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Reflections Magazine : Reflections Magazine Issue 54
17 Young children and second languages There are many ways for children to learn two languages - the languages can be learnt simultaneously (usually from birth), or a second language can be learnt after learning the first (usually after three years of age). Within both groups, there are some who have many opportunities to practise both languages (e.g. a child who learns a second language at home that can also easily be used with an extended network of people and in a variety of places, or a child who migrates to a new country) and those who have fewer opportunities to use the language (e.g. a child who uses a minority language at home with one parent and can thus sometimes understand this language but not speak it, or a child learning through formal schooling). Interestingly, despite these differences, young children are viewed as "easy learners" who learn rapidly, with little effort and in a similar manner. The process of learning for them however is influenced by individual learner factors including age, aptitude, personality traits, attitudes and motivation, individual learning techniques, situational factors like the different scenarios described before, cultural styles of learning and teaching environments (usually language schools or lessons at home or school). Consequently, not all children will learn a second language quickly but, inevitably, in the long-term, there are important benefits in starting early. Young children "are better at hearing and producing new sounds" (Lotherington, 2000: 20) and will generally have more time to practise and more years of exposure to the second language, thus allowing them to build an academic proficiency in that language. Most researchers agree that, in the long run, early starters become more proficient (Singleton, 2002) and do better in all aspects of language use (Rado, 1991). The multiple benefits of learning two languages (or more) Speaking more than one language is associated with linguistic and non-linguistic benefits. Research shows that individuals who are competent in more than one language - in comparison to monolinguals - have superior: • concept formation (general reasoning, divergent and creative thinking and problem-solving abilities, analytic orientation to language, superior semantic development, linguistic awareness, categorization skills, etc.); • cognitive flexibility (i.e. the ability to adjust thinking to cope with different situations and/or respond to stimuli); and • symbolic and visual-spatial skills. Even learners with limited contact with a second language, show more positive attitudes to other languages and the people and culture of those who speak them and also have "greater flexibility in adapting to new linguistic systems" (Moore, 2006: 135). The latter, can help explain why Yelland, Pollard and Mercuri (1993: 423) found that young children in a primary school in Melbourne who received Italian classes for one hour per week for six months at school had a "significantly higher level of word awareness than their monolingual counterparts" , which was likely to advance the age of reading readiness in English (the first language for this particular group of students). So, in brief, individuals who learn two languages or more, not only become knowledgeable in another culture and way of communicating, but they also gain all the multiple fascinating benefits I have listed. And, to top it all, bi(multi)lingualism is steadily becoming "critical to [societies'] economic success, national security, and international relations" (Rhodes & Pufahl, 2009). The misconceptions about bilingualism Research keeps getting better for second language learners. So, shouldn't we be pushing for child care centres, kindergartens and schools to ensure a high quality provision of second language teaching for our children? Yes, but given the questions that I get asked, it seems clear to me that many of the misconceptions that surround bilingualism are based on outdated studies from the first half of the 20th century. In brief, these studies were mostly done in the United States and compared bilingual immigrants with monolinguals, without controlling socioeconomic variables or considering differences on the level of bilingualism between participants. These flawed studies 'demonstrated' that bilinguals had less verbal abilities and vocabulary, and less competence in written work. Some studies even suggested negative effects like "mental confusion, intellectual retardation, academic difficulties and emotional problems" (cited in Makin et al., 1995: 38). As a result, bilingualism was wrongly associated with language (and developmental) delays and confusion. It is unfortunate that some of these misconceptions still prevail, even though current research has highlighted the inconsistencies of these findings and proved multiple individual and cultural benefits. Final Thoughts If you have contact with children who are learning a different language at home, I would encourage you to support this, learn more about the process (and the options depending on the number of languages spoken and the opportunities to use these languages outside the home) and use facts to counteract any negative feedback. If you are interested in languages, try to get children started early, pay close attention to the local primary school's LOTE (languages other than English) program and make sure to advocate for it. These programs are sadly, to date, the dispensable parts of the curriculum, despite the outstanding advantages explained here. When it comes to second language in Australia, we (families, second language teachers and advocates) need to ensure these get the place they should have in children's lives, and in the early childhood/ primary and secondary curriculum. References Lotherington, H. (2000). What's bilingual education all about? A guide to language learning in today's schools. Melbourne: Language Australia Ltd. Makin, L., Campbell, J., & Jones Diaz, C. (1995). Growing up bilingually. In L. Makin, J. Campbell & C. Jones Diaz (Eds.), One childhood many languages. Pymble: Harper Educational Publishers. Moore, D. (2006). Plurilingualism and strategic competence in context. International Journal of Multilingualism, 3(2), 125 - 138. Rado, M. (1991). Bilingual education. In A. Liddicoat (Ed.), Bilingualism and bilingual education. Melbourne: National Languages Institute of Australia. Rhodes, N. C., & Pufahl, I. (2009). Foreign language teaching in U.S. schools: Results of a national survey: Centre for Applied Linguistics. Singleton, D. (2002). The age factor in second language acquisition (2nd ed.). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters. Yelland, G., Pollard, J., & Mercuri, A. (1993). The metalingusitic benefits of limited contact with a second language. Applied Psycholinguistics, 14, 423 -- 444.
Reflections Magazine Issue 53 Summer 2013
Reflections Magazine Issue 55 Winter 2014