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Should we be teaching languages at nursery?

by Alfred Davies

I have very little recollection of my first French lessons. I started learning the language not long after having learned to walk, although classes at that age probably consisted of little more than colouring in the French flag, eating croissants and saying bonjour.  Despite the fact that they may seem rather simple, starting language classes early can be invaluable for a small child as they will quickly realise that learning languages is fun and can help them to communicate - realisations that not enough young people today have had the opportunity to come to.

In the UK, we are notoriously bad at languages. One recent study suggested that we are the laziest in Europe when it comes to foreign language skills. It is partly the way we teach as language learning is an art that requires time and practice which doesn't fit with the way we are expected to learn today. Rushing through a textbook, learning vocabulary and grammar in a near-mathematical manner in order to achieve the best grades in the shortest possible time simply doesn't work with languages. Offering language teaching to children who are still in nursery could help reverse the trend, but are they really capable of learning a foreign language when most are still perfecting their understanding of their mother tongue?

The main advantage of learning languages at such an early age is that it is a much easier process. In just the same way that young children learn their mother tongue by ear, they can pick up another language without the effort that it would take later on. By the time children reach secondary school, when traditionally language teaching has often begun, they are no longer able to absorb new things in quite the same way. The other main advantage is that children of this age have fewer inhibitions about trying new things and will happily attempt words in a different language with none of the concerns that an older child or an adult might have about getting it wrong.

So if you think your child might benefit, how do you find the right sort of language teaching? There are some things you might want to bear in mind.

  • How old is your child? Although bi-lingual children learn more than one language from birth, it is usually best to wait until they are confident in their mother tongue before introducing another language.
  • How long is the session? Half an hour is probably enough for a pre-school child, but you know how long your child will be able to concentrate. If you feel the session is too long, discuss this with the teacher.
  • Is the class suitable for your child? Most pre-school learning is done through play, and you may want to find out what materials will be used and that they are aimed at your child's age group.
  • Does the class sound fun? You will want a class that is creative, visual and play-based. If it doesn't sound fun, your child is not going to enjoy it and if they don't enjoy it, they won't learn.
  • What is the atmosphere like in the class? The children should be encouraged to join in with no pressure or focus on things being right or wrong.
  • Is the teacher willing to spend some time explaining what happens during the sessions and to let you sit in on one if you want to?
  • Be guided by your child. If they don't enjoy the classes or don't want to go, it is never a good idea to force the issue. Language learning at this age needs to be fun to be effective.

It is important to be realistic about what a child can learn at this age. Don't expect them to come home and chat to you in French or Spanish after a few weeks, or even a few years. The classes are aimed at providing a foundation for children rather than early fluency and at sowing the seeds of a love of languages which can last a lifetime. My early French lessons saw me through my school exams and on to University where I am now studying modern languages. Is my French perfect? No. Do I still need to study for hours every week? Yes. Do I still love learning French? Of course!

 

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