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Start ’em young

November 2nd| Fiona Drever

Start ’em young

A few reasons we should encourage foreign language learning in the early years, and some practical ways to do it.

It’s pretty common to hear the phrase ‘start ’em young’ amongst parents when deciding whether to send their kids dance classes and sports clubs, so why is this not the case with learning languages? And why should we even bother learning a second language in the first place?

A few years ago I came across this video on Tedtalks – The Benefits of a Bilingual Brain by Mia Nacamulli – which really struck a chord.

For most of us, learning a second language is something that we first encounter towards the end of primary school, and a relatively low percentage of people in the UK (38% according to British Council) ever reach beyond a just-about-passable level, even by the end of high school. To be honest, I can only really remember a few “important” words from my own time there, namely ‘pomplemousse’, and ‘fromage’…

However, since moving abroad and learning more about the different approaches to language learning, my eyes have been opened to the advantages of A) having a working knowledge of more than one language in general and B) introducing children to other languages at a young age.

I work in a private language academy with students of a whole range of ages – from 2 years old up to adults. I am fully aware that in the UK, the thought of taking a 2 year old to foreign language classes twice a week might seem a bit ridiculous, but here in Spain (and I’m sure in other countries), it is not uncommon.

For my youngest students, the way that they start learning English is not dissimilar to the way that they acquire their first language; through play, stories, songs and lots of repetition. As a result they begin to pick up on a whole range of colloquial expressions, grammatical structures, the pronunciation and ‘flow’ of English, without even realising they are doing so!

As these students get older, this solid foundation of knowledge allows them a much deeper understanding of the language and it’s cultural context. In my experience, those who began learning English at a very early age are able to express themselves much more naturally than their peers, perhaps despite technically having the same level of English.

But I don’t know any other languages, so how can I teach my students?!?

WELL… this is the tricky bit, but here are a few things you could try:

  • Use multilingual signs and labels around the home/classroom.
  • Watch foreign language cartoons (there are lots available on Netflix and Youtube).
  • Invite native speakers of the language you are learning into the classroom to interact with students, play games, sing songs or read stories.
  • Try out some language learning apps, such as Duolingo.
  • Listen to some simple songs and sing along with your students.
  • And most importantly, learn together. Your students don’t care that you’re not an expert. Just do your best and show them that it’s ok to make mistakes and sound silly sometimes.

As Mia Nacamulli mentions in her video, the cognitive benefits of learning a language are tremendous and stay with us throughout our entire lives. In the early years children really are like sponges, their minds are open and they are ready and willing to soak up new experiences, language and culture, so let’s try to take advantage of that!

Good luck! Buena suerte! Bonne chance! Buona fortuna! Viel Glück!

View all posts by: Fiona Drever
Categories: Classroom Environment, EAL, Teaching Ideas

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