Laying the foundations for second-language learning
As Myanmar develops stronger global links and opportunities increase for young people to travel, study and work abroad, learning second languages such as English and Mandarin will be of the utmost importance for children
IN today’s society, young children’s exposure to two or more languages is not unusual, but parents naturally have questions about how their children will learn a second language.
These concerns echo those of parents around the world: When should my child start learning English? Should he have a tutor? Surely my child is too young to learn English at three years old? How can she learn English at school if she is allowed to speak Myanmar with her friends? I only speak Myanmar, so how can I help my child to learn English at home?
For many of us the concept of second-language learning is based around our school days, when we learned vocabulary and grammar from textbooks with little opportunity to use the language in real-life situations, like simply ordering an ice cream.
To a certain extent, experts agree that the pattern of first-language learning is an expected part of a child’s development, something that happens naturally. Linguistics scholar Noam Chomsky believes that children are born with an inherited ability to learn any human language: “We are designed to walk … That we are taught to walk is impossible. And pretty much the same is true of language. Nobody is taught language. In fact, you can’t prevent the child learning it.”
Second-language learning shares some innate qualities of first-language learning, but there is ample evidence that a carefully planned learning environment makes the learning of a second language a richer and more relevant experience. For children to acquire a language with meaning rather than just imitation, it is important to surround them with more than one language at a very early age, through conversations and social groups using different languages.
Linguistics professor George Zhang of Richmond University states that second-language learning can be enriched at school through “being exposed to two languages and acquiring an additional language alongside peers in the school environment under professional guidance”.
While many children are exposed to two or more languages at home, for many a second language starts outside the home, in a multilingual setting such as a playgroup or nursery where children speak other languages. The period before a child starts formal schooling is critical to language development; this is when they are building their first-language skills through listening, imitating, talking with adults and playing with their peers. By providing an environment that is rich in learning opportunities both at home and at school, adults enable children to transfer these skills to learning a second or third language spontaneously.
Parents and teachers should celebrate the cultures of both languages in many ways – for instance, through cultural stories, songs, costumes in a role-play area, or photos of families. It is important to respect the cultural values of children when they are acquiring a second language so that they will feel proud of their heritage and confident to explore a second language and culture. In developing children’s skills in second-language learning, consideration of the cultural values of our children’s families is critical to understanding the wide variety of cultures they represent, outside the classroom and within the unique Myanmar context.
From four years old, children should be in small groups according to their level of first- and second-language learning – this supports their individual progress – but whether the learning is planned or unplanned the children will be engaged and happy.
The benefits of second-language learning are wide-ranging. The cognitive and social advantages of learning a second language from a young age are well documented. Starting to learn a second language at an early age lays the foundation for children to become confident multilingual adults. Learning should be well considered and children should experience a wide range of structured and unstructured learning opportunities both in and out of the classroom.
An approach to second-language learning can be based on four stages of language acquisition, aiming to extend, nurture, develop and encourage children by understanding each stage of their learning. This starts with a silent phase, when they are observing and absorbing the new language, through to stage four, when they are fluent enough to answer complex questions.
At the heart of this philosophy is the relationship between the adults in the learning environment: Teachers and parents should work closely together, sharing their knowledge of the child’s language development. The quality of communication between teachers and parents can give a deeper meaning to language learning. This way there are a range of perspectives to transition the child into the classroom by gathering information about languages spoken at home and the parents’ views and experiences of language learning. If parents and practitioners share video clips of the children using language both at home and school they have a meaningful point of reference to support the child’s learning.
Finally, it is important to note that parents can help with one key aspect of language learning at home. It is essential to maintain the first language at home when a child is learning a second language. This way children will develop and remain secure in the language of their birth, giving them the confidence and skills to learn a new language.
Daryl Orchard is headmaster of Dulwich College Yangon and senior academic adviser to Pun Hlaing International School, Kate Beith is deputy director of schools for Dulwich College International (DCI), and Annabel Parker is