English for kids – part I

Ultima modifica 6 Novembre 2015

My colleague Elena, an economics teacher, stops me on the school corridor.

“Frances, I was wondering could you do a few English lessons with Marco.”

“How old is Marco?”

“He’s six.”

“No Elena, I don’t think so. Sorry!”

I’ve had this type of conversation on numerous occasions. When I explain my reason for refusing some parents understand, some shrug their shoulders, meaning I’ll go elsewhere and, sometimes, they even stop speaking to me!

In my years living in Italy, my personal experience as a mother who speaks English to her children has been completely successful and all three are bilingual with no trauma for their first language as many people had warned me would happen. As a teacher, I’ve done English with just about everyone, from university students, to airport staff, to classes of hard-to-motivate technical school students. With mixed results. I remember doing an English course with primary school children where I believed I was making incredible progress. I met some of these children three years later and, not only did they not remember anything I had taught them, they didn’t even remember me!

My observations here are for non-English speaking parents who have a smattering of “school English” and who, quite rightly. want their children to have the opportunity to learn the language as early and as fluently as possible.

Introducing English into a child’s life cannot be a decision made on a whim. It’s not a question of “a few lessons” which can be stressful and worthless for parent and child. It’s a long-term commitment and, more importantly, it’s not a matter of how much the child achieves but how much the family enjoys this cultural journey together.

And that’s why I said “no” to Elena.

English is complex as a second language, but it’s easier if children start young and if the process is fun. Without going into the details of brain function and  language acquisition mechanisms, we know that when children are constantly exposed to a second language from birth to 8 years they will learn it as easily as their mother tongue. They will learn it without pronunciation interference from their first language.

The problem is that, without use, they will forget it just as easily.

Some parents are fortunate enough to travel a lot, or send their children to international nursery and primary schools or invest in an English speaking nanny or au-pair. Most families don’t have this possibility and for those “committed” parents I’d like to propose a few guidelines.

If you want something more than “school English” for your child, you need commitment. English must be a fun part of your parenting, not a chore. So relax. Once both parents have agreed that English is a priority it will become as natural as reading stories or taking him for a walk. Don’t worry that you’re damaging your child or that you’re not able for the task. About 50% of the world’s children are learning a second language from birth and they’re doing fine!

Just as it takes years of practice on the part of the child and dedication by the parent to get good results in sport, dance or music, so with language. You can integrate the three or four times weekly lessons he may have in a pre-school or junior school environment. Hopefully, the English teacher in these schools will make good use of real English tools or the little ones will learn only her accent and, sometimes, her imperfections.

Children absorb the sounds they hear and with time they associate sound and object. It doesn’t matter if the child is disinterested or doesn’t seem to understand anything. Each child has his own learning rhythms and times. Be assured, he is assimilating the language.

If you do want to invest money in an English course for pre-adolescent children make sure it’s a “Play” and not a “Study” oriented programme.

More next time.  (p.s. I use “he”, “she” strictly for convenience).

Frances Fahy



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