Interest in the teaching of foreign languages (English in particular) to younger learners has notably increased in the last decades. This phenomenon has partly to do with the fact that parents aim to provide their children with an education that enables them to compete in the labour market in the future. Furthermore, it is also due to globalisation and the growing need to facilitate communication among people from different countries. That is why many European countries have included in their primary and pre-primary curriculum one of the main European languages.
One matter which is usually overlooked is the increasing number of immigrant children all over Europe who are bilingual and not supported by schools to become integrated with their monolingual peers. For some teachers the learning of a “prestigious” foreign language such as English or French at early stages is definitely positive but when the student’s first language is a minority one, the same teachers start to see “difficulties” or “handicaps” in the acquisition of the local language. As mother of a bilingual child myself, I have encountered many people involved in my daughter’s school life in Italy who are not well informed about bilingualism and have a totally negative attitude towards it. For this reason, I firmly believe that an effective programme for foreign language (FL) learning could help towards integration. To achieve this goal, language teachers should be trained in that direction. Formal education should reflect the real society we live in and so emphasise the social/cultural aspects of FL learning in the multicultural world of today. This way we can educate our children to accept differences easily and to become more tolerant and thus, we may hope for a better understanding among human beings from the very beginning.
THE AIMS OF EARLY FOREIGN LANGUAGE LEARNING
Unfortunately, the teaching of languages is a service business nowadays. All over the world, the teaching of “foreign”, “second”, “target” or “international” languages proceeds on a huge scale, including FL teaching to younger learners. Private language schools offer what seems to be a vast range of courses and methodologies without placing too much interest on the social and emotional aspects of FL learning and sometimes employing teachers with no experience who are often underpaid and not fully motivated.
Then, we find formal education which also seems to offer a great deal, with interesting and up-to-date methods, with graduated teachers who are encouraged to carry on researches and paid for taking part in workshops and refreshers courses but even being graduates, are not fluent speakers of the language they teach.
If we follow the mainstream we risk forgetting what should be the real aims of early language learning:
Linguistic, FL learning helps children to understand their native language system better: they become conscious of language as a phenomenon,
Psychological/emotional, FL learning supports the growth of individual qualities of the character giving children greater mental flexibility and,
Socio-cultural, children who speak foreign languages tend to have a wider cultural outlook.
The sooner young children are exposed to differences in languages and cultures, the better. The introduction of a different language at early stages can help children to develop tolerance towards people who are different and, in the long run, contributes to mutual understanding between humans and nations. FL learning can be the inexhaustible resource that makes this possible.
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