Information for parents: very early language learning

What is the optimal age to start learning a foreign language?

It is not easy to answer this seemingly simple question in a straightforward way. If we search the literature on the topic we will find out that there are basically three different opinions regarding the optimal age to start foreign language acquisition: “the sooner, the better”, “later on is good enough”, and “it depends on specific conditions”.

If we simplify the matter to a certain extent, we may say that every age has its advantages and disadvantages, which can have a considerable influence on the process of foreign language acquisition as well as its outcomes.

Early starters are likely to achieve a very high level of language proficiency including pronunciation but under favourable conditions, which will be discussed in some of the following articles. Furthermore, language acquisition will become a common part of early starters´ lives, and it will be free from negative attitudes about the target culture.

Those who missed the early start may also benefit from a later start. Some research outcomes suggest that language learning is faster and more effective after learners have mastered learning strategies and their mother tongue, and have also acquired a certain level of knowledge about the world. However, those who start language learning later will probably not achieve the native speaker level, particularly in terms of pronunciation.

The decision regarding very early language learning is one that needs to be made conscientiously and responsibly. The specific learning conditions of an individual learner should be considered carefully. The process of language acquisition is long-term – the potential advantages of the early start will manifest themselves much later provided that the conditions of learning are favourable.



How do children acquire their mother tongue?

It is not easy to answer this question. Even a renowned expert in this field, Professor William O´Grady, writes in his book How Children Learn Language that every time when asked this question he is inclined to answer: “I wish I knew!” The answer implies that first language acquisition is still partly a mystery. We know relatively little about how children achieve the ability to use language for communication at about the age of five. Learning about the processes of mother tongue acquisition is vital for learning a foreign language at an early age, as it starts at the moment when the first language has not yet been completely acquired.

The researchers’ task when investigating children as mother tongue learners ´ is not easy at all if they are to explain how children recognise the beginning and the end of a word in a stream of sounds, how they manage to grasp the meaning of words, how they make a sentence, etc. Researchers use various experiments, observe children in their interactions with their parents, record and analyse the language they produce. The mistakes they make provide evidence of language development.

Parents contribute to the process of acquisition by talking to their children. First of all children go through a long period during which they are exposed to language - they listen to their parents´ talk but they say nothing, they do not respond. This period is called “the silent period”, the length of which is pretty much individual – you certainly know children in your neighbourhood who could speak quite well at the age of two and you may have met children who were still silent after the age of three. The pace of development is also individual. The research has confirmed that for children to learn a language it is crucial that they always comprehend their parents´ or other caretakers´ talk. A parent speaks to the child about things concerning the “here and now” – about what they can see or hear, about what has just happened or what is going to happen. The specific context of the situation provides clues which make it easier for children to understand, for example, when playing with toys a parent says: “Pass me the ball, please” while pointing at the ball. Without this gesture it would be difficult for a child to figure out the meaning. How to use this very important finding for learning a foreign language at an early age will be discussed in one of the following articles.



Very early language learning

The early start of language learning creates opportunities to achieve, under favourable conditions, a high level of communicative competence in the target language including native-like pronunciation.

If we say “language learning” in relation to very young learners we have to be aware of a specific nature of the process. It does not resemble what we experienced at school years ago as learners struggling with tenets of foreign languages; it is rather about exposing children to the target language in adequate ways which share similarities with the first language acquisition.

In one of the previous articles it was suggested how research into mother tongue acquisition can provide findings which are helpful for learning a foreign language. First of all, it is important to bear in mind that the beginning of very early language learning is guided by the following principle: “comprehension first, production second”. In other words, children should be exposed to extensive foreign language input, develop the ability to comprehend, and should start to talk only when they are ready. It is a must to respect the child’s developmental stage and leave parental ambitions aside – if Paul responds willingly to the teacher’s questions and your Peter does not, do not worry, it is natural, he will start to speak in a foreign language later and it is not correct to push him. Through this insensitive strategy you may cause harm at the very beginning and developing your child’s positive attitudes to the foreign language will not be the target you will achieve.

In conclusion, if you decide to involve your child in very early language learning, keep your expectations realistic. The process is very slow and in the initial phase it is not even well observable as we have already explained. Try to not be disappointed if your child does not use the foreign language productively after a year. Be persistent, advantages of an early start will manifest themselves with a delay. What the advantages of the early start are will be the topic of a subsequent article. 



Advantages of the Early Start

This article will be about the advantages of an early start in foreign language learning. In order to be precise the title of the article should end with a question mark. We have not yet been provided with sufficient evidence from research that would unambiguously confirm the advantages of the early start. However, research has already proven some potential benefits. On top of that practical experience from instruction supports the advantages of very early language learning.

If children are exposed to a foreign language at an early age, they are likely to achieve a native-like level of proficiency, including speaking with a native accent. This is because the children have been exposed to the sounds of the foreign language in the period during which thanks to the plasticity of the brain they are better able to distinguish those sounds. The ability to discriminate sounds is an important precondition of correct pronunciation. Children have to hear a sound many times in order to learn to how to pronounce it. This applies to both first and foreign language acquisition. For example, research has shown that children acquiring English as a mother tongue learn to pronounce “th” sounds after they are four years old. Therefore, foreign language acquisition only occurs in such an environment in which children are extensively exposed to the target language. If you, a parent, are looking for the most suitable type of foreign language institution for your child, you should find out whether the foreign language input is extensive enough, who the teachers are, whether “teaching” respects children´s needs, etc. If you hope for a bountiful harvest, i.e. for your child´s native-like mastery of a foreign language, you should rather choose an institution which attempts to create a target language environment which goes beyond one short lesson of a foreign language per week.

Other advantages of the early start are related to attitudes, values, identity issues etc. Young children approach the target language and culture without any prejudices; they do not have to overcome any barriers, for example, negative attitudes towards the target language because they do not perceive it as a threat. It is important not to lose these benefits. Therefore, learning a foreign language should not endanger the children´s feeling of security. If it happens that children react negatively to the foreign language input, we should behave in a sensitive and cautious way so as not to create anxiety or stress which may block foreign language acquisition.



Parents and very early language learning

What is the parents´ role in very early language learning? Obviously they play  a very important part in this. It is the parents who decide whether their children will be involved in very early language learning or not. It is a weighty decision, as it influences the life of the family. The parents make several commitments.  

Firstly, they commit themselves to organizing the family life in a way which allows a child (with a parent) to participate regularly in foreign language learning in a club, a kindergarten or some other institution, if possible. It is also the parents´ task to make foreign language learning a positive experience, a pleasant part of the child´s life. Lack of patience, unrealistic expectations and inadequate emphasis on productive language use may prevent the development of the potential benefits of the early start into real gains. Rather than pushing a child to sing a song or say a rhyme to the grandparents a better strategy is to play a song from a CD and let the child decide whether s/he will start singing.

Another commitment the parents make is to ensure continuity of the child´s foreign language learning. This means that the parents will have to carefully select a school in which the child will have a chance of building on the previously acquired experience and move on. Starting again and again from the very beginning is demotivating for any learner. That is why it should be avoided. It is not true that repetition cannot do any harm. Practice makes perfect but if learners are not challenged they cannot be expected to progress.

Lastly, there is a commitment to provide space for foreign language input in everyday activities. Some parents try to create a foreign language environment in the family by using audio and video recordings of rhymes, songs, stories or fairy tales. Communicatively competent parents can also interact with their children using the foreign language. Recommendations are found in the literature to associate exposure to the foreign language with one parent in a certain situation (e.g. going to bed with mother), with a specific environment (e.g. an “English” corner of the child’s room), or a concrete action (playing with a teddy bear). When the parents stick to the plan, the children will expect foreign language input whenever they go to bed, appear in the “English” corner or start playing with that particular teddy. However, some parents have the opposite experience. While their children expect foreign language input in a certain situation, they reject it. Rather than insisting on the established routine, then,  it is advisable to initiate a change and to start using the foreign language in new situations.



The role of parents in pre-school language learning has already been discussed. This article will provide another point of view. Very early language learning provides space for closer cooperation between a family and a kindergarten as well as opportunities for a new kind of activities children can enjoy together with their parents.
If you decided to expose your children to a foreign language at an early age, you made a responsible decision and you will certainly wish to be involved. Firstly, it is important to find out what the objectives of language learning are, what the children are expected to learn. If you do it, your expectations will be realistic and you will not be frustrated a year later when you realize that your child is not a fluent speaker of English yet.
It is also extremely useful to observe an English “class”. Surprisingly, you may find out that games, rhymes, songs etc. are important and that there are no vocabulary tests. While observing you can be inspired how to interact with your child in a foreign language. You can also observe your child in an English environment. It may happen that your boy or girl will not be willing to participate in learning activities. This type of behaviour may have many causes; to name a few the child´s mood and health, type of activity or the parents´ presence may be mentioned. If it happens it is a good strategy to discuss the matter with the teacher and learn about the frequency of such behaviour. The main aim of very early language learning is to support children ´s positive attitudes towards the target language and culture. Therefore, negative responses to the foreign language input, namely if they occur as a pattern of behaviour, should not be left unnoticed. Unfortunately, there is not a recipe-like piece of advice as every situation is unique. Be emphatic and think about your child´s needs and in cooperation with the teachers you will certainly manage to find a reasonable solution.
Not to remain a mere observer you can get involved in the school life more actively. Some nursery schools organise cultural events for children and their parents during the year; the language of communication is English. Try to overcome inhibitions or other potential barriers and take part in the event; you will obtain a new insider´s view. Cooperation between a family and a nursery school will not be formally proclaimed but it will become reality. Moreover, such an event may motivate you to restart your language learning or make it more intensive.     
More than practising vocabulary
It is a layman opinion that teaching English to pre-school children is very easy. It is enough if the teaching person knows a few words in English and practises them with children. This is one of the most spread myths about very early language learning. 
However, it is not like this. You will realise it quickly, if you decide to observe an English „lesson“ at a nursery school. To enable the children to acquire a foreign language, we have to communicate with them using the language they can understand in a given situation. Teachers use a modified language. In storytelling they use short sentences with a simple structure, they use adequate vocabulary – the words the children know or are able to guess from the context. The teachers speak slowly and distinctly and at the same time they show the children a picture book or use gestures to illustrate the meaning. The children refer to context-specific clues which help them comprehend. This process certainly reminds you of your children´s mother tongue acquisition.
The words children comprehend constitute what is called receptive vocabulary. Its range is difficult to estimate and, on top of that, there are immense differences among individuals. We can only say that its range is larger than that of productive vocabulary – a body of words children use in their speech, much later in writing as well. Comprehension precedes production; children understand many words but they do not use them when speaking or they do not talk at all. Neither children nor the teacher are to be blamed; this is a characteristic feature of foreign language acquisition at an early age. It is not an effective strategy to push children to produce language. It is a temporary state, they need more time.