05 Feb 2009
by Dorothy Lepkowska, SecEd
Foreign language learning needs to take place before pupils start secondary school if children are to master them with any degree of fluency, according to new research.
A study, being carried out by an academic at the Collegium de Lyon in France, has found that it is a “myth” that young children get confused if faced with the prospect of learning more than one language from a young age.
The findings coincide with new government figures showing that there are almost 600 schools in Britain where 70 per cent of pupils or more speak a foreign language at home, and 10 schools where no child speaks English as a first language.
The local authorities most affected were Tower Hamlets, Newham, Brent, and Ealing in London, as well as Blackburn, Leicester, Bradford, Luton, and Birmingham.
Previous studies have returned mixed findings. Some have suggested that bilingualism delays speech and causes confusion, while others have concluded it can have general benefits to a child’s learning.
Canadian academic Yvan Rose, who has been carrying out the French study, observed the language development of children from six months to the age of four using English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and German.
His study will be used to help professionals, such as speech therapists, to determine whether children and young people have superficial problems with speech or more general linguistic problems.
He said: “We must dispel the myth that learning more than one language confuses children.“They are completely able to assimilate several languages early on in life and to differentiate between them before even beginning to speak.
“Because a baby’s brain is not completely formed, the acquisition of several languages at the same time is completely natural.
“On the other hand, a 20-year-old who learns a language will never speak as well as a person who learned as a baby.”
Figures released by the Department for Children, Schools and Families last year found that 240 languages were currently spoken in British schools, with some schools having to cope with up to 50 languages and dialects.
More than 800,000 pupils in the UK – or 12.5 per cent – did not speak English as a first language.In primary schools, the proportion is 14.3 per cent. Punjabi was found to be the most common language after English, followed by Urdu and Bengali.
Many schools now employ bilingual teachers and classroom assistants to support children coming from a range of minority backgrounds.
Read the full article