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Chapter 4     How Young Children Learn
                     a new Language

Second Language Learning: A Complex Process

Most children have a first language - the one that is used in their home and which they are beginning to learn before they reach the age of three.

Simultaneous and Sequential Bilingualism

Some families use more than one language at home so their children are exposed to two or more languages from birth.  This is known as simultaneous bilingualism.

Sequential bilingualism applies when a child, usually older than three, begins to learn a second language after being exposed to a first language.

Simultaneous Bilingualism

In some families, the father will speak one language while the mother's main language is different.  If the mother speaks to the child in, say, Thai, and the father uses English, the child has a way of identifying the two languages and keeping them separate.

On the other hand, many families are equally at home in and use more than one language in their normal conversations in the home.

Toddlers exposed to two languages progress through several steps:

Step 1 - Combining languages

Children who grow up with two languages often combine the languages in their own juvenile manner of communicating.   A toddler with Thai and English parents may call a "kitty cat" a "maew". The Thai word for cat is the same as the sound cats make.  Children (and adults) often use words from both languages in the same sentence.

Step 2 - Imitation

In the next step, by the age of three, the child is beginning understand the two languages, to format them separately and to respond to a question or command in the same language.

In this step, the toddler will be listening and imitating what he or she hears and sees.   This may include words or short phrases, speech patterns and mannerisms. Doing so is an instinctive method of learning to communicate in the same way as a child's peers and elders.

Step 3 - Proportion

In a home where two languages are used in equal proportions, a child will progress to the point where he or she has a good facility with both languages.  It is possible however that the child may 'prefer' one language over the other for any number of reasons and so that language could dominate the child's speech.   If the family uses one language more than the other, the child will usually follow a similar pattern of language development.

By the time a child from a bilingual family is ready to enter school, he or she should have a reasonably good command of vocabulary and grammar used in both languages.  Such a facility will help him or her to develop a more open mind and an understanding that there could be more than one answer to a problem.

Sequential Bilingualism

By the time a child from a unilingual family is three, he or she should have a rudimentary knowledge of his or her first language.  Knowing how to communicate will benefit the child as he or she is now faced with learning a second language. He or she may not know the words, but will have a general idea of how communication works.

Steps Of Sequential Language

In learning anything new, a person/child receives new knowledge and applies it to what they already know to form new conclusions.

Step 1  Exploration

Possibly the family has moved to another country * where a different language is used.  In order to play, make friends, and learn, a child must suddenly learn a new language and a whole new set of rules.

Until the child learns enough of the new language to be able to communicate, non-verbal communication will play a large role.  Every new word he or she learns will open up more opportunities for the child.   Attempting to guess what is going on will also be a big part of the early routine. At that age level, motivation should be high.

* In Canada, e.g., if a family moves to the Province of Quebec (such as a job transfer from elsewhere in Canada, USA or abroad), with a few limited exceptions, children have to be placed into a French school.

Step 2  Go for it

In the second step, the child has become familiar enough with the new language to attempt short sentences. Communicating is more important that correct grammar and the two languages may sometimes get mixed.   The child may revert to his or her first languages when they come to a word they need but don't know.  This is a natural reaction.  Sometimes it may work, sometimes not.  Children who are not afraid of making a mistake will do better than those who have to be letter perfect when they speak.  At younger ages, children don't care so much if they make mistakes. They are too busy trying to have fun.

Step 3  Proficiency

Exposure to a new language is not enough.  A language must be used in order to be understood and remembered.  If the child is using the new language everyday, possibly studying one or more subject, it will be a matter of time before proficiency develops.  Just as he or she learned her first language by imitating others, learning new vocabulary and applying grammatical rules, the child will do the same in the new language.

Patterns of Language Use in Second Language Learners

Many children who are second language learners are thought to be language-delayed when, in fact, they are demonstrating normal second language characteristics.

The following characteristics are commonly seen in second language learners:

Quiet beginning

Some children may seem reluctant to speak in a second language.  While this could relate to shyness, it is often a period of adjustment or listening where a child is trying to rationalize this whole new learning experience in which he or she is suddenly being asked to participate.  It is natural to want to develop some knowledge in the language before attempting to communicate in it.  Ensure that you speak to these children, and respond to any communication.  Often a quiet child will surprise you with the extent of their knowledge when they do decide to start talking.

Combining languages

Children often use words from both languages in one sentence.  (Bilingual adults do the same thing!)  Communication is more important than accuracy.  So, do not correct this.  Respond with understanding  and feed the communication back to the student, reformatted into English.

From a young girl learning three languages : “I have one maew at mein hausen.Elt;/FONT>
Teacher: “Really?  I have two cats at my house!  What’s your cat’s name?Elt;/FONT>

Loss of the first language

'Use it or lose it' as the expression goes.  Being dumped into a new culture where one's own language is not used may very well cause a child to lose a grip on its first language.  It is important that exposure to the first language is maintained at home and in other situations wherever possible in order to prevent a dropping in understanding and first language vocabulary.

New language - Old Rules

Anyone learning a second language will make many grammatical errors until they figure out all the rules of the language. Applying first language rules to the second language will cause many of the grammatical errors children make. A teacher who is familiar with the child's first language will come to quickly recognize this pattern.  Once the student is confident in their ability to communicate, the teacher can help the student to understand these differences, a little at a time.

Support Second Language Learners

Children who come to kindergarten speaking little or no English may initially feel  confused and possibly frightened by all the activity around them in a language they do not comprehend. This is where a capable, caring, smiling teacher can make a difference as you guide their learning through this beginning ESL stage.

It is essential at this stage for teachers to focus on confidence and comfort building.  Identify and teach the language for essential communication first, so that children can get their basic needs met.  Make guessing games and charades a part of everday routines to encourage children to attempt to communicate in any way they can.  Success builds success.

Is there another child who speaks the same first language?  If so, sit them together. If not, use your judgement to match the newcomer with a classmate with whom you think he or she will be compatible. If the atmosphere in your classroom is light and fun, the new child will take charge of his or her own communication - with your able guidance.

Promote the Use of the Child's First Language at Home and at Kindergarten

One school of thought says that the best way for a child to learn a new language is to use only that language.  Recently, academics are saying that a comprehensive understanding of a child's first language will be beneficial in the acquisition of a new language.  At the younger ages, this is probably quite accurate.  Until a child has their first language cemented in, constant exposure to a second language with no or very little use of the first language can cause rapid erosion of vocabulary and rules in that first language.

This is why it is important for the child to at least continue to communicate in his or her prime language at home.  It is vital also that continued learning take place in the first language.  Younger aged children understand their own language enough to communicate but they really only have a fundamental command of that language.  Every language has idioms, expressions, nuances, rules and exceptions. Without learning these, a child will have little opportunity to appreciate literature, plays, films and music in the language of its birth.

ESL Fundamentals for Young Learners

1. Keep new language experiences brief with achievable goals. Young children forget and/or get distracted very easily, and it's easy to lose their attention.

2. Be sure the language experience is easy and that everyone can participate.  Young
kids give up very easily if something seems too hard or too much trouble.  Provide activities that build from very easy to more challenging in small steps.

3. Make the language experience age-appropriate and concrete. We wouldn't ask a five-year old to explain the migration of birds, but we would ask that child to sing and act out a predictable, repetitious song about "Five Little Ducks."

4. 4. Language experiences should be MUSICAL, taking advantage of the young child's natural interest in listening and moving to the "melody" of language, and in singing and chanting. Young children are happy to perform pieces they really like over and over again.

5. Language experiences should be kinesthetic, taking advantage of the young child's need to move and make noise while moving! Kinesthetics also involve drawing, building models, game-playing, miming, acting out stories in play form, etc.

6. Language experiences should be open to innovation, taking advantage of the young child's rich imagination and willingness to pretend, experiment, and discover. Children can and will write their own versions of fingerplays, chants, songs and stories, if given the chance. That creative process leads to true "ownership" of the language, and to joyful learning.

(See the Chapter 12 on Music for some age-appropriate ideas)

Be Understood

The most important thing about talking to a child who is learning English as a second language is to be sure that your students understand you.

If you watch a foreign language film on TV and you don't understand what is being said, what happens?  You get frustrated, bored, and before long you look for something else to do, right?  Your students are no different.  Children will learn only if they can make sense of what they hear. If they cannot understand you, they cannot learn from you. Keep it simple!  Make yourself interesting for young children to listen to and provide information that the children can understand and learn from.

Teachers can make learning English easier for children by providing repetition, keeping their speech simple and highlighting the important words. Teachers who are able to make young learners feel comfortable and happy to be in class go a long way towards helping the children to learn and to communicate effectively in their new language.

Make sure that your children can understand you!
 -  Keep it simple.
 -   Make yourself interesting.
 -  Use repetition.
 -  Highlight important words
 -  Use visual aids to get meaning across. (Flashcards, role plays, exaggerated non-verbal communication.)
 -  Establish routines.

English teachers who work with native English speakers often use the “explain and discussEmodel.


Chapter 5
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