The British Council's Tracey Chapelton explains how parents of young children can lay the foundations for success.
Children's brains are highly active
Your child is unique, but what all children have in common is natural curiosity and an innate ability to learn.
Our brains are dynamic and constantly active, and a baby’s brain is the busiest of all. Research has shown that babies begin to understand language about twice as fast as they actually speak it. According to Dr Patricia Kuhl, what’s going on in a baby’s brain is nothing short of rocket science: ‘By three, a little child’s brain is actually twice as active as an adult brain.’
Kuhl states that babies and young children are geniuses at acquiring a second language. 'Babies', she says, 'can discriminate all the sounds of all languages... and that's remarkable because you and I can't do that. We're culture-bound listeners. We can discriminate the sounds of our own language, but not those of foreign languages'.
By exposing children to other languages at an early age, you are giving them the opportunity to tap into their natural ability to hear and distinguish the sounds of other languages, and their capacity to make sense of what they are hearing.
Children make language-learning look easy
Communication is something that children do to help them achieve something else, and they are blissfully unaware of the enormous amount of learning taking place. They take everything in through their senses, making connections between what they hear, see, smell, taste and touch.
If your child plays with toy cars, they will learn about colour, shape, size, texture, friction, direction, and spatial awareness (forwards, backwards, sideways); they will extend their vocabulary (hearing new words, naming and describing), develop social skills (taking turns and sharing); they will learn how to ask for what they want (verbally or non-verbally), categorise things (let’s put all the blue cars in this box), and put things in sequence (what comes next?) – the possibilities are endless. As long as we provide the right conditions, their learning and development will take place in a natural and integrated way.
Children's emotional environment is important for learning
In your child’s early years, the emotional environment is just as important as the physical environment. Children learn when they feel secure, happy, valued and listened to. This is central to any learning experience in a child’s early years, including learning an additional language.
What your child needs is a loving, stimulating and enriching environment, with a balance of adult-led and child-led activities and age-appropriate resources. Adult-led activities, which can be things like stories, songs, rhymes, games, arts and crafts, and dance-and-movement activities, give the child exposure to the language. But it is the interactions that take place, particularly in the child-led activities, that can really support and broaden a child’s language development, encouraging authentic and meaningful communication in context. The right conditions help children learn even more.
Why do young children enjoy playing with languages?
Learning another language early allows your child to fully enjoy the way it sounds. Children aren’t afraid to play with languages. They are drawn into the magic of rhymes and songs. They hear and experiment with the beat of a song; they enjoy mimicking the pronunciation of new and strange words; and they play with rhyming words through repetition, even inventing their own examples. By doing these things, your child is listening to the sounds of the language, and inadvertently working on rhythm, stress, intonation and pronunciation.
Older learners sometimes lose this fascination with words and sounds, or they become self-conscious and are less likely to play with the language in the same, uninhibited way. Tuning into the sounds of English early has many benefits later on. Research [link no longer available – 17 July 2017] carried out by the Centre for Early Literacy Learning (CELL) indicates that there is a relationship between young children’s abilities to sing nursery rhymes and the way they play with sounds and practise early reading skills.
Are young children less afraid of making mistakes?
Your child has a trial-and-error approach to its development, and making mistakes is a valuable part of the learning process. In terms of language development, in their quest to make sense of what they hear around them, children experiment with ideas and will, of course, make mistakes. We recognise that sentences like 'Mummy, I digged in the garden' and 'I have two foots' are mistakes because we have already mastered irregular verbs and nouns. But these are examples of children applying the rules of the language as they occur in the (regular) forms they have already picked up.
When we expose children to an additional language at an early age, they reap the benefits of experimenting with that language as a natural part of their development. Their progress isn’t stifled by a fear of getting it wrong, which is sometimes the case with us as adults; very young children are simply working their way towards getting it right.
How can we lay the foundations for success?
The long-term benefits of learning another language go beyond being able to communicate with others. Professor Tina Bruce, renowned expert on early childhood and play, points out that ‘children who speak three languages that have entirely different roots have a range of sounds and understandings that are, in every sense, mind-expanding.’
Studies suggest that children learning an additional language tend to score better on standardised tests because learning languages develops listening, observation, problem-solving and critical thinking skills. These are transferable skills that are of life-long benefit, both personally and professionally. Encouraging in children a love of language at an early age prepares them well for school and for life.
Tracey Chapelton is a British Council teacher, educational consultant and one of the lead editors on our new educational approach for early years children, Learning Time with Shaun & Timmy.
The British Council has teamed up with Montessori to open its second Learning Time with Shaun & Timmy branch in Mexico City. It is located at Kids’ Place, Mazatlan #173 (esq. Alfonso Reyes), Colonia Condesa, Ciudad de México. Book a demo class.
Whether you are based in Mexico or elsewhere, sign up for more information about the programme and further developments.