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Day nursery years are an ideal time for children to pick up foreign language skills as young children are better at imitating sounds

Article By: Richard Howard, News Editor

Second-language teaching is not a core part of the Early Years Foundation Stage, but there are many day nurseries and learning experts who believe it should be if UK-born citizens are ever to become more bilingual.

Caron Mosely is marketing manager at Kiddi Caru Day Nurseries, a childcare provider that has actively embraced the opportunity to expand on children’s language skills. The company operates 19 nurseries across the South of England and the Midlands, all of which teach French to 2–5 year olds as part of its all-inclusive fees.

Ms Mosely sees the early years as the ideal age group for language skills to be practiced, saying: “As to why we introduced a second language option – well babies are born ready and willing to communicate with the world around them. Language learning develops a number of skills and the earlier a second language is learnt the better.

She continues: “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. However, we do encourage parents to get involved as it is very important to remember that if a child is to embrace languages, the language experience should be an enjoyable part of their life and in turn will become a skill for life.”

On the preference for teaching French, Ms Mosely says, “French does continue to predominate as the first ‘second’ language taught in most schools and as France is our closest continental neighbour it made sense for us to choose French. However, that is not to say that we are limited to French and can extend to German or Spanish or other languages if there is a preference at nursery level.”

Tracey Callan, manager at the provider’s Plympton nursery, further explores the challenges of teaching language skills. She explains that, even for those youngsters to whom English is not a first language, this can be an advantage rather than a hindrance if approached proactively.

Tracey comments, “We offer French to all of our children as a second language but we mustn’t forget that for some of our children English is actually their second language. We have children from very diverse backgrounds here at Plympton including Spanish, French, Romanian, German and Hungarian to name but a few.

“Often parents want their children to speak English whilst at nursery so it is our job to help the child to learn English as their second language. So when for example a Spanish baby starts with us we sit down with the parents to create the child’s own language book. This will contain the first basic words – for example ‘mummy’, ‘daddy’, ‘drink’, ‘nappy’, ‘cuddle’ along with the word in both English and Spanish. It will also have the correct pronunciation spelt out in English so the nursery team know how to say the Spanish word correctly. Alongside the words will be a picture of mummy – which is the child’s own mummy, a picture of their own bottle and so on. These books grow as the child grows and will then go on to include, for example, the word shoes along with a picture of the child’s own shoes; coat with a picture of the child’s own coat and so forth.

“We also label up objects such as tables, chairs, windows, etc., around the nursery with the English word and then perhaps the French, Spanish or German word. This encourages children to learn whilst in the day-to-day surroundings regardless of what activity they are participating in.

“During circle time we also celebrate the different languages of our nursery by taking turns to hold circle time using different languages. This helps our children understand the wider society and the wider world that they are part of.”

The nursery also takes advantage of innovative technology where it might benefit learning, as Tracy describes: “Another fabulous tool that we use to help our children learn second and even third languages is Penpal. These pens are brilliant at encouraging our children’s language development – you simply touch the language you want, touch word such as ‘book’ and then the pen speaks the word back in the appropriate language.”

Bright Horizons Wandsworth Common Day Nursery and Preschool is another nursery that has prioritised second-language learning as part of its core curriculum, a development that was in large part inspired by the parents who use the service, after the staff conducted a survey that found overwhelming support for the idea of incorporating Mandarin Chinese into the programme – seeing it as a major international language of the future - while the children also expressed an interest in learning Spanish.

Head of early years Caroline Wright comments: “There are many proven benefits to children learning a second language, not least strengthening their ability to communicate in a first language as brain connections are stimulated and improved. Additional benefits include increased confidence and self-esteem and improved vocabulary in the child’s first language.”

Ms Wright also believes that second-language learning impacts positively on other parts of the curriculum, saying: “Children who learn another language also see improvements in overall cognitive development, including increased creative thinking and development in problem-solving abilities, benefiting mathematical understanding.”

Dr Frank Monaghan, vice chair and senior lecturer at the Open University, is among those experts who believe research shows second languages should be a genuine early years goal, saying:

Dr Frank Monaghan, vice chair and senior lecturer, Open University

“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 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.”

Dr Monaghan warns against attempting to substitute one language for another in instances where English is not a child’s first language, saying, “English needs to be added to children’s overall language repertoire rather than replacing or displacing their first languages. Thus the setting needs to make sure that when introducing English children’s first languages are not subtracted from the process.

“One way that this can happen is to ensure that children have continued opportunities to hear and use their first languages and parents / carers are advised to continue to speak first language within the home.”

Dr Fiona Copland of Aston University

However, the practicalities of incorporating second-languages into all early years settings remains a topic of debate according to senior lecturers in TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) at Aston University, Dr Fiona Copland and Dr Sue Garton.

Although in favour of having languages in education settings of all ages, the doctors point out that “both the theoretical issues and the practical implications of formally learning languages at an early age are numerous.”

Looking ahead to school years, where all children from the age of seven are now taught second-languages as of 2011, they state that: “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.

Dr Sue Garton of Aston University

“Moreover, not all primary school teachers have studied a foreign language and even those who have may not feel confident to teach it. Unless a serious training programme is put in place to develop primary schoolteachers’ language skills and methodologies for teaching languages, the result could be poor teaching and demotivated children. This is the complete opposite of what early language learning initiatives would hope to achieve. Then there are the issues of class size, appropriate materials and meeting individual needs – we could go on.

“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.”

Vote here on whether you feel second-language learning should be a key part of the EYFS:


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