school of thought

learning a second language

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There are many misconceptions regarding bilingualism and the learning of a second language and therefore some parents hearing misleading myths are concerned about how to help their child become bilingual - if they are going about it the right way and even if a second language should be introduced at an early age. Will the use of two languages cause cognitive and social damage? By learning a second language, will a child’s mother tongue be at risk? The answer to both questions is a resounding NO! If there is one thing that the experts in the field agree upon is this: that being exposed to and learning a second language does not have a negative effect on the young child’s first language. In fact, the quality of the first language is determined by the richness of the language used at home. Moreover, bilingualism seems to positively affect thinking and social development.

A young child acquiring a second language goes through the same process as in acquiring the first language. It is through interacting with the environment and the people in it, naturally and unconsciously, that a child’s language develops. Play opportunities, concrete experiences, adult praise and encouragement, a language-rich environment and adult language are all that is needed. To a child, language is all about communicating. They are thrilled and excited to give and receive information and ideas - language form is the last thing on their minds. Herein lays the advantage for a young child learning a second language, he or she acquires it - it is not learned. Just as with the first language, it is fun, there is no pressure and mistakes are not important.

Just as it is normal and natural for children to make mistakes, mix up words and mispronounce when acquiring the first language, so it is also a reflection of the same general language developmental patterns to do so when they are learning a second language. “Errors” and temporary mixing of languages are not signs of confusion and difficulty, and will correct themselves in time.

Language and play are the business of children, it is what they do! Also, learning a second language will not take time from other “Learning Time” - after all, time is one thing that children have and they use it well. Again, they acquire language while they are engaged in concrete learning experiences, while they are exploring, examining, playing, dancing, rhyming, singing, etc. These learning experiences are retained whether they are experienced in French or in English. Research has shown that learning experiences are transferred as ideas and understanding from one language to another.

The major concern of parents is that the learning of a second language will interfere with the still developing first language. It bears repeating that experts agree that learning a second language or being bilingual does not hinder first language development and eventual proficiency. Rather than being arduous, it is a very positive and rewarding experience. By starting young, children have the time to slowly develop their second language skills and to eventually become bilingual. They also have a definite advantage when it comes to pronunciation. The young child is able to pick up accurate and authentic pronunciation in two languages quite easily. Bilingualism is a value and learning a second language at a young age is ideal.

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