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Dr Frank Monaghan, vice chair and senior lecturer, Open University in London
Dr Fiona Copland & Dr Sue Garton, senior lecturers in TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages), Aston University
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The early years forms a critical stage in children’s development. If children are to become and remain bilingual, early years settings have a role to play in providing opportunities for ‘additive’ rather than ‘subtractive’ bilingualism, says Dr Monaghan of the National Association for Language Development in the Curriculum (NALDIC).
“An expanding number of research studies have identified the positive advantages of bilingualism irrespective of languages or geographical locations. Children who acquire two or more languages from birth, or learn a second language after the acquisition of the first language, demonstrate strengths.
"In summarising one study (by researchers from University College London who studied the brains of 105 people, 80 of whom were bilingual) a BBC report (BBC, 2006) described the benefits of being bilingual by likening brains to muscles, and by noting that learning languages is an intellectual exercise. The more children do it, the more this process strengthens their intellectual capabilities just like any exercise builds muscles.”
Marketing manager at Kiddi Caru Day Nurseries, Caron Mosely, comments: “Research has shown that pre-school is the best time to learn as young children are more relaxed and better at imitating sounds and pronunciation.
“Children repeat sounds and, when rewarded by attention from an adult, this stimulates them to continue or increase vocalisation. When a child learns a second language, the same principle applies. The more they enjoy learning a language when they are young, the more likely they are going to find it a positive experience when they are older.
“Language learning also develops a child’s ability to listen attentively. Performance also builds self-confidence in a child’s aptitude to express themselves.”
“We should state clearly from the start that we are in favour of introducing languages into schools at all ages. However, both the theoretical issues and the practical implications of formally learning languages at an early age are numerous.
First, the jury is still out on what is the best age to start learning languages at school. Many people believe that children are like sponges and learn languages effortlessly from a very early age. However, this belief is usually based on experiences of children learning in what is called ‘immersion contexts’. For example, the child lives in a country where the language is different from the language spoken at home, or the child goes to a school where the language of instruction is different from his/her first language. This is a far cry from the one to two hours a week that a primary school might be able to dedicate to languages. In these formal language learning situations, children make much slower progress and indeed there is evidence that children who start learning languages later, say around 10–11, soon catch up with early starters.
Second, as our report for the British Council shows (Investigating Global Practices in Teaching English to Young Learners (http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/publications/global-practices-teaching-english-young-learnersonline), there are huge challenges for teachers of languages to young children. Most primary schoolteachers are not trained to teach languages – nor are many language teachers trained to teach young children. Based on the experiences of other countries around the world it seems clear that vast and appropriate resources should be in place before second language teaching is included as a key objective in EYFS.
In spite of the efforts of a number of teachers and organisations (for example NIACE), multilingualism is often not valued in an educational system that often views being bilingual as a problem. What can and should be happening , in our view, is for the focus to turn to promoting and celebrating the achievements of multilingual children in such a way that all children in primary schools are taught the value of being able to speak another language, thereby creating positive attitudes to language learning that they will carry forward throughout their school career.
Going back to the original question, Should early years frameworks have second-language teaching included among its key objectives?, we believe the objective should be not second-language teaching but rather the development of sensitivity to and appreciation of languages from an early age.”