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
Gary Anderson, Cambridge ELT International Teacher Trainer