When I visited one of our nurseries last week, I had the usual welcome that all language teachers love, fifteen 3-4 year olds looking up and greeting you in the language you are teaching them. However, what made this particular morning even better was hearing the feedback from one of the parents. Her daughter was just 3, one of the youngest in our class and they had just come back from a week in Spain. On their return, the little girls mum had come in to nursery saying she couldn’t believe how much her daughter had been chatting away in Spanish when she was there. She had been saying hello to everyone, practising her colours and numbers, saying please and thank you, asking people how they were and introducing herself.
Of course, I was over the moon to hear this and made a big fuss of the little girl, but she responded as she usually did, with a shy smile. You see that was the thing with this particular girl, as often happens with the younger ones in our classes, she didn’t really speak much unless it was to join in with the rest of the group. She would participate with activities but she didn’t like to say things on her own and therefore you couldn’t always be sure how much she had taken on board herself or how much she was copying others. However, I’m a firm believer that children at this age absorb so much from exposure to the language, from being spoken to and from hearing words and phrases repeated in different contexts through play and more structured activities.
There is so much research out there about how the brain develops in bilingual children and the optimum age for learning a second language. Just this week I read an article about how babies begin to learn language before they are born and how this works for children raised in a bilingual environment (see our news section). Whilst the majority of the children we teach in our nursery classes aren’t raised to be bilingual, the benefits of learning a second language at an early age and the way they acquire this language is very similar. For example, one of the concerns for parents who raise children to be bilingual is that their child seems to take longer to start to talk. However, later in life the benefits of being bilingual, cognitively, socially, professionally (the list goes on) show that they had nothing to worry about.
The story of this little girl reminded me that when it comes to teaching young children, often we can’t realise at the time the benefits of those classes. Although the children may only spend 30 minutes a week in their language class, when they are then exposed to the language in a different setting their ability to recall vocabulary and phrases, to respond to native speakers and interact in that language can be surprising. Now that languages have an increased importance in the Primary curriculum, it stands to reason that these children will find learning a language at school, and even later in life easier. Of course, there is the pronunciation aspect as well, children under 8 stand a far better chance of adopting a native accent than older learners.
We often hear young children described as “sponges”, suggesting that they have an ability to soak up information from their surroundings. In the case of language learning this is proved over and over again, with nursery children being some of quickest and most effective learners!