Recently, the Education Secretary proposed starting the teaching of foreign languages at age five: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2011/sep/30/michael-gove-teaching-languages-conference?newsfeed=true
The idea would be very welcome amongst many parents, who see how their friends of bilingual families manage for their children to speak two or more languages fluently and without an accent if started early.
With English being the second most-widely spoken language and the world’s ‘lingua franca’, sometimes it is easy to underestimate the importance of being fluent in another language. But surely you’ve seen families where the father is, say, German, the mother Greek, they live in the UK, and the multiple languages work beautifully: the children speak German to Dad, Greek to Mum, and English to their local acquaintances. But how is this achieved?
In bilingual and multilingual families, this happens automatically as the child is exposed to the different languages in daily life, in all situations. But those of us who only speak one language at home but would like our offspring to start learning a second one, need to find another way.
The good news is that, given the young child’s strong capacity to learn by imitation, s/he won’t really need formal lessons until after about 8 or 9 years of age. So long as they hear the language from a native speaker (who will pass on the right pronunciation and grammar naturally) and they are engaged in the learning process through age-appropriate activities such as games and songs, they will very quickly pick up another language without effort.
Here’s a very good summary of the advantages of bilingualism: http://www.wfbilingual.org.uk/guide-for-parents/advantages-of-bilingualism.html
We support the Education Secretary’s proposal, and would actually like to see foreign languages feature in the Early Years curriculum, when the brain has the maximum capacity for imitation and flexibility. So Small Beginnings will be offering French and Spanish through song and games in London and Lewes (East Sussex) soon. Stay tuned!
By Maria Montoya