All right, so our two-year-old attends a language course. We drive our child to classes regularly, we ask the teacher about progress, sometimes we are concerned with the slow rate of language acquisition and at times we even wonder if this actually makes any sense with all these illness related absences. Today I would like to write about the things we should know when signing our child up for a language course and how we can help a young learner develop their language skills at home, outside of class.
It is not uncommon that after the first few weeks of a language course alarmed parents ask a teacher why their child has not started speaking yet, or even repeating single words. It also happens that parents ask their child what the group has learned lately and are disappointed when they cannot get an answer. However, as much as two to three year old children are interested in communicating and exploring their environment, finding names for things and talking about them, there are no clear guidelines as to how many words they should know, what phrases they should be able to use and what pronunciation should be expected from them. The rate of language development varies from child to child. What is more, there is a so called “silent period” in second language acquisition, which is a phase when children prefer not to use the foreign language, even though they are familiar with a given word or expression. They would rather use gestures or follow instructions, but they will not interact in the foreign language, even though they know the words. They may even refuse to repeat a word after a parent or teacher. This silent period may last from a few weeks to even several months, but it does not have to be occur in all children.* The only thing we can do is avoid any pressure and patiently wait for the child to decide to speak.
HERE AND NOW
“Now mummy is going to pour some water for you and then we are going to go outside.” Communication with a toddler or preschooler is usually centred on the child’s immediate environment. We describe our surroundings, things that are happening right now or are going to happen in a moment. Hence, the idea of doing that in a foreign language might seem tempting and a bit alarming at the same time (mums who are foreign language teachers might feel particularly guilty about this). Language courses use classroom routines to teach greetings, polite everyday phrases, instructions or requests. However, we can also introduce selected key words and situational phrases in our day to day communication with our child. Even if we adopt a more liberal approach, we might still be able to help them learn the language. This is how it works at my house – when getting ready to leave, I tell my children “Put on your shoes”, handing them a glass of juice, I say “Here’s your juice”, and searching for a toy I ask “Teddy, where are you?”. I’m far from talking to my children only in a foreign language, because I personally find it unnatural, but single, context appropriate words or expressions are our small everyday steps to acquire the language in a pleasant and nonintrusive way.
Everyone knows how toddlers and preschoolers love routine. Lunch and nap at a specific time, going to sleep right after bedtime reading. Some children keep insisting on their everyday routine, much to the annoyance of their parents. So why not use it for foreign language acquisition? I personally would like to add that since I incorporated English songs into our evening bath ritual, my daughter has been asking me to sing the songs with her. This is why we should be trying to find ways to include the foreign language in our everyday schedule to make it easier and more fun for our child to explore the world in and with the language.
Parents often get frustrated that their children tend to forget what they have already learned. Many are also concerned that in early language education individual course levels offer very similar language content, with the same vocabulary sets or structures reappearing in several consecutive years. This, however, reflects the way young learners acquire knowledge. Firstly, early language learning is all about frequent repetition (which is why I warmly recommend adopting routine language activities as described above!); teachers working with children simply have to repeat and revise a lot to provide a sense of security to their young learners. This is in line with the theory of child language acquisition, which states that the amount of new content should be relatively limited for the learning process to take place. What is already familiar always serves as a basis for any additional elements*. This is very similar to the way we communicate with a child in their mother tongue, building simple sentences first, and then gradually adding new words. Hence, we shouldn’t be surprised that after a year of learning a language our toddler or preschooler “only” knows a few phrases and a few names for animals, food or colours. Let’s appreciate the small steps they make because they are great achievements for our young learner.
I can remember how frustrated I was when my children didn’t want to hear any English during playtime. My three year old daughter used to protest when I played a CD with English songs, demanding her favourite songs in Polish. I didn’t give up, though and would play the English songs in the background while she was playing with the stuffed animals she loved. This worked. My younger daughter, on the other hand, really enjoys listening to English songs, but when I try to talk to her in English, she asks me not to. So it is best to pay attention to what our children actually like and have fun together rather than force them to participate in activities they dislike. Don’t worry if your methods are not always successful. You can modify them, use them in a different context or wait for your child to grow a bit older. At such early age, a foreign language should be associated with play rather than study.
* Stephen D. Krashen “Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition” (1982), wyd Oxford.
About the author:
Aldona Serewa has more than a dozen years of experience as a teacher, trainer and methodology consultant. She has worked as a DOS and a corporate training methodology consultant for two nation-wide language school chains, successfully implementing original teaching methods, monitoring training quality and taking care of staff development. She was responsible for organising training courses for a wide range of industries and a number of public institutions.