Understanding how children learn new languages is a vital way to support children coming from other countries who are learning English as their second (or third) language, and it’s also an ideal time for all young children to learn another language.
In this article, we share the benefits of learning a second language, how to support additional language learning and speak with early learning centre Froebel to find out about bilingual language immersion.
The developmental benefits of children learning and speaking more than one language in the early years is now widely understood and many early childhood services now support children to learn or maintain languages other than English.
Benefits include improved executive functioning skills—the ability to think flexibly, demonstrate self-control, focus attention, and tune out distractions (Bialystok & Martin, 2004; Zelazo, Carlson, & Kesek, 2008). Bilingual children have been shown to have better working memory than children who speak only one language—working memory holds, processes, and updates information over short periods of time and is very important for problem-solving and executive function (Morales, Calvo, & Bialystok, 2013).¹
Any service providing a preschool program with a degree qualified teacher can sign up to Early Learning Languages Australia to access a fun app and online language learning tools and games. A secondary benefit is that educators can learn the language/s alongside the children!
More than 3,500 preschools around the country are currently engaged in ELLA. They get access to seven apps in their choice of one of these languages: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hindi, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Modern Greek, Spanish or Vietnamese. Korean and Turkish will become available this year. Each app includes fun, age-appropriate, play-based language learning experiences.
How to support children learning a second language²
(Equally relevant for migrant children learning English as a second language and English speaking children learning another language.)
Many children become silent when first exposed to a second language. This silent period can last months and can be important in developing understanding. During this period it is important to allow children time to just observe without pressure to speak.
At this time, children often rely on adults around them and on non-verbal cues in the environment; for example, adults pointing to what they are talking about or asking the child to do. They also often follow other children and imitate them.
It is not unusual for bilingual adults to switch between languages within a sentence and this can, in fact, enhance communication. Similarly, it is normal for children who are learning a new language to mix the two languages when making sentences.
How children acquire a second language³
There are two main ways children can acquire more than one language:
1) Simultaneous acquisition (when a child learns two languages at the same time)
Stage 1 – the child mixes two languages into one system.
Stage 2 – the child starts to separate the words from each language and recognises to which person that language should be spoken.
Stage 3 – one language is used more than the other and that language becomes dominant, which is often the case.
2) Sequential acquisition (when the second language is learnt after the first)
Stage 1 – the child observes speakers of the second language and may be silent; the child may communicate non-verbally (for example, pointing); later, the child relies on whole memorised phrases.
Stage 2 – the child communicates with others in the second language; the child starts to create their own sentences; the child communicates as best they can.
Stage 3 – the child attempts to speak correctly using correct vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation.
Language immersion in bilingual early learning centres
Some of the most intensive support for language learning can be found at bilingual early learning centres, which focus on one other language and have bilingual staff.
CELA spoke with the Acting Centre Director of Froebel St Leonards, Steffi Bleicker, to find out more about their program.
Froebel Australia is a not-for-profit provider of early childhood education and care services with two Early Learning Centres in NSW and two in Victoria. Froebel’s educational program has a strong focus on early language learning with German as a second community language. All Froebel centres follow the immersion concept, with German-speaking educators speaking and working in German with the children throughout the day whereas their English speaking colleagues do the same in English.
About a quarter of the children enrolled at the Froebel centre have German-speaking parents or grandparents, some are more fluent in German than in English. The majority of the children, however, speak English or another language at home and are only exposed to the German language whilst at Froebel.
“German-speaking families want their children to know their mother language,” says Steffi. “Our families with no German language background like the idea of their children learning a second language because they know of the benefits for young children.
“German becomes a natural part of the children’s lives whilst being enrolled at our centre. They hear the language throughout the day, they get familiar with the vocabulary and the language melody in a very natural way.”
Steffi has been working as a German-speaking educator at Froebel for many years, mainly with the 2-3-year-old ‘toddlers’.
“The children start copying (what I say) first, if they have no German language background – with the help of singing songs, telling stories accompanied by pictures, they pick up a second language very quickly.
“Young children are very patient with repetition, they love reading the same story, singing the same song, that’s how they learn to make connections and that’s how the meaning of words becomes clear.”
Harmony Week is an opportunity to celebrate the success of Multiculturalism in Australia. It’s about inclusiveness, respect and belonging for all Australians, regardless of cultural or linguistic background.
There are many ways to get involved in Harmony Week – the official website has an extensive list of lesson ideas and resources for early childhood educators, including these suggestions for celebrating language diversity:
- Names around the world: What country does your name come from? Stick your name on a world map showing this. Does your name have a meaning or story?
- Linguists: Find out how many people in your class/school are bilingual or multilingual.
- Roll call: Say ‘good morning/afternoon’ in a different language each week.
- Multilingual songs: Find a traditional song that is sung in a range of languages eg ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. Learn the song in another language.
How to get involved in Harmony Week 15-21 March:
- Visit the Harmony Week website
- Schedule activities that celebrate diverse cultures – clothing, games, food, languages
- Create a poster that says welcome in all the languages spoken in your community
- Register your event to access display materials
- Activity ideas for Early Childhood EducatorsEncourage children and educators to wear orange on your designated activity day
- How NSW Schools are celebrating Harmony Day
Find out more about bilingual early learning
- Zero to Three – Benefits of Multilingualism
- ELLA website: www.ella.edu.au and factsheet for Educators
- Preschools signed up to ELLA – Australia map
- Learning Links – Supporting bilingual children
- EllasList – Sydney’s best Bilingual early learning centres
- Froebel – Bilingual Early Learning
- Australian Mandarin Education Academy – About AMEA
¹ Zero to three – Multilingualism – Resource for Parents
³ Learning Links (as above)