder if such programs are right for their child. How do children learn in two languages and does it help them academically?

We’ve been following the Gomez family for the past year as they posed those questions and watched their oldest daughter step into an unfamiliar linguistic and cultural world.

Gomez said the family lives near a “great” elementary school blocks from their home, but they chose to drive to Pasadena, to Field Elementary School, for its Mandarin immersion program.

The now six-year-old Gemma — elder sister to Ellen, 4, and Marlo, 2 — attended the Duarte public school’s transitional kindergarten last year and flourished. Gomez had no worries that Gemma would adjust to kindergarten, follow her teacher instructions, and keep up with beginning academics.

A bright girl, Gemma appeared ahead of the curve going into kindergarten.

Yet on the day before school began, Gomez was dogged by a feeling of uncertainty.

“It’s really scary, actually. I’m having my doubts even until today where we’re going to school tomorrow,” she told us in August. “The scariest part about it … is just sending your kid somewhere where the teacher doesn’t speak English.”

In Field Elementary’s dual-language immersion school, kindergarten students spend 90 percent of their day learning subjects in the Mandarin language. Teachers speak only Mandarin to the students, said Principal Ana Maria Apodaca. They switch teachers for the portion of the day that is taught in English, so students won’t hear a Mandarin language teacher speaking English.

“A small percentage of our kids come into the program knowing Mandarin already. We probably have about 10 percent of our kids in kindergarten this year who already speak Mandarin,” she said. The rest start their language training from scratch.

Gemma Gomez had taken a five-week summer course at the school before starting kindergarten. She learned how to address the teachers in Mandarin, count to 10 in the Chinese language, and pick up some basic letters.

For children who have never been exposed to Mandarin before, Apodaca said, it can be a little unsettling when they discover their teacher will only speak to them in Mandarin.

“The beginning of the year is tough for some of our kids,” she said. “They’re very excited to be in kindergarten and then once the instruction starts some of them are a little bit surprised.”

Apodaca said the excitement carries most kids through the first month, at which point many realize they “are very tired,” she said. “They don’t realize necessarily that they’re working so hard, but it’s evident to the adults around them that the kids are really working hard to understand what is going on throughout the day.”

Two months into the school year, as she sat in her car before the first parent conference meeting, Brooke Gomez wondered what kind of a report she would get on Gemma. She felt that Gemma was making good progress, and the then 5-year-old was loving school. But was she learning all she should  given she might not be fully understanding the teacher?

After the conference, Gomez beamed and described Gemma’s progress as “pretty good.” Her teachers gave examples of Gemma’s work and some basic test results. Not only was she on track with English language work, she was picking up Mandarin at a pace beyond the curriculum’s timetable.

By the winter, Gomez was convinced she and her husband had done the right thing by placing Gemma in a Mandarin immersion program. “Gemma’s really enjoying it,” her mom said. Gemma is constantly singing in Mandarin, and her grasp of the language “is really starting to click.”

But Gomez was also having side conversations with other mothers in the program about possibly hiring a tutor after school to help the kids with their English and make sure they were on track.

It’s a common worry for parents of dual-immersion students: will their child fall behind in English and are they learning as much as peers in English-only programs? Gomez knew Gemma was being pushed intellectually each day; she could see her daughter rising to the challenge. But she thought about how her daughter might benefit from a tutor.

“I was definitely all for [a tutor] until one of the moms came back and said that she had spoken to a colleague that worked at a school that really felt like, with their age, it really wasn’t necessary,” Gomez said.


The Mandarin language and its many dialects are the most commonly spoken language in China, and across the Chinese diaspora worldwide.

“It’s a very old language,” said Hongyin Tao, Mandarin linguist and UCLA professor. “It is linguistically distinct because of its sound system — it has four tones.” He said the “same basic sound can give you different meanings if you pronounce it with different kind of tonal patterns.”

To help her students grasp this complex sound system, Principal Apodaca has put sound mics on all her teachers. “Most of our teachers use a voice amplification system because Chinese is so dependent on the four tones of the language and having that voice amplification system helps our students hear the difference between each tone,” she said.

These differences matter a lot when speaking Mandarin, and young children are very capable of learning these as easily as they would learn a language without a complex sound system, according to Nina Hyams, another UCLA linguist.

“We are prewired to accept any linguistic input that gets thrown our way,” she said. Babies are born with a “language program,” which allows them to acquire any language. However, “with time, it’s very possible that it becomes less active and less available.”

For that reason, she is a strong proponent of teaching elementary school kids a second language.

“We know that around puberty is the point when [the language program in the brain] seems not to be as active anymore, and in this country that’s the point at which we start teaching second languages, generally, in middle school,” Hyams said. “So we’re introducing second language instruction at precisely the point where people are much less cognitively prepared to acquire a second language. It’s harder work for them, and they just don’t do it as naturally.”


Gemma Gomez continued to make good progress in class. Not only was she learning math and social studies and science in Mandarin, she and her classmates were learning Chinese cultures and traditions.

The children are taught a mix of traditional and popular Chinese songs and in the older grades they learn to play musical instruments, instruction that is not common in public schools these days. The fruit of that work was displayed to parents in a shimmery Christmas-themed concert right before winter break.

In the spring, each child wrote and illustrated a book, which the school had printed with hard covers and high-quality paper. Apodaca will deliver the books to a rural Chinese school in the mountains of Shanghai this summer.

“This really provides a unique opportunity for our kids to see that their language learning has purpose not only for themselves but has purpose in a global perspective and that they can contribute to the betterment of someone else’s life,” said Apodaca.

Gemma’s book is about a little fish that learns to read. The book the fish reads “is made out of coral and the letters and words are made out of seaweed,” according to the young author herself.

While Gomez says she knew her daughter was progressing, she wasn’t able to gauge whether her daughter was speaking correctly or even if her accent was right. She quickly discovered a snappy way to check.

“I take video of her all the time,” Gomez said. “I want proof that she is actually learning how to do something. So I play it for my [Mandarin-speaking] co-worker and she tells me if it’s correct.”

Some parents have complained that students in dual-language programs end up getting drilled a lot. Field’s kindergarten teacher Tingting Mei said repetition is how she helps her students master the language.

“Most of them, they’re really good at pronunciation,” she said. Mei said it is something they work on. “If a student mispronounces the words, I will have the student repeat it again until they get it,” she said.

Gemma’s mom said she is mostly comfortable with the repetition required in her daughter’s classroom, but the issue of whether it is overdone crosses her mind. “I definitely have had that thought many times, of ‘Is this right for us?’ Because there have been days when Gemma says she learns the same thing over and over every day, and I have to think that that is normal…because they start to get very good at it.”

Gomez said Gemma now regularly talks to her younger sisters in Mandarin, and often teaches them words or phrases. In fact, the whole family has now begun using Mandarin, coached by the kindergartener.

“When we’re playing games at home, she always incorporates Chinese into everything,” Gomez said. Gemma has even  taught her family how to say “hello” and “goodbye” to Chinese restaurant waiters and shop assistants.

In the final days of school, Gomez was thrilled with how her daughter’s year had gone. “She’s not reading chapter books yet, but overall I feel very comfortable with the program and she’s on track with English and math and other categories.”

Perhaps the best proof of the family’s experience this year? Both Gemma’s  younger sisters will be going to Mandarin school as well.

Highlighting Black Administrators Encouraging Mandarin Language Learning!

As the school year starts we wanted to take some time to acknowledge the growing leadership of African American administrators in schools with active Mandarin language programs. We also want to acknowledge the significant accomplishments of Sean Wilson as he transitions from the International High School of Louisiana to the head of school at the International School of Louisiana. While Mandarin is not a language in at his new school they do offer Spanish and French immersion programs for students at their tuition-free campus. We hope to partner with Sean Wilson in the near future and continue to thank him for his progress and support in assisting and promoting Mandarin language learning for Black youth at the International School of Louisiana.

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We are excited to highlight that Jamila Dugan is beginning the school year as the Vice Principal for Yu Ming Charter School in Oakland, CA. . Ms. Dugan is currently a graduate student at the University California, Berkeley. She is excited about her opportunity to assist families, improve and enhance outcomes and she has been a great partner with PAASSC. We are excited to highlight Jamila and look forward to continue working closely with her and Yu Ming throughout the school year. Jamila was born and raised in East Oakland with an incredible passion for education driven by social justice. She previously served as the Director of Professional Development at Yu Ming Charter School and also teaches English to first and second graders in the Yu Ming immersion program. Previous to her current role, Jamila was both a New Teacher Coach and Director of Teacher Learning at Teach For America Oakland. She has taught several grades in early elementary in Washington D.C. and holds a masters degree in Early Childhood Education from George Mason University. She comes to the LEEP program with a thirst for knowledge and interest in equity issues in education and beyond.
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I am always excited to highlight the many accomplishments of Jolynn Washington, Principal at Jose Ortega Elementary School. As principal of Jose Ortega Elementary School, JoLynn Washington emphasizes a culture of service. Ms. Washington initiated the Mandarin Immersion program to enrich the learning experiences of the diverse population of students. Jose Ortega also offers students the opportunity to participate in community garden and greening projects, as well as various social awareness drives. Principal Washington ensures her students have access to after school programs and extracurricular activities such as a monthly book club. Her effective leadership is evident in the vast progress Jose Ortega has made on both an academic and community level. She obtained the teacher of the year award for the 2010/2011 school year.
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Marquita Hart is the Principal at Yu Ying Elementary School in San Francisco. Ms. Alexander has celebrated many incredible firsts during her tenure at Yu Ying. Most recently she organized an opportunity for the children at her school to participate in official White House ceremonies to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan to Washington, DC. Over 100 Yu Ying students representing Kindergarten, third grade, fourth grade, and fifth grade will take part in various ceremonies throughout the two day state visit. These events include presenting flowers upon arrival to the Chinese First Family at Andrews Air Force, participating at the arrival ceremony on the White House South Lawn, and performing Chinese songs and dances for U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama and Chinese First Lady Peng Liyuan at the Washington National Zoo.
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Willie Adams is the Middle School Dean of Student Life, and also works in our three divisions as the K-12 Diversity Counselor. Head Royce does not offer an Immersion program but they do offer their students the unique opportunity of selecting Mandarin as a second language as early as kindergarten. In his role as Dean of Student Life, Willie will work to strengthen our service learning efforts in the Middle School, advise the Middle School student government activities, and join the MS deans group working closely with Middle School Head Carol Swainson. Willie is no stranger to Head-Royce, having served as a Lower School Intern for two years and having played a significant role in strengthening our diversity efforts for the last several years as a member of our Diversity Committees. Willie received his B.A. in Film and Media Studies from UC Irvine, has worked at the Katherine Burke School, the Aim High Program, and the Mills College Upward Bound Program. Willie is a member of the Heads Up Advisory Board and is also the Dean of Students for the Heads Up Program. 

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Over the course of the year I will continue to take efforts to highlight African American administrators that are supporting Black youth as the learn Mandarin. We encourage you to share ideas and strategies with one another. We hope parents will identify Black administrators so that we can also highlight them on our site.

10 Things Bilingual Children Do Really Well

10 things bilingual children do really well
Every child is good at something and as parents we love seeing our children do well. Bilingual children have an added advantage in different situations in their lives – and they often get really good, and – depending on their personality – sometimes cheeky with their language skills.

1. Correct their parents’ language

Children in multilingual families often grow up to become fluent, native-like speakers of the language of the community they live in – and do end up correcting their mums and dads! I have certainly been on the receiving end of this since we moved to England – and I am very thankful for it … really, honest!

2. Get better results at school

Bilingual children on average do better than their monolingual peers at school. Long gone is the myth that speaking more than one language will confuse a child and detract from learning other school subjects.

3. Don’t think being bilingual is anything special

Children growing up acquiring many languages don’t find it unusual or even that special to speak two, three, four or even more languages. It’s just part of their normal daily lives.

4. Amaze adults with their language skills

While they themselves don’t think that speaking many language is a great achievement, adults do find their skills amazing. Especially those who have tried to learn a new language themselves as adults find it difficult to get their head around a five-year-old confidently switching between three languages.

5. Enjoy it if their language is a school subject

Bilingual children get a “free ride” if one of their languages is a subject they have to study at school – you may think that your kid is using this time to learn something new, but actually, they are just enjoying a class where they can do well without much effort at all. I remember myself relaxing during the Finnish lessons at my Swedish-speaking school.

6. Giving cheeky incorrect translations

“How do you say it in your language?” – children can sometimes be really cheeky and give a translation which is not quite right. My Finnish-speaking aunt and her friends used to help a Swedish-speaking farmer when they were teenagers. The farmer thought that the girls could possibly work a bit harder and asked how to say that in Finnish. My aunt told him to say “Huilata! Huilata!” which actually means “Take a rest!”

7. Pretend not to know a language

Adults tend to forget that children can be bilingual, and children may well pretend not to know a language … and then secretly listen in on conversations. Remember this when you next time say something in your language when you are out and about.

8. Use a secret language

Bilingual siblings have the advantage of having a common secret language when they are among monolinguals. Not only does this help to convey “important” messages between them, but it also adds to their bond with each other and the language.

9. Make their parents proud

Language is an important part of every person’s identity and parents would normally want their children to learn the language they themselves have grown up with. Experiencing your child switching languages when speaking to different relatives in the extended family fills your heart with joy and pride.

10. Grow up with many additional benefits

Thanks to how bilinguals use their brain when speaking more than one language and switching between them they have found to be more creative, more open-minded, more flexible in their thinking and culturally more aware than monolinguals. Fantastic attributes to look forward to in the bilingual adults our children grow up to become!

Reposted by Multilingual Parenting.

What Do You Know About World Languages

Interesting language facts that you may not know.

  • There are approximately 6900 languages currently spoken in the world.
  • There are approximately 900 million native Chinese speakers and 340 million native English speakers.
  • Papua New Guinea has 820 native languages spoken within their borders. There are 516 native languages spoken in Nigeria and 311 spoken in the United States.
  • About 94% of all languages are regularly spoken by less than 6% of the world’s population.
  • The oldest written language still in existence is tied – Chinese and Greek (about 1500 BC).
  • English is the language that has the most words (at approximately 250,000).
  • The oldest word in the English language is “town”.

Enjoy the infographic and post any additional information you have to share.

To really appreciate the graphic below please go to settings and zoom in.


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