The benefits of learning a foreign language in childhood development
by Cathie Little
I am French and started learning English as my first foreign language when I was 10 years old. I loved it straight away! In fact, I developed a passion for languages, which led me to study a few throughout my school and university years. English was always my favourite and I ended up studying English language, literature and history at university in France. It wasn’t always easy, and I couldn’t speak English properly until my mid-twenties, despite having studied it for over 10 years.
After my Bachelor Degree, I spent one year in the US teaching French in a primary school and loved it so much I decided to become a teacher. Then, while studying for my Masters Degree back in France, I started teaching English in a secondary school.
That’s when I realised that there was a problem in the French education system: you only started learning a second language in secondary school, and by then it is too late to make it easy for children to learn it effortlessly.
It would have been so much easier and more satisfying for them to start learning a foreign language in primary (and even nursery) school! The majority of my students struggled as it’s really hard work to start learning a new language so late in childhood, and virtually impossible to speak it without a very strong French accent. Sadly lots of students simply lose interest very quickly and don’t deem it necessary to learn a second language.
I met my husband in 2002 and moved to the UK to be with him (since he couldn’t speak French!).
Thanks to my teaching experience, I quickly found a job as a peripatetic French teacher in nursery and primary schools all over London.
It was a revelation as I had never realised that very small children could learn a second language. They also really enjoyed my classes and were learning new vocabulary very easily and enthusiastically.
I later underwent an Early Childhood Montessori Training Course and specialised in teaching French in Montessori nursery schools, using a Montessori inspired method. During my 15 years experience teaching French to under fives, I have learned how important a role the early learning of a foreign language plays in childhood development, and I have tried to list its benefits here…
***Children have an absorbent mind so starting early is key***
First of all, the earlier and the more repeated the language exposure, the better able the child will be able to reproduce the sounds, emphasis and melody of a second language.
A young child has a very “plastic” brain. This property allows him/her to learn easily and to imitate different accents. It is very difficult for students to learn new sounds as they get older, because they lose this natural ability and have to work much harder at it.
Before 5 years old is the “golden age” of curiosity, spontaneity and flexibility, and the child assimilates with pleasure all kinds of knowledge. Up until about the age of 5, the child will not be ashamed to try foreign intonations, speak or make mistakes. That’s when you want to make the most of it!
The sensitive period for language development described by Maria Montessori occurs between birth until six years of age, when all children have an absorbent mind. During this period, they are naturally interested in learning the names for everything in their environment, making it an ideal time to easily learn a second language and expand their vocabulary.
***Learning new sounds can later help with reading***
Even a very brief contact like the one offered in weekly classes is interesting and valuable. Hearing other sounds and then learning even a few words stimulates your brain. The child will have increased confidence in uttering new words and will develop a greater awareness of what language is. This will later be useful for learning to read.
***Learning a language improves vocabulary and faculties of reasoning***
Learning a new language does not create any difficulty for the child. Two languages do not compete for the same space in the brain, they nourish and support each other. The child will not confuse them either, he/she will switch from one to the other depending on who is being talked to (that is certainly the case with my own four year old!).
In addition, learning a second language does not overload the child because the brain likes to be stimulated and have fun!
Beyond the ability to learn French, Spanish, German or Mandarin better and faster, children also develop their memory and cognitive abilities: their vocabulary even improves in their own language, and they show better faculties of reasoning than those who only speak one language.
***Language learning is fun and taught through fun and games***
Because language learning in young children occurs through games, fun activities and songs, their little minds are not cluttered with formal knowledge, and they remember vocabulary better. Also, as languages are best learned through oral expression, they tend to progress much faster, which gives them both a taste and a head start for learning languages in more depth later in their academic school life.
***It will help a child to better integrate into today’s multicultural society***
Last but not least, the acquisition of a new language is a huge advantage for the future and will help a child to better integrate into today’s multicultural society; not only thanks to that language but also because he/she will meet other learners and teachers from other cultures and backgrounds and will be open to the world.
As you can see, there are so many reasons to learn an additional language as soon as possible, in a fun and encouraging environment!
The best thing is that you don’t have to be fluently bilingual to experience all of these benefits: a simple learning process is enough!
I hope this post will have helped you discover and explore all the benefits of an early introduction to a foreign language. I made it my passion and my goal to introduce young children to French and develop their language skills. I love finding new ways of providing a positive start to the learning process, and I always look forward to meeting new children and parents!
Cathie Little, founder of French Frogglers teaches fun online french classes to children aged 0 to 5 years.
Check out FRENCH FROGGLERS in the services directory.