by the Editor Today's children need to learn more than ABCs and 123s to thrive as future leaders - they should also learn a foreign language, according to experts. Learning languages helps increase listening ability, memory, creativity and critical thinking - all of which are thinking processes that increase learning in general.
Experts agree that learning a foreign language is one of the four key elements of global competence - a 21st century imperative that includes knowledge and understanding of international issues, appreciation of diverse cultural backgrounds, and skills to compete in an interdependent world community.
When should children start learning a foreign language?
Lynn Redmond, editor of the book “Teacher to Teacher: Model Lessons for K-8 Foreign Language” has said that children should start learning a foreign language in the first year of school and continue through high school. “Becoming fluent in foreign language takes years, although children tend to absorb foreign languages more easily than older students and adults”, she says.
Starting early can translate into an advantage in the work force, too. Gaining the level of proficiency needed to communicate with people around the world in other languages takes years. “The work force has an increased demand for people who can speak foreign languages at a sophisticated level”, she says. “This is not limited to the corporate world. Employers are looking for mechanics, social workers and medical professionals, too.”
Petra Turmisov, of Petra Lingua online children’s language programs agrees. “We live in a global, rapidly changing world, and in a multicultural society. Understanding other cultures enhances tolerance among people,” she says. “The longer a person is in contact with a new language, the higher levels of proficiencies in that language they can develop, so it is highly recommended for children to start learning a new language at an early age.”
Parents are becoming more aware of the value of early language to the cognitive learning of the child. In an effort to instil these skills in their children, more parents are seeking out foreign language classes that begin even before their children are of school age.
Professor Laura-Ann Petitto, of Dartmouth University acknowledges there is a view held by many that a second language shouldn't be introduced until a child has a firm grasp of a primary language. "Often people think that later bilingual exposure is safer, but we found that early bilingual exposure is better," says Petitto.
Petra Turmisov says that the Petra Lingua online language programs for kids are designed for children of all ages. (See member competition below). She explains that a baby’s brain can distinguish many more different spoken sounds than are present in their native language. “As our language skills develop, we start recognizing only the sounds that are typical for our language. Young children are still capable of learning new languages easily and without an accent, and that leads to better listening skills and a sharper memory and retention.”
“However, the key advantage to learning languages early results from children’s natural sense of curiosity. It motivates them to learn a new language without any effort, by exploring, just like they do in their first language,” she says. Turmisov also believes that starting early will make it much easier to later learn a third or even fourth language, since the child is able to understand how the functions and structures of a language are organized in general.
Are there other benefits to learning a language?
New research has also shown that learning a language may subtly change, and possibly improve, the way we think. Professor Vivian Cook of Newcastle University has spent several years investigating the benefits of knowing two languages. In addition to developing thinking skills, foreign language study exposes children to other ways of looking at the world, he says.
The language we speak represents the world in a certain way, depending on the language’s vocabulary. One example is the words used to describe shades of colour, where certain words exist in some languages and not in others. So when an English speaker learns Italian he must learn to think about colours differently in order to use the correct word.
There is also evidence that:
• Students who have had several years of foreign language do better on exams, particularly the verbal part.
• Language learning enhances mathematical skill development, particularly in the area of problem solving.
• Learning another language can enhance knowledge of English structure and vocabulary since the child gains better understanding of how language itself works.
• Language learning contributes to the development of creative thinking skills such as applies to social studies.
Though many primary schools in Australia offer foreign language tuition, others do not. This is an area being examined as part of the pending introduction of an Australian National Curriculum, and the form it will take has not yet been finalised.
In the meantime, parents keen to get their kids started on learning a new language can explore the various online or outside of school-hours options. Or alternatively, toys and language games are available from specialty shops. For younger children, using games, stuffed animals, puppets, giant storybooks and other visual, hands-on approaches work well in teaching languages.
Learning languages should be fun. When presented in an interesting and attractive way, it is an enjoyable learning activity. And because a child’s first learning successes are often achieved with little or no noticeable effort, this builds the child’s self-confidence and their desire to learn continues.
WIN! Enter the 'Petra Lingua' Competition, for your chance to WIN one of three one-month subscriptions to the online children's language program of your choice.
Ends March 16, 2012. Click here.
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