Language Learning for Young Learners

This was originally written as a guest post for the very lovely people over at 100 Toys. You can read it and check out their work here.

As a collective of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages, we’re often approached by parents keen to introduce their little ones to a language but unsure of how best to do so. This post is a whistle-stop tour of the whys, whens and hows of children’s language teaching from the perspective of our seasoned language tutors.

What’s the big deal about language learning anyway?

Many parents who contact us for help with their children’s language learning do so for practical reasons: while children all over the world now learn English to a serviceable level – often in addition to another language – proficiency in a second language is a vanishing skill among British children. In a post-Brexit, globalized world, however, those with the linguistic and cultural fluency gained from learning another language stand to do much better in the job market than their monolingual counterparts. On a holistic level, the ability to speak and think in a different language also opens the door to relationships, experiences and perspectives outside the norms of one’s home country, which may parents consider a valuable and enriching aim.

What age is best to introduce a language?

There’s some debate among linguists about when to introduce a foreign language. Whilst many assume that the earlier a child begins language learning the better, there is evidence to suggest that formal learning before the age of 5 may not be beneficial. This is because, in general, children don’t master their mother tongue until that age, so throwing another language into the mix can interfere with first-language acquisition. The main exception is when children are brought up bilingual from birth: in this case, it’s usual that either the parents speak one language each, or that everyone uses the second language in certain contexts only. Bilingual children thus acquire the languages in tandem, with a clear context for when to use each language and strong motivation for learning, whereas those studying formally sometimes struggle with when and why they should be speaking the second language.

With the above in mind, although we offer foreign-language playgroups and play-based individual sessions for younger children, we do more formal work with clients from around the age of 5. Some of the most important points we consider when doing so are listed below.

The Silent Period

Young Learners respond best to methods that mirror the natural pattern of language acquisition they’ve just come through. One of the most important stages in the process is known as the ‘Silent Period.’ Chances are, your baby didn’t say a recognisable word for about a year, but that they showed clear signs of understanding prior to this. Young Learners encountering a foreign language for the first time will go through the exact same process, often taking several lessons to drink in the new sounds before they feel safe and confident enough to actually produce the language.

Show Don’t Tell: Demonstrating understanding without speaking

This is a great way to help Young Learners through the Silent Period. For example, we’ll stick pictures of animals around the room and ask a child to run and touch the cat/dog/monkey etc. In a lesson on food, I once placed different pieces of fruit around the room and asked children to bring me each piece We then made a fruit salad. This showed me they understood the names of each fruit and also instructions such as ‘cut the banana’, etc., but removed any pressure to speak before they were ready. Games that operate on the same principle include ‘Simon Says’ and ‘Describe and Draw’, where the tutor describes a person or thing and the learner draws and colours it as per their instructions.

We always make sure to heap on the praise when children manage the task – it all goes into their confidence bank and brings them closer to speaking.

Routines and Repetition

As well as routine and repetition helping Young Learners feel secure, it’s another great way to ease them into speaking. For example, I use the same ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ song to bookmark each lesson, as well as a date, weather, and emotions chart. Children tend to find these routines a familiar, non-threatening setting in which to produce language as they’re used to hearing and responding with the same or similar phrases. By the same principle, it is helpful to model and repeat certain simple phrases in every lesson such as (when offering an object) ‘here you are’ and ‘thank you’: the clear context, simple language and regular repetition will again create a feeling of security which will lead to children feeling confident enough to speak

Keep it moving: We try and make sure that our sessions include activities to suit all learning styles, with each activity lasting around 10 minutes. We like to kick things off with a good physical warm-up like a song or chant with actions to burn off some of that fabled 5-year-old energy (!) and help children switch into the target language and the learning mindset. Sitting-down activities like colouring or stories are interspersed with more physical activities and games such as Simon Says, Escargot (French Hopscotch – great for practicing numbers!) or ‘what’s the time Mr Wolf?’ This keeps kids focused, energised and enjoying the session which is vital for their confidence and motivation.

Respect your learners

My old boss had a great saying that has now become a mantra when I train Young Learner tutors: “they’re small, not stupid”. I’m constantly amazed by my young learners’ ability to soak up language like sponges, but like all of us they have their off days – they’re tired, they fell out with a friend, they miss their mum. We try to always be respectful of their emotions and their lives outside our one hour a week with them, which means bringing extra patience and humour, leaving our own troubles at the door, and having a few extra-fun activities up our sleeves to whip out when they’re struggling.

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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