We lag well behind the rest of Europe for foreign languages and should be starting kids off before 3, finds Arlene Harris.
Last year was an eventful one for Europe as Britain voted itself out of the union. But despite the predictions of Nigel Farage, Ireland is still very much tied with its Continental counterparts, at least for the foreseeable future.
However while we have plenty in common with our European cousins on both a cultural and social level, the one area in which we differ greatly is our command of foreign languages.
All over Europe, children learn several different languages from a very young age, while for the most part our youngsters don’t even touch on foreign words until they reach secondary school — which, according to some, is far too late.
Sabine Maher who runs French for Children for ages three upwards says across Europe, young children learn at least one extra language.
“In most European countries, a minimum of one foreign language is mandatory and taught at primary school from the age of seven and in some places, two or more are being taught,” she says. “But while the Irish Department of Education had a pilot scheme introducing foreign languages to 5th and 6th class pupils, this was terminated in 2012.”
Dr David Carey, director of Psychology at City Colleges and Dean of the College of Progressive Education, says introducing children to new languages before they even start primary school is a great idea.
“All children can learn another language at an early age and it’s a wonderful gift to give to them,” he says. “The young brain, before the age of 5, is able to learn to speak another language without developing an accent — to speak it like a native.
“And when a foreign language it taught in a fun and engaging style, without an obsessive focus on grammar, it opens the world to them. While learning any skill builds confidence and self-esteem, language learning is intrinsically rewarding to children.” The experienced psychologist says incorporating a new language into your child’s everyday life in an engaging fashion is the best way to create interest.
“The best time to learn a foreign language is in the early years, but having said that it is important to realise that language learning can happen at any age so long as the method of instruction is fun, playful and focuses on communication as opposed to rote learning.
“I would encourage parents who have a second language to talk to their children in both, so they will gain essential information about the wider world — make language learning fun and engaging — you and your children will never regret it.”
Elena Heriquez has done just that. Living in Dublin with her husband James Adams and their daughter Amy, the stay-at-home mum is originally from the Canary Islands and therefore a fluent Spanish speaker. Her nine-year-old daughter, on the other hand, has lived her whole life in Ireland where very few people have more than a few words of the language.
But since she was born, Amy has heard both English and Spanish and in order for her to become proficient in the latter; her parents have been sending her to classes since she was four.
“As a Spanish person living in Ireland it was very important that my daughter can speak to her grandparents in Spanish,” says Elena. “I introduced Amy to it from birth as when children are young, their brains absorb everything quicker. I spoke and read to her in Spanish, played Spanish music and watched Spanish cartoons with her, so by four Amy spoke two languages in the same way.”
But in order to be truly fluent, the little girl would also need to be able to write proficiently, so began taking weekly classes — the result being that now at aged nine she is as fluent in Spanish as she is in English.
“I wanted Amy to learn to read and write Spanish but especially to understand the grammar to the same level of Spanish children her age,” says Elena. “She has been attending weekly classes as well as camps since she was four (in order for her to practice with other children) and now reads and writes like a Spanish child — so is completely bilingual.
“It’s easy for children to learn more than two or three languages when they are young — in comparison to when I came here first and it took me ages to learn English — for my daughter it has come naturally.”
Cristina González is the founder of Olé School of Languages which teaches children as young as three, and their recently started parent and toddler group allows younger tots to be exposed to new and different languages through the medium of songs, rhymes, stories, role-play and activities.
González, who has been teaching for over a decade, agrees with Dr Carey and says children learn better when they are younger, particularly if classes are fun.
“Kids are like sponges and can remember words, phrases and songs they hear in a fun environment,” she says. “Also the ‘speech muscles’ are not completely developed yet and are more versatile so can adapt to producing new sounds (such as language). That’s why when a child says a word in a foreign language their pronunciation is more pure than the adult who struggles to produce the same information with a native accent.
“I would recommend parents to expose children to a foreign language before they are three, but if this isn’t possible, start when they are four or five but don’t leave it longer as the acquisition of a new language becomes harder as they get older.”
The One Voice for Languages group is promoting the importance and benefits of language learning for Ireland and their second language fair (open to representatives from all levels of the education system) takes place on March 11 in Dublin.
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