From foreign sounds to familiar ground

1st October 2004 at 01:00
How do you harness young children's natural ability to pick up new languages? Manjula Datta and Cathy Pomphrey offer practical tips

"Papa, hum nursery mei English boltei hain (Papa we speak English in the nursery)," three-year-old Nitya commented excitedly in Hindi about her English-speaking nursery. She then went on to recite the names of her favourite animals in Hindi and English: "Tota maney (means) parrot, bandar maney monkey."

These simple sentences show Nitya's growing awareness of the use of language in different contexts and that the names of objects are different in different languages. In our book A World of Languages: Developing Children's Love of Languages we show how young children living in a multilingual society can grasp essential concepts about language, and some of the things teachers in early years, primary and even secondary can do to develop them. As teachers we have always found that bilingual as well as "monolingual" children find sharing their language knowledge intellectually stimulating and fun, and this activates their motivation to learn new languages.

Tom, whose parents come from Birmingham and Scotland, had only minimal use of languages other than English at transition from primary to secondary school, but already had a deep awareness and interest in language: "First time I was aware that Scotland had its own language (was) my mum saying, 'I'm going to get messages (shopping) from the shop', or a person was such a dour (sad person)." Tom has already decided that "another language I would like to learn is Mandarin. I'd like to travel to China".

Eleven-year-old Nirmala, a Hindi-English bilingual, was equally enthusiastic about learning Turkish. Why Turkish? "'Cos I've got a Turkish friend. I'd want her to teach me basics, like how to greet each other. Are there different ways of greeting friends and 'respectable' people, like older people? Like in Hindi you say 'hi' to cousins and friends but 'namaste' to respectable people. (I would also like her to teach me) how to talk and dress politely if I go to Turkey, and perhaps learn some songs and everyday conversations, like, 'How are you?', 'Where do you live?', 'How old are you?', 'What do you enjoy doing the most?' And how to use the street map and transport."

For both Tom and Nirmala, learning a new language has become meaningful well before they have reached key stage 3. They are pursuing their vision and personal interest to make new links in a multilingual world.

A multilingual approach to language-learning helps children to broaden their perspectives and develop new thinking skills. That is why it is important for foreign language-learning in primary schools to include community languages and provide opportunities for children to make links between different languages.

A class teacher cannot be expected to have knowledge of all the languages that could be used in the classroom to raise children's awareness.

Bilingual teachers, teaching assistants, trainee teachers and parents can work in partnership with monolingual teachers - and that requires sensitivity and thoughtful planning, something we have explored a good deal in our book.

Cooking and sharing recipes, drama, singing and dancing, or tracing "language journeys" on maps are active ways of learning, and provide some of the most engaging approaches to multilingual teaching.

A simple way for primary teachers to start is to use circle time to focus on different languages, bringing in personal and cultural artefacts such as books, letters and photos (including holiday snaps), or using dual-language books, and encourage children to share what they know about a particular language or culture. Greetings, celebrations and variation in clothes, food habits and religion add to the richness of understanding and thinking. One primary teacher who regularly took holiday photos and artefacts into class found children were deeply motivated to bring in their own objects. He developed displays that aroused children's interest and encouraged talk about language and culture.

Teachers who include multilingual approaches in their teaching of language are always surprised to discover how much language knowledge bilingual as well as "monolingual" children carry in their heads when given the opportunity to share their experiences, thoughts and ideas. Using this knowledge to further children's development in all their languages is an important way in which schools can address diversity and inclusion issues in education and society, for example by including it in teaching across the curriculum or in lessons based on the national literacy strategy.

Manjula Datta and Cathy Pomphrey specialise in language education in initial teacher education at London Metropolitan University * A World of Languages: Developing Children's Love of Languages by Manjula Datta and Cathy Pomphrey is published in the Young Pathfinder series by CILT, the National Centre for Languages, pound;10. Order from Central Books, tel: 0845 458 9910 * Poster: Multilingual greetings - TES Teacher, October 15

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