Why Start Them, Young? – Bilingual Blog

In 1996 the Spanish socialist government decided it was time to lay the foundations in order to build the next generation of multilingual children. The reason why I say multilingual and not bilingual is that in Spain not only is Castellano spoken but there are four other languages including Valenciano, Gallego, Euskera and Catalan.

El Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) took the innovative approach of inviting 45 British primary school teachers to work within their primary schools throughout Spain. Every year over a period of three years they would employ an extra teacher who would spend at least one hour a day teaching children from as young as three years old, the curriculum in English. I was part of that program and one of the first primary school teachers to travel to Spain in 1996. I spent my first year in a village school on the east coast of Palma that Mallorca. It was an effective approach indeed and did lay the foundations of developing the first of Spain’s multilingual English speaking children of the future, but the programme did not receive the publicity and recognition it deserved. Many of the 45 British primary teachers went to Spain very little knowledge of how to approach teaching English to early years children. I learned a lot in those three years while working on the program both in Mallorca and Oviedo in the north of Spain.

One of the first things I learned while teaching three-year-olds, that while challenging; it is in fact, the perfect age to start children on a second or third language. As I lived and worked in Majorca where they speak Mallorquin a Balearic version of Catalan, I realised that the Mallorquin children were also learning to speak Castellano simultaneously. I had to ask myself would learning a third language confuse these children? Absolutely not, children as young as three and four who were already developing in more than one mother or native tongue found learning a third language, a completely natural and part of the environment and their upbringing. Many of the children would move smoothly between Castellano and Mallorquin without a moment’s thought. The third language (English) was taught through the most natural way possible; games, songs, stories and rhymes and fun. Children in Early Years who are lucky enough to be given this opportunity, took to learning English as a natural part of their upbringing.

Of course, one hour a day’s English could never be equivalent to a mother and father’s input or a whole society speaking the host language to a child. All you can do in an hour is give the children the foundations of this new language and build on their existing knowledge of their first and second languages. But it is also important to trick the bilingual brain into making associations and present the language that you are teaching the children in a variety of ways so they can start building sentences, express themselves and even make simple requests. In those days there were very few printed materials to help teach children English, but many of the editorial companies such as Santillana, Cambridge and Oxford were well developed in showing many of the teachers methodologies in which we could take real stories and elicit all kinds of games, activities and language from real books.

It was a magical time indeed of language learning.  I went on to work for two years in a bilingual school where Spanish children only spoke English throughout the school day, I realised that given the opportunity any child whatever their ability or mother tongue can acquire a second or third language with ease.

I returned to the UK in 2001 with all the skills of a primary language practitioner, but it was an environment in which primary language learning was just not the done thing. I was given the opportunity to do a few sessions for a Year 5 class, while they enjoyed learning Spanish as a treat at the end of the day I came across a lot of resistance from other teachers. They felt that despite all my experience teaching English in Spain my methodologies did not fit with their way of teaching.

In 2003 I left teaching to study a Masters in IT, and I went on to be an equality trainer and national Prevent advisor within the police and some years after that a policy advisor within the Home Office. In 2015 I decided to take voluntary redundancy from the Home Office, and think about an alternative career. As I was a bilingual English Spanish speaker with primary teaching experience, I decided to start my own early years and primary language teaching company Alhambra Spanish for Kids. I attended a teaching Spanish to young learner’s course at the Cervantes Institute in London and felt very inspired by the methodologies adopted by some of the most renowned experts in teaching Spanish to young learners throughout the UK and Spain. They indeed also used songs, games, rhymes and real stories. Their methodologies are inspirational, and they encourage children to engage with the language and build on their basic knowledge, laying down the foundations of being more competent language learners when they reach secondary school.

I now have about 70 children in both schools, nurseries and after-school clubs, all doing incredibly well in their language learning journey. With new technology, I have been able to create music videos with stories, songs and online flashcards. A lot of the resources can be made using very simple video software technology and also by commissioning original music from online services such as Fiverr. Making a Word Press website and displaying videos and sharing your material on social media such as YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and even creating your own DVDs is also a way in which you can enhance the language learning journey of young language learners.

Half an hour to an hour a week in the target language is not always enough to make up for the amount of language a child will learn from the variety of sources from the mother tongue. However, you can do what is possible to make that half an hour or one hour count. When children are in early years, and primary allowing them to sing, dance, chant and play their way through as much language as possible is the best way forward. Of course, there has to be consistency, a huge amount of repetition, you need to build and build again on the basic language that they have learnt and presented it in a variety of ways that will have purpose and meaning.

Children need to learn a language that means something, so expressing themselves, explaining things, making requests and learning vocabulary they are likely to use in everyday life is the best way forward. But most important of all especially when they’re only three years old is to allow the children to relax, sit back, enjoy and absorb the language without any stress or pressure of actually producing the language until they are ready. This is called the silent period. Some educational practitioners and even parents want results immediately, that does not happen because the young bilingual brain needs to absorb all the new vocabulary, process it and when it’s ready the child will begin to produce in the target language. Any interference with that silent process, forcing a child to produce the target language when they are not ready can have negative consequences on the child’s attitude towards learning the foreign language. Some educational practitioners force the child because they are not bilingual themselves and do not understand the process or the experience of the child who is absorbing at their own pace. Every child is different some children will produce quickly, and other children need time. As long as the methodology is consistent and language rich and teaches the target language through songs, games, rhymes and stories. The child at some point will not only produce they will have laid the foundations of being bilingual for life.

The UK still does not understand the value of bilingualism even though we are a country that does not only speak English there are many communities throughout the British Isles where being bilingual is, in fact, the norm and has been for centuries. Policymakers just do not understand that antiquated attitudes, undermining other languages other than English and lack of investment in teaching languages are going to hold back children within this country for decades to come. On the one hand, they want us to be global and outward facing and yet at the same time, we are not taking advantage of the fact that our communities are increasingly multilingual. It’s also disappointing when education practitioners do not take the opportunity to teach languages in the nursery or reception because they think the children are too young. Leaving this opportunity to Years 5 or 6 within Key Stage 2, in my opinion, is too late the children have lost that golden period in which you can lay the foundations for life and nurture the next generation of multilingual children.

Sabera Ahsan (Spanish teacher) 

Alhambra Spanish For Kids
BA Hons (Spanish); PGCE (Primary); CELTA; PTLLs (Spanish); Instituto Cervantes (Young Learners); DBS; Pediatric First Aid Trained.
MFL Primary language specialist at Stockport Education Authority, East Sussex County Council & British Council and Spanish Ministry of Education. 
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About the author: AMN