Young Children Learning Foreign Language
Posted on Dec 22, 2010 by Val Mullally
Parents sometimes ask what’s helpful if their young children are needing to learn a second (or even third) language.
The good news is that the early years are a great time in the child’s development to be exposed to new languages. At this age the brain is very open to new learning and it’s very easy to acquire a second, or even a third, language.
Also children are likely to grow up speaking the language without the ‘foreign accent’ that we tend to acquire when we learn a language at a later age (if the teachers are naturally of that language group themselves).
From my experience in working in Early Education in Africa, it sometimes happens that language acquisition is slower for a child in a multi-lingual context. And that makes sense because they are taking in so much. Sometimes the child takes a long time before they start talking in the new language. It’s a bit like a daffodil bulb, growing away under the surface where nobody notices and then suddenly – there it is.
Here’ a few pointers that I’d suggest:
- never muddle your languages (for example, don’t pop a few Danish words into an English sentence)
- whilst it is generally helpful if a child is accustomed to speaking a particular language with a particular person, at least be consistent about where you speak which language (for example Daddy usually speaks in Danish, but if we are visiting English friends he speaks English whilst we are with the English friends).
- most importantly, I encourage you to ensure that your child is fully fluent with the richness and culture of the home language . Sometimes children grow up acquiring several languages but without gaining mastery in any. Your child needs to experience the fullness of your mother tongue through as many means as possible: song, folk tales, rhymes and poems, etc.
- whilst learning to ‘fit in’ to a new context is helpful, your children need a sense of who they are - their unique culture, their own traditions etc.
- also help your child to develop a language of emotions in the mother tongue.
It’s important that the child can express her inner world (I’m feeling sad/ angry/ disappointed, etc) as well as her outer world experience. If your child is emotionally upset or very excited, respond in the mother tongue. It’s hard enough for your child to deal with intense feelings, without having to try to describe it in another language.
- generally talk in short, simple sentences in the second language, in the initial learning phase. Support your words with gestures, facial expression, picture books and objects as much as possible to make it easier for her to understand. (See also my blog article ‘Helping Toddlers Cope With Tough Times’ )
- when your child makes a mistake, do not say ‘no’ or directly correct her. This can make her self-conscious and at worst she could stop expressing herself . Rather, remain interested in the story she is telling you, reflect what she is saying in a warm, connected way, modelling the correct language but without drawing attention to it directly.
e.g Child: ‘I drawed this picture for you.’
Parent: ‘You drew this picture for me, thank you!’
Most importantly is being there for your children and truly listening in a warm and non-judgemental way to what they want to share with you. When they have that sense of connection with you and the realisation of their own worth, they will naturally develop competence in the situation they are in. They’ll grow up confidently with the rich experience and advantage of multi-lingualism.