Too young to learn English? At what age can/should kids start learning a foreign language?

‘On the road with Gary…in Bratislava and Prague’

I was on a long train journey last month between events for primary school teachers in the capitals of Slovakia and the Czech Republic reflecting on my talks on ‘Teaching Kids Inside—and Outside—the Box’ and ‘Ways to Play—and Learn—in English’ (on Kid’s Box and Playway to English courses and on supplementary materials for teaching Young Learners – see a recommended reading list at the bottom of this blog) but also thinking about teaching languages to young children in general and particularly about something that happened at my wife’s school at the beginning of this school year.

My wife teaches in a French primary school in the centre of Paris—right next to the Place des Vosges in the 3rd arrondissement, if you know Paris—and at the beginning of September her school was inundated with publicity from organisations such as ‘Babylangues’ and ‘Baby-speaking’ to be put on the school announcement board and made available to parents about English classes for young learners from…0 years old!

Now, I know there may still be some conflicting views, but the recent articles and research I’ve read seem to agree that in general the earlier the exposure to foreign language input, the more beneficial for the child down the line. (Although some Ministries of Education—and teachers and parents—prefer postponing reading and writing in the foreign language until after children have learnt to read and write in their mother tongue). And when I was in charge of the language program at the former American Center in Paris, we had classes for children, including one for very young learners called ‘Tiny Tots’—but the infants had to be toddlers and potty-trained at least! I also remember doing some market research a few years ago with our primary ELT editor for the pre-school course Hippo and Friends and visiting classes given by a private teacher in her apartment in Paris and it was wonderful watching the kids leave their parents or caretakers and gather to sing songs, play with puppets, listen to stories et al. But starting classes at a very young age!? Before the children are even one-year-old!?

Of course when I read the publicity more closely and looked on the websites, I saw that for very young learners the offer was mainly more for bilingual babysitting and childcare than for real teaching or language classes—and that sounds reasonable and right-headed to me. In fact, I was recently visiting friends in the country whose daughter has had her first child who’s now six months old. And as I picked the baby up and started to take him walking around the garden, the parents heard me speaking French and said ‘Gary, why don’t you speak English to him?’ Indeed, why not? ‘OK,’ I said, ‘Look Edgar, three trees!’ etc. In fact, that’s what I plan on doing with my own grandchildren if/when they come. Of course, that’ll be their parents’— i.e. my kids’—decision…

Do you teach pre-school children? How old is your youngest student and what would be your advice to other teachers of young learners, and indeed young parents?

If you’re interested in the psychology of learning languages by young children, you may find the article by Professor Paul Bloom of Yale University on How Children Learn the Meaning of Words interesting.

Other recommended reading:

‘The Bilingual Family Second edition’ by Edith Harding-Esch and Philip Riley, Cambridge University Press

Teaching Children English by David Vale and Anne Feunteun, Cambridge University Press

Teaching Languages to Young Learners by Lynne Cameron, Cambridge University Press

Very Young Learners by Vanessa Reilly and Sheila Ward, Oxford University Press

Recommended resources:

Primary Communication Box’ from the photocopiable Cambridge Copy Collection

Primary i-Dictionaries

Cambridge Young Readers Storybooks and Factbooks

Gary Anderson, Cambridge ELT International Teacher Trainer

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6 Responses to Too young to learn English? At what age can/should kids start learning a foreign language?

  1. Helena says:

    Hi Gary. As you may know we now have more than 600 Dutch primary schools in the Netherlands offering English to the kids from age 4 upwards. At a recent seminar I learned that it takes the average child 2 1/2 years longer to learn how to read in English (as a mother tongue) than it does to learn to read in Dutch (as the mother tongue). Our spelling is so complicated it’s a wonder any of us actually learn how to write in English! For that reason perhaps it’s best to delay learning to read and write in the second or third language until sufficient vocabulary has been acquired. Good luck on your next trip!

    Helena

  2. I think mother tongue is important to learn. And kids are very obvious to learn their mother tongues first. Of course, stress should be given on English learning, as it rules the world today. So,sooner the better.

    • Hello Giada and Kalyan, thank you for your comments, I would tend to agree. I’d love to continue this discussion; it’s one of those things that affects not only language teachers but everyone who has children. I’ve decided to invite one of our authors of books for young learners to write a blog on the topic in the New Year so watch this space! Happy New Year to you all!

  3. Giada says:

    This article is really interesting. And I agree with Helena: at early stages it’s probably better to avoid teaching reading and writing.
    I am trying to teach French to my kids, they are respectively 3 and 5 years old. I just encourage them to play games on this website http://www.12speak.com where I can carefully choose the words they are going to learn. I add words that we have already studied together or that they know form French songs and they will memorize them with the learning games. It’s great!

    Giada

  4. LDO says:

    A human can start to learn languages in the womb. I’ve taught preschoolers as young as 3 in Russia for about 2.5 years and must say that immersion and making learning fun are key. It’s not easy when you teach a class of 3 year olds who speak some English or none at all, and are with them eight hours a day. They will learn better if you refrain of using their language. If a pupil shows signs of advancement, they can do some writing and pencil work. Letter formation is vital and I have used Jolly Phonics when teaching this and of course, phonics.

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