Kids tune in to new languages

East meets west: Ying Chun Xu teaching Chinese to Chappy, seven, left, Milly, five, and Harry Harvin, 10.

SHE has been in the spotlight since the day she was born so it’s not surprising that Suri Cruise has begun her academic life at one of the most prestigious schools in the US.

The six-year-old daughter of Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes started Avenues - the $40,000 a year school in New York - last month, and has reportedly already begun learning Mandarin.

Fellow actor Gwyneth Paltrow is also a believer in teaching children new languages while they are very young and recently admitted she only allows her children (Apple, eight, and Moses, six) to watch television in French or Spanish.

Many experts agree that exposing children to a second language while they are still at primary school is beneficial to their development long-term ability to learn new languages. And there are countless colleges and private courses across the country offering youngsters the chance to learn another tongue.

French and Spanish are currently the most popular classes but German is also in demand and, just like Suri Cruise, children in Cork, Dublin and other large towns across the country, can also take Mandarin lessons.

UCC offers various language courses for children and Dr Helena Buffery, from the Department of Hispanic Studies, says learning a second or even third language is vital for children’s development and the earlier they start the better.

“Learning foreign languages helps you to be more open and interact more effectively with people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds,” she says.

“This is becoming more and more important today as almost every career you can think of requires you to interact with people whose native language is not English.

“Recent research into cognitive development shows that starting languages early is also really important.

“Not only does it make it easier for you to understand and sound more like a native speaker, but it also expands your brain power. Every language you learn opens up networks in a new part of your brain.”

Mickael Lenglet, Youth Programmes Coordinator for Alliance Francaise, says through games, songs and interaction children of any age can learn a new language.

“According to researchers from University College London, people who learn a second language at a young age are likely to have more advanced grey matter than those who learn later,” he says.

“At the Alliance Française, we strongly believe this and now offer an innovative one-to-one programme between toddlers (aged one to four) and adults to enrich the child’s intellectual development and ability to be open-minded to other languages and cultures.

“Our communicative approach ensures that every child is given ample opportunity to speak French and we use different types of activities such as games, songs, drama and arts and crafts.”

Ying Xu Chun moved to Ireland from China in 2010 and currently offers Mandarin classes to children in Dublin and the south east. She says although Chinese languages can be difficult to learn, kids have better success than adults.

“I teach children aged between five and 10 years and currently run three classes a week,” she says.

“As Chinese is a tonal language, it is really difficult for adults to speak, but children pick it up really easily. A lot of the teaching materials I use are from China and the kids really enjoy the pictures and the stories which come with them.”

While most language classes cost from between €10 and €30 per hour, there are some courses available for free online — which may save your pocket, but do require parental supervision.

Sites such as and offer free language quizzes and courses for all ages.

Up until the end of the last school year, a pilot scheme was being run in 500 primary schools around the country offering 5th and 6th class students the opportunity to learn the basics of a foreign language.

This scheme was controversially phased out but a spokeswoman for the Department of Education says the system is under review.

According to the spokeswoman the Department is moving towards a curriculum where children are encouraged to transfer skills acquired in one language to other languages.

“This should allow children to scaffold their learning in two languages [Irish and English] to other languages in due course,” she said. .


The biggest cancer killer will take your breath away

Hopefully she had an idea...

Power of the press: Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks discuss 'The Post'

More From The Irish Examiner