One of the questions that parents often ask is “isn’t it too early to learn a new language?”. Sure, it sounds perfectly logical – won’t the child get confused, after all they haven’t fully mastered their own language yet?
We may think that it’s best to let the child learn one language well before introducing another one. Except… does that happen with other things that the child is learning? Of course, not – the amazing thing about children is that they are capable of learning a great number of things at the same time. The same goes for languages – little people are perfectly able to deal with more than one language at the same time. Also, linguists studying multilingual children have observed that learners are likely to transfer the patterns of their mother tongue to the foreign language, however not the other way around. Phew!
But won’t they mix things up? They won’t! Even though sometimes it may happen that kids decide to use the foreign language, or even more amusingly – they can occasionally mix languages and produce a sentence or phrase with words in both languages… It’s perfectly normal and there are reasons for that. For example, if a child has learnt a word in a foreign language before they heard it in their own, initially this word will be more familiar in the foreign language. The languages “align” very quickly. If a child throws in a foreign word here and there it’s because they want to rather than don’t know their mother tongue equivalent. If you’re getting worried – don’t, this phenomenon happens mostly in multilingual families where kids have constant exposure to more than language. A couple of classes a week will not confuse them in the choice of language! However, they may try to show off in front of you or other people or having been exposed to different people speaking different languages they are not entirely sure who speaks a foreign language so they can “test” it. Foreign language learners also develop a new identity while learning a new language and a child may decide to demonstrate their new identity in the same way as they choose to play with a particular toy. It also happens that a word or phrase in a foreign language is more appealing or just has a little “Je ne sais quoi” 😉 Many adults do it too when they learn languages!
One of the most amazing things about children is that they are extremely accepting – everything is fine just the way it is. So, the fact that their mother tongue and a foreign language are different doesn’t bother children at all. It’s OK that what I know as “a dog” in English is “un cane”, “un perro” or “ein Hund” when I’m a small child. Everything is a new system to the small person’s mind, and language is one of them. Kids simply embrace the fact that a different language calls for a different set of words, sounds, patterns. Instead of learning rules and doing exercises, but children learn through singing songs, saying rhymes and chants; in other words, playing. As a result, later they have the advantage of using the language very well, even if they don’t know the formal rules. And isn’t that exactly what knowing a language is about?
That’s not all… Introducing a foreign language at an early age has a number of benefits as long as the learning process follows the natural order of children’s language learning. Studies have shown that the knowledge of a foreign language improves the awareness of child’s first language. Bilingual and multilingual children are better communicators and writers in their mother tongue, when compared with monolingual peers.
Another great characteristic of children aged 2-6 is their musical aptitude – they can easily distinguish a range of sounds. This is extremely helpful in learning the sound of a foreign language – kids can hear that some sounds in a foreign language are similar to their mother tongue and others that are different, but accept it just as they do with everything else that they learn. Apart from being very well tuned to different sounds, children also like imitating them. It doesn’t bother them at all that they sound different or strange, it’s all part of fun and they love it! That’s what makes them so good at pronunciation – the earlier children start learning, the better accent they have in the foreign language.
The thing to bear in mind, though, is the natural order of language learning. Think about babies who cannot speak yet. The first contact with their mother tongue is listening, listening, and listening… At first, there is little or no reaction to what is being said to them – babies smile when they hear voices familiar to them, but it would be crazy to expect them to respond to what we say to them. The next stage is comprehending what’s said to them, following simple orders or request, yet still not replying. Then we get to the stage when a child is ready to produce a simple reply, not always full or correct, that comes later.
It’s important to remember the steps a child takes when learning their own language when he or she begins their adventure in a foreign language. It’s especially important to follow the hear -> speak sequence, and only later introduce the more complex elements of reading and writing. An older child 5-6 years old may be getting comfortable with reading in their own language, but it takes them a while to fully comprehend different ways that sometimes the same letters are pronounced. Until this stage is fully grounded and the child has mastered reading and spelling of their own language, introducing a foreign system of linking the letters in words with sounds may confuse the child and in the worst case scenario be detrimental to learning reading and spelling in their mother tongue.
The methodology I use puts the child’s development first. The classes and the entire learning process are designed to follow child’s language acquisition process in the natural order. One of the reasons I teach in small groups is that while learning languages happens in a similar way for children of the same age, every child is different and for me the individual difference really matters. The teacher needs to be able to observe all the children and make sure that all of them are ready to move on to the next step. My classes introduce the new language through songs, rhymes, stories and teacher’s instructions; children are encouraged to imitate what they hear, but they can do it when they are ready. Some children are ready and eager straight away, while others may need more time, and that’s fine. They’ve got lots of time!