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Historical Misconception of Language Learning in Preschool Discredited
Historically, it has long been assumed that language teaching and learning was not suitable for young children in preschool (Vos, 2008); therefore, including a foreign language in preschool was never on early childhood practitioners' mind or agenda. However, recent studies such as the one undertaken by ELIAS (Early Language and Intercultural Acquisition Studies) on bilingual education and multicultural awareness in young children, showed that young children can learn a second language in preschool, some very successfully (Science Daily, 2009).
Teaching language in schools was once reserved for the secondary level. The introduction of foreign language in the primary grades is quite recent and is now rapidly expanding as many countries around the world include a foreign language in their curriculum. Most European countries are now teaching English in primary schools for example while England has also introduced French in its primary curriculum. African countries have long been using English and French as means of instruction in schools, which African children have come to grasp alongside their mother tongue or tribal language without difficulty (Cameron, 2001). Foreign language teaching and learning at a younger age is gaining international recognition and popularity and slowly reaching the early years.
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Why Include a Foreign Language in a Preschool Curriculum?
Young children have a natural ability to learn, with 50% of this ability being developed in the first few years of life, 30% by age eight (Kotulak, 1996). The first three to four years of life are considered the best time for children to learn a second language, and is as easy as acquiring knowledge in their first language (Vos, 2008). Why? Children are bound to assimilate new sounds and new utterances indiscriminately at that time regardless of whether it is their mother tongue or another language.
The benefits of learning a second language in preschool are numerous, and bound to positively impact children's present and future academic and professional lives. Second language acquisition is tightly linked to increased performance in areas of social and academic development such as verbal communication, mathematical development and reasoning skills. It is also linked to increasing young children's cultural awareness and understanding of differences.
Young children's attitude to languages is usually positive as they, unlike adults, do not feel self-conscious about the way they sound when uttering foreign languages' words. Moreover, many of today's young children's TV programs have popularized foreign languages while giving young children basic knowledge of foreign vocabulary. Dora the Explorer, Go, Diego, Go and Handy Manny for example, all support the teaching of the Spanish language and the Spanish culture, which teachers could explore further in the classroom, would they want to go ahead in including a foreign language in their setting. Likewise, Ni Hao Kai-Lan, teaches Chinese vocabulary.
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How to Include a Foreign Language in Preschool
Natural occurrences or informal environments optimize language learning, which can be fun to teach, hence its potential for success. Using pictures, imitation and repetition are all effective ways to teach foreign languages. There are several preschool language curriculum packages, which foreign languages teachers can choose from. A variety of well designed and thorough Spanish preschool curriculum packages for example, are available online at reasonable costs.
Immersion teaching is another method to teach language in preschool in which all teaching is done within the core subjects, rather than as a separate subject from the curriculum. The foreign language here governs all interactions, from giving instructions to actual teaching. It is extremely effective with young children and according to Dr Christina Shelletter from the University of Hertfordshire, it is "the best and most successful method of foreign language learning at an early age" (Science Daily, 2009). However, the latter is not suitable to just any preschool setting as it requires major adjustments including teachers' proficiency in the target language.
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Teaching Foreign Language in Preschool is the Way Forward
Living in a globalized world contributes to more people traveling for business or leisure purposes, and being exposed to foreign languages in one's lifetime is on the increase. Employment opportunities also testify for an increased need for foreign language skills. If the preschool years offer the most effective foreign language teaching results, then surely, language teaching should be made a priority and a compulsory component of the curriculum rather than an optional one.
Whichever way you choose to do it, if you do not yet teach a foreign language, do so! Whether as a subject of its own using an externally designed curriculum, or a partial or total immersion program, including a foreign language in your preschool setting is sure to benefit the children in your care. Moreover, as foreign language teaching in the early years is on the rise internationally, you won't be left behind or to let your children down!
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Cameron, L. 2001 "Teaching Languages to Young Children Around the World"
Kotulak, R. 1996 "Inside the Brain: Revolutionary Discoveries of How the Mind Works"
Science Daily, 2009 "Children Can Learn a Second Language in Preschool, Study Finds"
Multilingual Welcome Sign by Man Vyi http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Welcome_multilingual_Guernsey_tourism.jpg
Dora the Explorer by All of Olive http://www.flickr.com/photos/caitees_photography/4136490647/
Teaching Spanish by Using Action by Chris Bernstein http://www.wickedlocal.com/hanover/fun/recreation/x688582886?img=2#axzz1FM6SA4yl
Children's Globe by FogCityFog http://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/2796486907/