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

The Myanmar Times - - News - DARYL ORCHARD KATE BEITH ANNABEL PARKER news­room@mm­times.com

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

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