Teaching English as a Second Language (SL)/Foreign Language (FL) to Children
Ajaz Ahmad Dar
University of Kashmir
Teaching of a language to children as a SL/FL at the Elementary level is indeed fairly a demanding task as it is a very crucial stage of development for children and also in view of their unique psychological and physiological make-up. So, as a rule, a very special treatment is needed while teaching children a new language or any other subject for that matter. For children alternative ways of teaching have to be adopted, which include the play-way techniques, suitable to their needs and likings. As language acquisition by children runs parallel to their cognitive development, so naturally they can learn one or more languages with ease if they are given a language-rich environment. Research shows that children possess an inherent ability to learn more languages apart from their mother tongue (L1). Some language experts even believe that children are ahead of adults in learning language.
The language teaching/learning materials for children have necessarily to be suitable to their unique needs, limited abilities, and tastes. The material must be easy and interesting without delving deep into the complex grammatical rules. A variety of meaningful activities such as role-playing, drawing, story-telling, games etc. which contain elements of fun, play and enjoyment, should form the contents of language syllabus for children. The paper tries to give a detailed appraisal of the general principles and requirements of teaching and learning of languages to children aged between three to eleven years at the primary level. Some theoretical principles pertaining to child language learning are also discussed. An attempt is also made to see the difference between teaching a language to children and adolescents/adults.
Keywords: Language Teaching Development in Children, English as SL/FL
Language acquisition/learning by young children has emerged as a full-fledged and specialized branch of study called Paedolinguistics. It is an inter-disciplinary field incorporating different disciplines such as psychology, sociology and linguistics into its domain of study. There are some general principles which must be kept in mind while teaching a foreign/second language to young children. Teaching children is absolutely different from teaching adults, as there are marked differences between the two age groups in almost all respects. As against L1, learning L2 presents an altogether different linguistic experience before the child, which in any case is not easy for him if proper support is not given. Thus, children need constant encouragement and a tolerant attitude from their teacher to encourage them to learn in a congenial and caring atmosphere so as to build their confidence through repetition, practice and at the same time the emphasis should remain on inculcating the learners’ interest in the overall learning process. The children must receive broad and rich exposure to a new language (L2) through a wide range of activities in order to develop their ‘communicative competence’ or proficiency.
We need to implement a different methodology, taking into consideration the unique needs and temperament of young children. As Vale and Feunteun state, “the teaching approach is necessarily different. Many of the techniques and attitudes that are essential for the teacher of children seem to conflict with the general EFL methodology” (1995: 27). Children’s very nature determines that they cannot be taught by using the same teaching/learning material of any complex nature as might be suitable for older learners even though children have a latent potential to learn more than one language. As a matter of fact, children are hardly willing to learn by the same content and style.
Research in child psychology and development shows that children possess an ‘innate ability’ to learn more languages apart from L1. Some language experts (linguists/psychologists) even believe that children are better than adult in terms of language learning, though opinions vary on this subject. However, majority observe that in many aspects such as acquiring pronunciation etc., children have an edge over adults being ‘active’ learners by their very nature. Broughton et al assert, “there can be no doubt that primary school children can and do learn English with remarkable ease, enthusiasm and naturalness” (1980:172). But their natural and prolific gift of learning languages needs to be cultivated cautiously from the very beginning.
Research has even proved that children can learn a language irrespective of their level of intelligence. As Sharma asserts that “a high degree of intelligence is not necessary for the mastery of a foreign tongue at an early age and that the essentials of language can be acquired in early life with a minimum of that obstruction caused by self-consciousness” (2002:54). Similarly Helliwell states in this context: “Young children do not come to the language classroom empty-handed. They bring with them an already well-established set of instincts, skills and characteristics, which help them to learn another language” (1992:3). She further says that children can use language creatively, that too, with limited language resources at their command (1992:4). The primary teacher can greatly utilize their intrinsic and innate skills such as their creativity in using language while teaching a L2 in the classroom.
Some theories on child language learning have been put forth by Jean Piaget, Vygotsky and others which have established that there exists a link between the cognitive and the language development of children. From Piaget’s theory of language learning, we see the child as an “active learner” and a “sense-maker”, constructing his or her own knowledge from working with objects or ideas and keenly working out the rules of the language. Cameron quotes Piaget saying that, “the child actively tries to make sense of the world … asks question … wants to know … also from a very early stage, the child has purposes and intentions: he wants to do” (2001:4). Likewise, Helliwell also speaks about the excellent ability of children to grasp meaning as under:
We know from experience that very young children are able to understand what is being said to them even before they understand the individual words … .Children come to primary school with this ability already highly developed. They continue to use it in all their school work. So when children encounter a new language in school, they can call on the same skill to help them interpret the new sounds, new words, and new structures (1992: 3-4).
According to Piaget’s theory the world around the child is seen as offering opportunities for learning, in general, and for language learning, in particular. The child is seen as actively interacting with this world around him/her, and solving problems that he/she encounters, and it is by this problem-solving that learning occurs. However, there is one downside in his theory, i.e., it neglects the “social” dimension of the child’s life, which holds a special place in Vygotsky’s theory of learning, as he considers the other people around the child of crucial importance for his learning and overall development. Vygotsky holds that the “collaboration” of the child with other people is very important for his acquisition of the knowledge. Whereas, for Piaget the child is an active learner alone in a world of objects, for Vygotsky the child is an active learner in a world full of other people. (Cameron 2001:2-7). Many of the ideas in these theories on child’s development, learning in general, have direct implications for teaching a foreign/second language to young children.
Based on the above theories, Lynn Cameron has outlined the principles which have emerged as being essential for teaching foreign languages to children. These are: children actively try to ‘make sense’ and construct meaning for things in collaboration with the adult support system. They can only make sense in terms of their world knowledge, which is very limited and partial. Children should be provided with appropriate scope and opportunities for language growth and development. Children need skilled help for grasping the different aspects and shades of meaning of a foreign language for which purpose the teacher might have to resort to some novel and untraditional techniques of teaching. Language can grow as the child takes over control of language used initially with other children and adults. Children’s foreign language learning depends on what they experience in the classroom activities. The broader and richer the language experience that is given to children, the more they are likely to learn (2001:19-20). Hence, children need a lot of practice in a new language to try out and experiment with it in varied contexts.
The child learns his mother-tongue (L1) in natural conditions without receiving any formal training, in the company of his family members and others; as it becomes the very part of his existence. But in order to learn a second/foreign language, he has to make many conscious as well as unconscious efforts, because the new language presents an altogether different linguistic, cultural, and psychological experience before the child. Therefore the child needs special guidance to adjust to the new learning situation. Many linguists believe that the experience of L1 can be helpful in learning L2 which they refer to as “positive transfer” while others believe that L1 can interfere with learning L2 which is termed as “negative transfer” (Ellis, 1986:22).
The linguists and psychologists who are of this opinion that children are comparatively better than adults at learning a second/foreign language support their views by citing many arguments such as the “biological argument,” the “cognitive argument,” and the “affective argument” (Chun, 1980:183). Most of these theoretical assumptions claim that the younger learner is better than the older learner in one way or the other, although there is no empirical evidence for the idea that with age there is a general decrease in second language ability. They argue that after puberty, the human brain loses its flexibility and plasticity which help it to adapt to different linguistic codes. To put Broughton et al:
Teachers of English in the foreign primary school have argued that their children are uninhibited, positively enjoy most of the … language activities and are ready for situational (as opposed to intellectual) learning. Interference from the mother tongue has been shown to be less before the age of 10 and neuro-physical clinical investigations suggest that the speech learning centre of the brain is at its maximum capacity between the first and ninth year of life. (1980: 168)
Lenneberg (qtd. in Chun 1980:183-184; Khanna 2009: 51) who is one of the proponents of this idea suggests that lateralization (specialization of functions of different hemispheres of the brain) makes the brain functions become specialized in the early teens. He has proposed that there is a “critical period” (The period is between two years and puberty) for effective language acquisition and after puberty, learning another language becomes difficult or “conscious and labored effort” though the capacity for learning another language is not lost completely. Since adults have a developed abstract thinking ability, that also hampers their language learning potential. It is also argued that adults do not possess the same intensity, attitude and motivation for learning the ‘target language’ (TL) as young learners have, which largely accounts for the low language acquisition potential of adults. On the contrary, young learners show enthusiasm towards the target language. As a matter of fact, learning new things as a whole makes them happy.
Khanna quoting Seliger suggests that there is much evidence to show that children are better than adults in acquiring the phonological system/ pronunciation of another language. Seliger, however, has offered the concept of “multiple critical periods”, suggesting that the language acquisition abilities are not lost all at once; there is rather a gradual loss of these abilities (2009:51). Some other researchers claim that normal human children are born with language capacity and there are certain areas of the human brain, which help in learning language and if this inborn potential of children is nurtured properly by giving adequate learning exposure, the children can learn any language whether L1 or L2 in an easy and effective manner, as their language and cognitive development takes place simultaneously. However, research also shows that older learners have an advantage over younger learners with certain aspects of second languages. It is argued that older learners can acquire new structures more speedily and easily because of their better-developed learning abilities. Thus, research has demonstrated that age in a second language situation is an important factor which determines how language takes place in a particular age group. However, there is no consensus on the view whether children or adults are in a better position to learn a second language. But yet the majority seem to believe that it is children who are better learners basing their opinion on the practical grounds that children if taught properly can be potentially better language learners in due course, as they get many years of learning practice, besides possessing an inborn ability for language learning. As Moon states:
In general, younger children (five to ten-year-olds) tend to be more enthusiastic and willing to talk in class than older children. As children reach puberty, they get more embarrassed about talking in front of others…This may be one reason why in natural situations, children often seem to do better than adults, i.e., their strong desire to communicate means that they immediately try to use the new language and so get more practice. Adults usually want to study it formally in classrooms first. (Moon 2000: 9).
The basic aim of teaching English is to enable our children to develop the four skills of communication, viz, listening, speaking, reading, and writing, thereby to attain the ultimate objective of making the students effective communicators in the language. In other words, the development of the ‘receptive’ and ‘productive’ skills is the target. But expectations cannot be too high at this initial stage, because children at the primary level have not yet got much exposure, whether spoken or written, to the language, which is a very crucial factor for learning any language. Sufficient time should be provided to children to learn the new language. As English is after all a foreign language, it is usually introduced through the skills of reading and writing at the primary level, to enable the students to decipher words in reading in order to understand the meaning within their vocabulary range. So far as the instructions go, we begin by teaching the young children to recognize and pronounce the sounds of the English alphabet followed by practice in writing the letters of the alphabet, i.e., the mechanics of the language are taught first. But this approach to the teaching of a language does not follow the natural sequence, according to which oral or receptive skills come first at the initial stages of proficient language learning as advocated by many ELT experts. Citing Professor Anderson, Sharma writes that during the elementary school years, “The first two years should be used to train the ear and the vocal organs, [and during] the second and third years the aural-oral method is most successful…” (2002:54).
The language syllabus to be adopted for teaching English to children have to be selected in accordance with their interests and cognitive development. We cannot teach them anything that is beyond their comprehension and mental level. Vale and Feunteun rightly state, “children should be … allowed to learn at their own pace, and language learning targets should not be forced upon them because of an external and non-flexible language syllabus” (1995: 33). Even among children, there are individual differences in their abilities, attitudes. Hence, the teaching materials have also to be chosen keeping in view their individual differences which are bound to exist among them. Besides, we must also understand the fact that children take their own time to learn new things; they may even need some more time to learn. But “…silence does not mean that children are ignorant or not learning … there is evidence that … many children go through a silent period during which they are processing their language environment” (Vale and Feunteun 1995:32). They may not speak the language, yet they may well have a partial understanding of the language.
We basically deal with the simple structures at this stage, as teaching of complex grammatical structures at this level is not suitable. Even children learning their first language acquire them in their teens. To put Helliwell:
In general terms, however, it is probably true to say that at primary school level, the children’s capacity for conscious learning of forms and grammatical patters is still relatively undeveloped. In contrast, all children, whether they prefer to ‘sort things out’ or ‘muddle through’, bring with them an enormous instinct for indirect learning. (1992:6)
Instead, at this stage, a lot of rote learning and memorization takes place without going into the formal rules of the language, the focus being on the meaning not the form of the language; although the child should be made aware of the underlying form of the language in a subtle manner.
The course content for children must necessarily be easy and simple, and is required to encourage collaboration and teamwork, as children have a natural tendency to work in groups. Broughton et al point out to this effect: “The readiness with which primary children form groups and participate in team activities is a quality which lends itself to the English lesson. …group work gives children more chance to talk to each other…” (1980:170-171). The course should include activities that have some elements of fun and enjoyment such as, role-playing, drawing, storytelling, games and so on. There must also be a variety of activities in the language curriculum, in view of the fact that young children cannot concentrate on the same learning activity for longer duration. Broughton et al (1980:171) outline the language content for the children between 5 and 11 in the primary classroom thus: “At the younger end of the primary spectrum, the most attractive items are those with potential rather than intrinsic interest. It is what the child can do with a thing, rather than what it is, which matters.” Moreover, as far as possible abstract concepts and structural items, which are beyond their mental capacities at this stage, should be reserved for advanced stages of learning. As Cameron observes:
Children do not find it as easy to use language to talk about language; in other words, they do not have the same access as older learners to meta-language that teachers can use to explain about grammar or discourse. Children often seem less embarrassed than adults at talking in a new language, and their lack of inhibition seems to help them get a more native-like accent. (2001:1)
Every effort should be made to incorporate such contents with which the children can easily identify. It should have some native and familiar subject to talk about, so that learning it becomes easy plus interesting. As Vale and Feunteun state, “…content can be chosen from activities which are common throughout the primary school years. The content can, if necessary, be adapted to the country and culture of the children” (1995:35).
Children are by nature active, therefore, the language syllabus must be student-centric and involving physical activities as well as intellectual exercise, which can actively engage children in the language development process. Besides, children, in general, are keen to express themselves even though they have limited language. Therefore, “things to hold, drop, throw, carry, things to build with, to colour, to wear, to give and take, to hide and find are what matter when the child is growing…” (Broughton et al 1980:171). The completion of a task gives children a sense of accomplishment, which can act as reinforcement to learn more. But it is essential that the activities we introduce in the classroom are meaningful. As Cameron observes:
Children are often more enthusiastic and lively as learners. They want to please the teacher rather than their peer group. They will have a go at an activity even when they don’t quite understand why or how. However, they also lose interest more quickly and are less able to keep themselves motivated on tasks they find difficult. (2001:1)
At the primary stage, we are concerned with the students aged between three to eleven years, who are still immature in many respects; hence, they really need a very special and a supportive treatment in the classroom. They must feel at home to make use of the new language in whatever way they can, regardless of the mistakes they might commit in its usage, so that they develop confidence in using the language fluently. Accuracy can be focused at a later stage. In case of children, language learning has to be integrated with their overall learning experience and it is not advisable to teach it in isolation. They should feel the real need to use the language. Therefore, a ‘cross-curricular approach’ is advised to be adopted while teaching English to children. As Myers and Burnett state that “…children should be provided with opportunities to develop both home languages and English across the curriculum within meaningful, integrated and mainly play-based contexts” (2004:17).
Children are naturally fond of fun, therefore, the language learning/teaching process must be converted into fun and a pleasurable activity for children. In fact, fun, enjoyments are major factors in the learning process during the primary school years. As Moon fittingly states:
If pupils enjoy the learning activities, they will be more involved and this may increase their desire to continue. This is very positive for language learning, because if children want to continue with an activity for some time, it will give them more exposure to language input and more chance to practice the language. They will also develop more positive attitudes towards English as they will associate it with something enjoyable and pleasing. (Moon 2000:7)
Accordingly, they need to be taught through games, role-playing, songs, stories, etc., so that the element of enjoyment can be brought in to keep them engrossed in the class work. Besides, children live in an imaginative world of their own and this natural tendency of the child can be utilized to his advantage in the language classroom by a highly skilled teacher. To put Susan Helliwell: “Children delight in imagination and fantasy… In the primary school, children are very busing making sense of the world about them… . In the language classroom this capacity for fantasy and imagination has a very constructive part to play” (1992:7). Moreover, we also know for sure that children love games of all kinds and this tendency of the young learners towards ‘play’ can be utilized in the language classroom. As Vale and Feunteun (1995:117) comment: “Play has a key role in the learning process for children. Play is a source of motivation, interest and enjoyment … for children, inside and outside the classroom, playing is a source of language, and a context for language use…”. Thus, the children learning English as a second language need an abundant and wide-ranging language input, as children receive in their native environments, for they learn a foreign language more ‘informally in a naturalistic environment’. Therefore, the primary teacher at the elementary level must be specially trained and highly skilled having a good knowledge not only of his subject but also of the child psychology. He has to be trained in such a way that he patiently deals with young children in a friendly, congenial and happy atmosphere so as to sustain their interest in the learning activities. Children being emotionally sensitive, their emotional needs have also to be taken care of. The teacher may have to apply some resourceful and innovative techniques of teaching to suit the natural instincts and capacities of children. He has to have some additional preparation with regard to his field of teaching. Quoting Theodore Anderson, S. R. Sharma writes: “In addition to knowing the history, civilization and culture of the foreign country and being fond of children … they [primary teachers] must understand the philosophy of the elementary school, be creative, enthusiastic and broadly educated” (2002:54). They have to get to the level of their young pupils by applying different teaching/learning strategies like demonstration and bodily gestures, facial expressions, actions etc. to make the class an interesting and enjoyable place. They also have to understand the unique nature and needs of young learners which will enable them to manage the class effectively and maintain discipline. As Helliwell rightly puts it:
Working with young learners in the primary classroom can be both a rewarding and a demanding experience. To make the most of that experience for both learners and teachers, we need to be very clear what it is we are trying to do. We must try to identify what learning language in school demands from young children and what it can offer them. We should also acknowledge what the implications of those demands and needs are for the teachers. (1992: 2)
The primary teachers need to create a congenial and secure learning environment, rather than a competitive one, so that children feel free to participate and express themselves without feeling self-conscious in the new language environment.
It must also be considered that children cannot show quick results as far as learning English as a foreign language is concerned; because, they take their own time to process a new language. Therefore, the teaching/learning of the language cannot be hastened; instead, continuous reinforcement and feedback should be provided to children besides assessing their development in the target language.
Thus, in the end it could be concluded that an altogether different approach of teaching and learning a foreign/second language is needed for primary children aged between 3-11years, because of their unique needs, abilities, interests and aptitudes. Furthermore, the study showed that there are huge differences between young children and adolescents/adults as language learners, since the two age groups are quite different from one another in almost all aspects; be it psychologically, cognitively or emotionally. The study clearly indicated that all the components of English curriculum/course, i.e., aims, syllabus/teaching materials, teaching methods and evaluation process have to be different for both children and adolescents/adults as per their unique personality characteristics.
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