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Teach a foreign language to preschool children education essay

Learning foreign languages in primary schools: It can be any modern or ancient foreign language and the focus should be on enabling pupils to make substantial progress in one language. This makes it an opportune time to reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of an early start, and what challenges it poses.

There are two main reasons behind the introduction of foreign languages in primary classrooms. More recent arguments are based on the cognitive advantages that learning a foreign language brings such as enhanced problem solving, attentional control or ability to switch tasks, and on the claim that it helps with literacy in English but these arguments have not yet filtered into public discourse.

However, the government policy which made learning a foreign language compulsory in English primary schools from Key Stage 2 was almost exclusively linked to the first of these motives.

But what is the research evidence? I will then draw some of the implications of this evidence for policy. What is the research evidence? The belief underlying the introduction of foreign languages in primary schools is that teaching foreign languages early teach a foreign language to preschool children education essay young children, when they are most receptive, could close the gap which currently exists between our young people and their European counterparts in terms of foreign language capability, making them more competitive on the global market.

After all, we just pick up our mother tongue effortlessly as young children, so the logic is that if we teach children early enough, the same will happen with foreign languages. This view was stated, for example, by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1999: It is important to distinguish between children immersed in the new language they are learning, for example as immigrants in a new country, and children exposed to a foreign language in the classroom, a few hours a week at best, and usually less than an hour per week in the vast majority of English primary schools.

In the case of immigrant children, there is much research evidence that young children are actually slower than older learners at the beginning of the learning process.

Many studies have shown that adolescents and young adults teach a foreign language to preschool children education essay faster learners on all measures of language proficiency. Young children, however, eventually catch up with older learners and typically become indistinguishable from native speakers, which is usually not the case for adults. So, in the case of immigrant children, earlier does seem better, but only in the long run, and only where children are given plenty of time and opportunity to make the most of the abundant language input they are exposed to.

This advantage has often been linked to the Critical Period Hypothesis mentioned above. In the context of foreign language learning in the classroom, are primary school children also more likely than older students to reach native-like proficiency in the long run?

All research investigating whether earlier is better in instructed contexts points in the same direction: Young children are very enthusiastic and love learning foreign languages. They find it fun and they enjoy discovering new worlds and new ways of saying things.

Young children are slower at learning languages than adolescent learners, in all aspects of language. To my knowledge, only one study by Jenifer Larson-Hall found a small advantage for an early start, but in that study, the children had six to eight hours of instruction per week for 44 weeks a year over six years, making the context of learning very different from the one or two weekly hours in other studies.

The team then compared their learning on a wide range of measures testing all 4 macroskills: They found that with the same amount of instruction, late starters were consistently faster and more efficient learners on all measures.

Most of the research to date has focussed on the learning of English as a foreign language, in countries where there is much pressure for children to learn English in order to become successful global citizens. But what happens in England, where children grow up speaking the international language, and where the cultural context as well as inconsistent commitment from successive governments make the learning of foreign languages anything but central to the educational agenda?

In a recent study we compared how children aged 5, 7 and 11 learn French in the classroom in England. All children were complete beginners at the start of the project and received two hours a week of similar instruction from the same teacher over 19 weeks.

This study found that the older children learned faster, as they were better able to use a range of cognitive strategies to aid their learning, and they also used their more advanced literacy skills to support their foreign language learning. The younger children, however, were the most enthusiastic, as reported by many studies e.

So, is younger really better when learning a foreign language in the classroom?

'Children should start learning languages at age three'

The very small number of studies which have found a small advantage for an early start were in instructed contexts with many hours of instruction per week. It seems that young children, learn mainly by doing rather than by conscious learning, that is, they learn more implicitly than older children. As a result, they need abundant input and rich interaction to allow their implicit mechanisms to work.

After all, it is estimated that children learning their native language are exposed to 17,000 hours of input by age 4. The one hour per week in the national curriculum bears no resemblance to this quantity of input, and therefore policy expectations must be realistic in terms of linguistic development of foreign languages. At the rate of one hour per week, it would take 425 years for children in a classroom to match the input of children learning their native language!

It seems that even an hour per week has the potential to awaken a lifelong interest in foreign languages, which must be welcome in a teach a foreign language to preschool children education essay where foreign language learning is undervalued and in crisis. However, this enthusiasm clearly requires nurturing if it is to persist. In our study, the youngest children expressed short term and intrinsic reasons for liking French. It is fun; it is different from their other subjects, and they like learning about different countries.

By the time they reach age 7, however, children have started realising that learning a foreign language is hard work and that it takes a long time to be able to hold a basic conversation. The common belief that learning a foreign language early equates with it being easy to learn does not really match their experience, and the popular belief that the English are not good at learning foreign languages is reinforced, when in fact the likely cause is the lack of time and effort spent on language learning.

Further challenges arise as children get older. Under present conditions in England, they are likely to encounter problems and discontinuity in language learning at the point of transition from primary to secondary school, which may be at least temporarily demotivating.

The curriculum also becomes more focussed on examinations, which are perceived as difficult in Modern Languages.


More broadly, the misconception grows that if you speak English, you do not need to learn foreign languages as everyone speaks English. Challenges and implications for policy In the following section, we discuss the implications of these research findings on the role of age in instructed contexts, for the policy challenges facing the early introduction of foreign languages in primary schools. Challenges The rationale behind the introduction of languages was firmly that earlier is better in terms of developing proficiency in the target foreign language.

These expectations are problematic for a number of reasons: Research has shown conclusively that language proficiency does not develop faster in younger children, and the expectations placed upon primary school aged children and their teachers concerning the learning that is possible in one hour a week are somewhat unrealistic.

Older children are able to use their more developed cognitive capabilities and literacy skills to support their learning; younger children are not yet able to do so. It is worth noting that the one hour per week is well below the several hours per week offered in many countries European Commission 2012; OECD 2014.

The policy implication is that either the number of weekly hours needs to be increased considerably, or expectations adjusted. There is, however, a huge shortage of specialist teachers, which is unlikely to be solved in the near future, given the decrease in Modern Languages graduates being trained in universities.

Consequently, many models of language teaching delivery are currently used in schools, ranging from the employment of one dedicated language teacher for the whole school only viable in larger primary schoolsthe use of a peripatetic specialist teacher going from school to school, or, in many schools, the class teacher teaching the language, and perhaps learning it at the same time as the children.

The introduction of the new policy took place at a time of declining resources, which greatly limited the support available for schools, through e. The Routes into Languages project which supports schools in the promotion and delivery of foreign languages, was only centrally funded until July 2016. Schools have had to deliver this initiative with no extra resources and inconsistent support.

Transition from primary to secondary schools: The transition from primary to secondary school has consistently teach a foreign language to preschool children education essay flagged up as a major challenge to progress in foreign language learning, ever since the first pilot introducing French in primary schools in England in the 1970s, and recent evidence suggests that the problem endures Ofsted 2015; Tinsley and Board 2016.

There is currently very little joined-up thinking about how the transition from primary to secondary schools is managed, with secondary schools receiving children from primary feeder schools with hugely varying practices, not to mention languages, and little coordination between the two. Children are typically taught languages together in year 7, the first year of secondary school, whether they have already studied the chosen language in primary school or not.

This does not make for an ideal learning context, and it can be demotivating for learners, as well as for the teacher who typically has to teach a foreign language to preschool children education essay children do not have any language skills.

These issues put together make it very difficult to see how the primary foreign languages initiative can be successful, IF its primary goal is increased proficiency and if its success is measured exclusively in terms of proficiency.

The expectations are just too high, given the amount of teaching and the current resources and provision. Implications for policy The research evidence we have discussed, and the challenges it raises for the implementation of the primary language policy, do not mean that this initiative is not important and that it cannot be a success. However, it would need to be thought about differently with expectations matched to what research has shown about the way in which young children learn and what motivates them.

What is needed is a clear vision of the purpose of introducing young children to foreign languages, and of how the teaching of primary foreign languages can be integrated successfully within the Foreign Language curriculum as a whole, all the way through to GCSE, paying particular attention to evolving learner motivation and to the transition from primary to secondary school.

Research has shown that what really motivates young children is the fun of language learning: Regular opportunities for direct contact with foreign language speakers including of course children are highly motivating.

Policy Papers

Additionally, learning a foreign language helps children with their literacy skills in English, as well as offering other recognized cognitive benefits. The motivational, cultural, and cognitive benefits of language learning need to be stated more positively to ensure adequate recognition of their importance and value in the national curriculum. Primary school teachers are usually excellent motivators; they enthuse children about learning new topics, and all the evidence shows that children learning foreign languages in primary schools share this enthusiasm.

It is only once children realise that proficiency targets need to be met that their motivation wanes. Focussing less one-sidedly on a goal of linguistic proficiency would help mitigate some of the problems outlined above. This agenda needs to be much more central and consistent in our curriculum. The choice of language s to be taught in primary schools also merits discussion.

The most commonly taught language is French, in over three quarters of schools, but other languages may have greater resonance with the experience of school children. Spanish might be a stronger motivator for children, as many have been to Spain on holiday, and its orthography and pronunciation are more transparent.

And in contexts where there are many children with English as an additional language, it might be more appropriate to teach one of the languages of the community. One option could be for all children to start a new language teach a foreign language to preschool children education essay secondary school from scratch, avoiding the transition problems we mentioned above and which are so demotivating for children.

A one size fits all model might not be the most appropriate. To conclude, the introduction of foreign languages in primary has great potential, but its goals need to be clearly articulated and realistic, taking account of what research has shown about how young children learn and of the context in which schools and teachers have to operate. Language Learning at Key Stage 2: National Curriculum in England. Languages programmes of study: First European Survey on Language Competences: Kroll, Judith F, and Ellen Bialystok.

Bradford Marshall, and Catherine Snow. Age and the rate of foreign language learning Clevedon: Mouton de Gruyterpp. Second language learning in the early school years: Trends and contexts Oxford: Learning French from ages 5, 7, and 11: Education Indicators in Focus: How much time do primary and lower secondary students spend in the classroom?