Language focus | 25.02.2010

Early learning: the rise of multilingual and bilingual foreign language schemes for children

From Chile to Scotland, the prevalence and popularity of pre-school language programmes are booming as the professional, cultural and educational benefits brought about by the ability to speak another language are becoming more apparent. Coupled with research work carried out by academic and European institutions into multilingualism and its effects, these pioneering schemes are taking the world by storm.

In Chile it is English language classes which are on offer, whilst in Scotland the language du jour is French. On 15 February, the Santiago Times reported on the increased demand of language classes for pre-school children. As a result, many bilingual kindergartens for children between the ages of three and four have sprung up across the country. Such is the demand that long waiting lists are commonplace and the Instituto Norteamericano (ICHN) – one of the forerunners in the field of bilingual education for children – has had to open a January summer school to cope with the high number of applicants. Parents hope that learning English at this early age will boost their child’s chances of entering one of the many bilingual primary schools.

Over in Europe meanwhile, Piccolingo has received similar acclaim. This European Commission incentive is aimed at ‘raising parents’ awareness of the benefits of early language learning and providing practical information and support.’ Parents have been embracing the scheme wholeheartedly and one particular success story has been making national headlines in the UK. Piccolingo launched an international Facebook competition in December 2009 whereby parents submitted their innovative ideas for teaching foreign languages to young children. The winner was Lingobaby, a company founded by Fiona Moffat – a modern languages teacher in Scotland. Wanting to introduce her son to foreign languages at an early age and faced with a distinct lack of appropriate services, she set up Lingobaby which offers children from birth to 5 years old the opportunity to experience foreign languages. The rest is history: the first Children’s Language Centre in Scotland was launched in 2008 offering free play sessions with bilingual toys, games, songs, stories and sensory activities through the medium of French. There is also lingo homeplay which offers multilingual toys, CDs and musical instruments in French German, Italian, Spanish and Polish languages. (The link between language and music was also highlighted in an article published by the Independent on Sunday, when it was reported that playing a musical instrument could ‘help youngsters better process speech in noisy classrooms and more accurately interpret the nuances of language that are conveyed by subtle changes in the human voice.’)

For governmental schemes, a bilingual education scheme in Spain is underway and is supported by the Spanish Ministry of Education, regional governments and the British Council. Around 700 state schools are involved and a curriculum in English and Spanish is provided to children aged between 3 and 16. Lessons take place in English and Spanish on alternate days and the programme has proved to be immensely popular nationwide since its inception with both stakeholders and participants alike.

For academic institutions, research into childhood multilingualism also abound. One example is the University of London, Birkbeck, who are holding a conference in March 2010 entitled ‘Bringing up bilingual and multilingual children.’ The Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication are to host the event which will cover such themes as the best way for children to learn languages with the least amount of stress; early years learning and language development; and multilingual schooling. Experts in the fields of bilingual education, sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics and speech and language therapies will be in attendance, along with parents and grandparents who have experience of raising children multilingually.

Early learning linguistic schemes are proving popular worldwide and with all the exciting developments in multilingualism, it would appear that foreign language teaching to children is certainly doing its part to break down global language barriers.

Sources: BBC;;

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