The Autumn Sale has concluded. If you’re still trying with the coupon code, hoping to get a 20% discount on online lessons or ebooks, then you’re too late, sorry. I closed down the promotion a few hours ago.
So, on to the next thing. This afternoon I’ll be catapulted back in time thirty years or so, back to the beginning of my language teaching career, when I was expected to take on a whole bunch of new classes with little idea of what to expect!
Due to the threat from Covid 19, our school’s one remaining English teacher (we still have a bunch of Italian teachers on the payroll) has finally retired, at a grand old age, sensibly choosing caution over the joys of teaching groups of Italian children, as well as the few remaining Italian adults who, in these uncertain times, can still be bothered to invest in their learning.
Which makes me ‘it’. I’ll be taking three classes today, and six others spread out during the week, the youngest customers this year being just five/six years-old.
While I’ve been doing pre-school groups for years now, mostly it’s been just one group, plus some adult conversation classes, and the occasional one-to-one lesson.
But we have credits to make up for the ‘lockdown’ months from March to June. And given the fragile state of things, paying people back their fees and sending them elsewhere didn’t seem wise. So today, like it or not, I’m reborn as a ‘young learner’ teacher, which means colorful socks, well-planned lessons with plenty of fun games, and an emergency bag of boiled sweets kept handy for rewards/bribes.
My predecessor, over the last few years of her career, has been particularly effective at getting the kids to chat to her in English. Apparently she became the go-to person for teenage gossip: who is in love with who, whose school is the most spartan and demanding, the latest trends in clothing and nails, that sort of thing.
It’s not really my style, but I’ll be making the lessons as ‘communicative’ as possible, in my own way. Lots of bingo, for a start, so activities in which the children are ‘playing’ by trying their hardest to understand what’s being said.
Of course, you’ll be the first to hear how I get on. But pondering the possibilities this morning, it occurred to me that there are lessons to be learnt for adult learners such as club members. How then DO children learn a (foreign) language?
The most obvious thing to say is that they do so much less rapidly than learning their own native tongue. My former pre-schoolers would be quiet and reserved at two or three years old, chatty but limited in what they would chat about at four, and increasingly assertive and confident by five.
When they start school (at the age of six in Italy) the focus is not on speaking or understanding their own language, but on learning to read and write it. And from seven onwards, comes ‘education’ in all its glories.
As kids we master our own language in not much more than a handful of years, though of course we continue broadening and deepening what we are capable of for decades more. Interns in their twenties are still figuring out how to write a formal letter or give a presentation, for example. And plenty of adults remain unhappy if they have to read ‘terms and conditions’ documents, lamenting that they are ‘too hard’, that they can make neither head nor tail of such texts.
Language-learning is, unarguably, a gradual process. Common sense would suggest that young children have some magical ability to ‘suck in’ the language that surrounds them, what they hear from their parents and peers, and that this explains the apparently rapid growth in their language abilities, from hardly talking at all (eighteen months to two years) to becoming chatty little monsters who can’t be quieted (five or six years of age.)
That’s nonsense. There’s no magic about it. The learning ‘spurt’ is no such thing, and is in fact best explained by two factors: firstly, that young children are surrounded by the language they’re absorbing, all day, every day, for several years. It’s a super-intensive course, mostly provided by people who care for them and who target what they say, and how they say it, to the child’s direct and immediate interests (so making the language that a child hears appropriate to her learning needs.)
And secondly, while we perceive five-year-olds as ‘fluent’, in fact they are linguistically-able within only a very, very limited range, compared to an adult. A native Italian child might appear to you to be much more able with her language than you’ll ever be, but then she is unlikely to want to talk politics, discuss a menu, or listen to the culture program on national radio.
Adults like you and I have MUCH MORE language, and much greater abilities to extract meaning from what we read and hear. Even after just a few years of part-time study, our abilities are hugely superior to those of children or young teenagers. For that reason, the ‘can do’ language descriptors that we use to describe adult foreign language skills are inappropriate for assessing young children’s language abilities. Children are iPhones. Adults are super-computers.
Adult students often say to me that they wish they could learn a language as rapidly and easily as a child can. Fortunately, the genie in the bottle is not around to grant such a wish, as it would be extremely counter-productive. Any competent language school can teach a motivated adult learner, from scratch to a decent level (enough to apply for a job, say), in under a year of full-time study. Most adult learners doing, for example, a three-hour a week evening class for thirty weeks each year, could progress a level each year. Give it five or six years and they could, potentially, be functioning at a high level, good enough to take a college course taught IN the foreign language they have been learning. Really.
No way is that true for a one-year-old, or a five-year-old, or a ten-year-old, though perhaps it would be the case for a fifteen-year-old, by which time the ‘child’ approximates an ‘adult’.
So what CAN we learn from the way that children learn their foreign language, as many children around the world (including my victims this afternoon) do?
- That it’s GRADUAL, much slower than you might expect, and that the learning happens only when the appropriate maturity-level is reached. Elementary school children don’t do group discussions or gossip, not in their own language, not in their foreign language. Older teenagers participate with more naturalness. Junior-high pupils (middle school in the British and Italian systems) find grammar mysterious and hard. Senior-high students can deal with it, as they can cope with challenging topics like maths and science.
- All ages understand and can process ‘stories’ – who did what to whom, and why: the people ran away because there was a bear that wanted to eat them; this government is bad because it was negligent in caring for its people during the pandemic. MEANING matters in learning. Grammar taught in isolation is, for most people, not meaningful at all. Grammar heard in a fairy tale, or read in a novel or a newspaper article, is much more likely to be assimilated, if not consciously analysed and ‘understood’.
- MOTIVATION is very relevant. Kids don’t get the choice of going to school. In most countries it’s a legal obligation. Go for enough years and most pupils end up learning to read, write, and do basic maths, whether they originally wished to or not. But private language courses benefit from no such advantage – participants have to want to be there, lesson after lesson, year after year, or progress will not be made.
- SELF-CONFIDENCE MATTERS. As do expectations. Without boasting, my own children always did well at school, because they were expected to. Of course, there were the inevitable dips in grades now and then, but we made sure that it was clearly understood that nothing they were being asked to do at school was beyond their abilities, that there was no reason that, having parents from different places, they should not become bilingual, and so on. When achievable expectations are reached, time after time, the result is self-belief. At which point, progress becomes, if not inevitable, then more likely than not.
My students won’t go home this afternoon speaking their foreign language noticably better than they do this morning, but I can hope to show them a sufficiently good time that they won’t protest when their parents send them to me again next week.
I can plan activities which are manageable for them, which are appropriate to their level, and which are meaningful to them (games, stories, pictures, etc.)
Above all, I can be consistent in that approach, long enough so that trust develops, and so that self-confidence results. The kids need to reach a point at which it’s normal that they should be interacting with me in English, even in a limited way.
Learning a foreign language is a marathon rather than a sprint. ‘Marathon runners’, and their teachers, need plenty of stamina!
Saturday’s FREE bulletin of ‘easy’ Italian news is designed to be meaningful for adult learners.
There are three bulletins a week, every week.
Read/listen to each one for long enough (months, at a minimum, a year or two, ideally) and you WILL notice results.
Which will motivate you and help you continue to ‘grow’ your abilities in Italian with authentic texts.
Until one day, you’ll look back and marvel at how far you come.
Colleen Gilbert says
Thank you for this essay, Daniel! I look forward to reading more about your adventures teaching the little ones!
Oh Daniel your article brought a smile to my face. I was an Early years teacher here in England for nearly 40 years . (children aged 3-5) I taught in schools where the majority of children were learning English as their second language and there were 23 different languages spoken. I think your message today was clearly summed up in your sentence…
” Learning a foreign language is a marathon rather than a sprint. ‘Marathon runners’, and their teachers, need plenty of stamina!” I hope you have fun as i am sure the children will IN BOCCA AL LUPO🤞😄