This letter is for those of you considering a Speak Like A Native club for your children or who are a bit unsure about what happens once the programme has started.
Three categories of parents – which are you?
- “I speak more than one language and based on personal experience can see the benefits. I want the same for my children.”
- “I really wish I could speak another language. I freeze up when I try and regret not learning when I was young. I don’t want my children to be like this.”
- “I think language learning is a waste of time and don’t think my children should bother.”
So, what are the benefits?
Well, in the 30 years we’ve been involved in this field, we haven’t yet read one report that says language learning is harmful to children. On the contrary, never a week goes by when we aren’t discovering how multilingualism for children aids their educational and mental development. Whether it be problem solving skills, verbal and non-verbal reasoning or the ability to disseminate information, everything points in the right direction.
And then, of course, once the hours have been put in, the real reward is that your child jumps to the front queue. Firstly, you don’t even have to apply for a job where foreign languages are used to benefit. Think of two identical CVs – one submitted by someone who only speaks English and one by a candidate with two, three or four languages. Guess which person stands out as being brighter? Languages impress people!
But more than anything, it’s the confidence that comes with speaking more than one language that opens doors and increases opportunities. And what more do we want for our children than that they feel confident enough to let their talents take them wherever they want to go to live, work and study?
Shouldn’t their school be covering this?
Yes. You’re right. Have a look at the British Council report on Language Trends and Teaching in Primary and Secondary Schools.
The problem is that in the past English was considered enough but the world has moved on and the curriculum hasn’t. The focus on SATS and measuring Maths and Literacy means there’s very little space for languages at KS1 and KS2. Some schools are doing wonderful things though and should be commended and supported. Others either don’t have the resources or foresight to prioritise equipping children today with what they will need in 2037.
Leaving languages until secondary school is clearly a mistake. Firstly, children learn languages more easily when they’re young. There’s no fear then and their brains are like sponges. At secondary school, languages are seen as an academic subject leading to a GCSE and so everyone is labelled “good at” or “bad at” languages and as soon as the exam is finished they drop it.
We won’t say that it’s too late to learn a language when you’re older but we do stress that it’s better to do it when young. Don’t let your children miss this opportunity!
So, how long will it take?
You’ll hate us for saying this but there’s never a point when you’ve “learned” a language. What we do is build up the ability to communicate to a proficient level depending on who we are and what we need the language for. At Speak Like A Native we have the motto, “same child, different language”. In other words, if you child loves Lego in English then we want them to love Lego in Spanish (or French, German or Mandarin). A seven-year-old will learn what someone who is seven can learn. What they won’t lose is the confidence or belief that languages are not to be feared and that it has little to do with ability.
Having said this, time is the key. Your child will need to put in the hours over the years. One term of one hour a week in a Speak Like A Native club will be fun but certainly not enough.
Ok, how does it work and what should we expect?
At Speak Like A Native we have developed a method called Guided Language Participation (GLP). This is where children find themselves in the exciting position of wanting to participate in games, activities and tasks because that’s what they enjoy. Their motivation is taking part, having fun and getting involved in something that is meaningful and attractive to them. It is our job to guide them through these games, tasks and activities in the target language. This is why our teachers are called Language Guides.
So how are you different to other methods?
Let’s look at the two most common ways that languages are taught in this country.
- The lesson is based on explanations, which are given in English to make sure that children understand exactly what they are being told.
- The lesson is “total immersion”, so that only the target language is used in the classroom.
Well, children don’t need to understand everything. They rarely do when adults talk to them. That’s why they are mini problem solvers, spending their early years decoding all information that flies at them from all directions. GLP is about getting children to overcome language barriers using their decoding skills in order to get on with the task, which is what really motivates them. They don’t need explanations about how the language works.
And total immersion? It sounds good but it’s also part of the reason why so many of us as adults think of language learning as something that induces fear. The problem with total immersion is that it is anxiety inducing because it is based on the idea that you should only speak when you are able to, without making any mistakes. This is the reason so many of us stayed silent in language classes!
Part of GLP is that we speak in the target language and your children respond in whatever language they feel comfortable to use. This way communication doesn’t break down and the children can use English to reply and communicate as they develop their confidence in the new language. Bit by bit, one language replaces the other and it’s all done naturally.
How can I help my children?
Although the natural question to ask after a session is “What did you learn?” this can also be the most stressful for your child to answer. They are unlikely to say, “today we just played games and I feel I developed confidence understanding the instructions from the Language Guide although I wasn’t ready to reproduce the new vocabulary myself.”
They’re more likely to reply, “nothing really”.
It’s much more useful for the children to support them through the process of having fun without the pressure of having to “perform” what they might have learned.
As a comparison, we all spoke constantly to our babies for at least a year before they uttered one word. Just one word! “Listening” is the most important skill to develop and “speaking” follows from it. Traditionally, language classes revolve around learning phrases and lists of words to prove that learning is taking place. But this doesn’t mean we retain the information or know how to use it in context.
We will always help you with online links to your child’s favourite programmes in the new language. And if you can, sit and watch with them. Be amazed that they’re watching something in a language you don’t speak. Praise them for this but don’t ask them to translate or explain what’s being said. Instead, ask them to tell you what’s happening or what they think will happen next. They’ll love it and feel very proud.
We hope all this helps and thank you for letting Speak Like A Native be part of the journey your children take to multilingualism and all the benefits that will come their way.
Where we get things wrong, please let us know so that we can learn. Where we get things right, please share this with us so that we can help more children.
At times, learning a language may seem like a never-ending road but there are plenty of rewards along the way and our job is to make it stress-free and fun too.
Do you want Speak Like A Native in your school? Request an appointment now.
The Speak Like A Native team