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Young learners

May 20, 2010 16 comments

Just the other day, a post from Views From the White Board caught my eye. In her post, Teresa was questioning the validity of exams for young learners. I am aware that many people from the blogosphere teach young learners, so I decided to write this post to ask for some help to answer some questions I’ve always had regarding young learners (YL).

The first thing that comes to mind when I think about YL is whether we’re talking about English as a Second Language (ESL) or English as a Foreign Language (EFL). If we consider the former, it does make all sense in the world to teach YL. When it comes to the latter, not so much, at least for me. Briefly speaking, in an ESL context, the child is surrounded by English speakers 24/7 (maybe not at home) and all people this child runs into are potential ‘teachers’. There’s also the survival motive (“Eu quero água” is unlikely to be understood, for instance, which forces the child to remember the “I want water” equivalent) and this means the child has got to learn the language in order to, well, survive. In an EFL environment, there’s no survival motive, and the child is only required to productively use the target language for about 2 hours a week. Is this enough? And even then, if the child resorts to his or her native language, the teacher and his or her classmates are likely not only to understand, but also to respond positively to it.

I’ve heard some people comparing the minds of children to sponges… funny, though, as it is as easy for sponges to absorb water as it is for them to have this water squeezed out. I mean, there are so many things going on around an infant, so many different learning opportunities, that they’re likely to forget most of what they learnt in a 1 hour class compared to what they learn on the other 15 hours of the day they are awake, times 7 days a week. Oh, and don’t forget most English classes for children usually last between 2 to 3 hours a week.

I’ve read some research, and there are also some thoughts in Brown’s “Principles of Language Learning and Teaching” and Ur’s “A Course in Language Teaching” that corroborate the view that children aren’t the best foreign language learners. As a matter of fact, it seems that adolescents are the best language learners, and even adults might learn better than children as they’re aware of their learning strategies – the only area that children outperform them being pronunciation.

But then comes (OK, came… last year) a neuro-surgeon on Brazilian TV saying that the brain of a 5 year-old child is ready to learn a foreign language. It may even be ready, I won’t argue with that. However, how much of what is done in English classes for YL in a foreign environment isn’t simply a reproduction of what is done in an ESL environment? This question is also extended to all sorts of language classes. What works for one doesn’t necessarily work for the other, in my humble opinion.

Other questions that spring to mind are: how long does a child who starts studying English in a foreign country take to be able to reach C1 level according to the CEF (Common European Framework of Reference for languages)? Is it really that much sooner than someone who starts at the age of 11? Is it really cost effective for parents to pay for 5 years of a language course to gain 1 semester (if so) by the time of graduation? How can we adapt what’s best from ESL classes for YL to suit EFL classes? Are we even ready to do so? How do you cope with abstract concepts when the child isn’t cognitively prepared to understand such concepts?

As a final thought, I have to say I’m in favour of teaching a foreign language to YL if parents speak that foreign language and interact with the child using that language. And the reason I stressed ‘interact’ is just because I don’t believe mere exposure is a sufficient condition for language learning – first, second, third or whatever language. I’m also not thinking about the exceptions, but about the vast majority. I’ve seen one or two children who developed incredibly fast, but I’m thinking about the other 10 or 20 thousand children who didn’t.

I’d love to hear your say and get some answers to my questions.

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