The Truth about Learning English as a Sec­ond Lan­guage


Special Focus - - Contents - Luc Pauwels 路跑

“When is the best time to start learning a sec­ond lan­guage?” I asked my col­league this morn­ing. It was a ques­tion like any other ques­tion. How was your break­fast this morn­ing? Which school are you send­ing your kids to? Ex­cept that my ques­tion re­quired a bit of re­flec­tion.

“I be­lieve that the ideal age to start learning English as a sec­ond lan­guage is around the age of four as kids can learn the for­eign lan­guage through games and play.” My col­league then re­turned.

I paused for a moment; there are a lot of mis­con­cep­tions among par­ents and ed­u­ca­tors about learning a sec­ond lan­guage, as many falsely be­lieve the ex­is­tence of crit­i­cal or sen­si­tive pe­ri­ods for sec­ond lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion.

The Montes­sori ped­a­gogy for ex­am­ple has built up their ed­u­ca­tion phi­los­o­phy com­pletely on sen­si­tive pe­ri­ods in learning a mother tongue. The sen­si­tive pe­riod for learning to speak has been fixed by Montes­sori to the pe­riod rang­ing from 7 months to 2.5-3 years of age, for writ­ing from it is 3.5 to 4.5 years of age, and for in­tensely read­ing 4.5 to 5.5.

You may now ask your­self if these sen­si­tive pe­ri­ods equally ap­ply to sec­ond lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion. What if you, as Chi­nese par­ents, use Chi­nese and English with your child at home? Will your child be able to speak English and Chi­nese well by the age of three? And what if your child starts learning English at Kin­der­garten; will he or she be able to write in English at the age of 5?

In my opin­ion, if there is a crit­i­cal pe­riod for learning English as a sec­ond

lan­guage, then it should be the pe­riod be­tween the age of three and thir­teen. Crit­i­cal? Sen­si­tive? Not at all.

So you bet­ter be­ware as there are no mag­i­cal tools in sec­ond lan­guage ac­qui­si­tion. Do not al­ways be­lieve those ad­ver­tise­ments telling us that we are only one sin­gle step away from be­com­ing an in­ter­preter in English, Ja­panese or Span­ish. They are a com­plete sham.

As an ex­pe­ri­enced ed­u­ca­tor who has been ac­tive in ed­u­ca­tion in China since 1999, I have seen too many chil­dren learning in­ten­sive English from the age of three on, and then, six or seven years later, not be­ing able to speak or write the most ba­sic sen­tences in English.

What is going wrong with the English- as- a- sec­ond lan­guage teach­ing in China? Has it be­come over-com­mer­cial­ized? Or did we miss out on some im­por­tant re­search in­for­ma­tion?

Stud­ies in gen­eral sug­gest that on a cog­ni­tive and aca­demic level, chil­dren who learn an ad­di­tional lan­guage are more cre­ative, bet­ter at solv­ing com­plex prob­lems. How­ever, from other re­search we know that there are some neg­a­tive as­pects with teach­ing for­eign lan­guages at early stages or at pre-school. At kin­der­garten level chil­dren are not yet fully de­vel­oped both phys­i­cally and men­tally, in which the in­struc­tion of a for­eign lan­guage can con­fuse chil­dren. This is es­pe­cially the case when English is taught and used at school only.

Re­search fur­ther re­veals that preschool kids need to de­velop dif­fer­ent types of in­tel­li­gence.

A Lin­guis­tic in­tel­li­gence, for ex­am­ple, refers to read­ing, writ­ing and com­mu­ni­cat­ing with words; while a Log­i­cal- Math­e­mat­i­cal In­tel­li­gence is all about rea­son­ing and cal­cu­lat­ing; And then we have Musical In­tel­li­gence, Vis­ual-Spa­tial In­tel­li­gence, Kines­thetic In­tel­li­gence, So­cial In­tel­li­gence, Nat­u­ral In­tel­li­gence, and In­tro­spec­tive In­tel­li­gence, about the abil­ity to know one’s in­ner feel­ings, wants and needs.

So, why should we over-em­pha­size our chil­dren’s Lin­guis­tic In­tel­li­gence? Isn’t it rec­om­mended to de­velop all types of in­tel­li­gence at kinder­garte­nage? And why not link all these in­tel­li­gences to teach­ing and play with a sec­ond and pos­si­bly even a third lan­guage.

At More­ton First, an elite school in North­ern Shrop­shire in the UK, the fo­cus is on sev­eral for­eign lan­guages in­stead of only one sin­gle for­eign lan­guage.

Spo­ken English is be­ing prac­ticed

and en­hanced through songs, sto­ries, rhymes, and role play.

French lan­guage then comes in, without the chil­dren even re­al­iz­ing that they are learning an­other for­eign lan­guage, fol­low­ing story book ad­ven­tures in French, us­ing the mu­sic and drama, singing along French songs.

Next, Mr. NiHao walks into the class­room, en­gag­ing the chil­dren in games us­ing Chi­nese greet­ings and phrases through play and dance.

Fi­nally, pre-school aged chil­dren move to a home cor­ner that is dot­ted with Span­ish la­bels, in which a flu­ent Span­ish teacher plays games with the chil­dren us­ing Span­ish words and phrases.

The prac­tice at More­ton is based on the un­der­stand­ing that the younger the learner, the bet­ter they are at mim­ick­ing new sounds and adopt­ing pro­nun­ci­a­tion. The brain is open to new sounds and pat­terns from var­i­ous for­eign lan­guages.

My ad­vice to par­ents of pre-school aged chil­dren is not to hurry your chil­dren into learning English as a for­eign lan­guage. Learning for­eign lan­guages re­quires plenty of time and prac­tice. At kin­der­garten, young chil­dren need time to learn through play-like ac­tiv­i­ties, with lan­guage lessons be­ing in­for­mal and play­ful.

We are not sup­posed to clut­ter your young chil­dren with facts to be stored and tested, but in­stead we should al­low your chil­dren to try out their newly ac­quired lan­guages without fear of em­bar­rass­ment.

From my ex­pe­ri­ence, I know that chil­dren who grow up learning about lan­guages de­velop em­pa­thy for oth­ers and a cu­rios­ity for dif­fer­ent cul­tures and ideas.

And to­wards for­eign teach­ers I would like to share some tips in teach­ing English, French, Span­ish, or even Chi­nese as a sec­ond lan­guage.

1. Learn by do­ing. Play gro­cery store, make a snack, or take a walk. While you are in­ter­act­ing with the chil­dren dur­ing these ac­tiv­i­ties, speak a sec­ond or third lan­guage.

2. Learning should be fun. The more fun it is to learn a lan­guage, the more a child will want to stay with it.

3. Learn with mu­sic and rhythm. Mu­sic is one way to use the whole brain. Do you still re­mem­ber the songs you learned in early child­hood?

4. Learn with lots of move­ment. The brain and the body are one and ac­tu­ally we learn more when we move as we learn.

5. Learn by touch­ing. Do lit­tle fin­ger rhymes in a sec­ond lan­guage

6. Learn by tast­ing. Learning by eat­ing foods and say­ing the food names in dif­fer­ent lan­guages

7. Learn by smelling. Hide ob­jects in a bag, and have the chil­dren guess what is in­side. En­cour­age them to say the new word in one of the for­eign lan­guages.

I wish you all a bue­nas dias / Yoi ichinichi o

/ Schö­nen Tag noch

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