When, what and why?
The question at what age children should, might or must start learning foreign languages has been hotly debated for long by education professionals as well as parents and other members of the public. This debate is especially relevant in Hungary which is a small country in the middle of Europe with a relatively small population of 10 million, whose unique language constitutes an island among the surrounding cultures and languages. After Hungary joined the European Union in 2004, young people were increasingly expected to be able to speak at least two foreign languages by the time they reached adulthood. This, of course, can only be attained if children become familiar with foreign languages at a relatively early stage in their life.
There are, however, a good number of misconceptions and fears that people hold with regards to early foreign language learning. The most prominent of these are:
1. "It reduces play time and is an unnecessary burden on the child." Quite the contrary, granting the primacy of play in a child's life, treating foreign language learning as a game could actually bring it closer to the child and thereby enhance its effectiveness.
2. "There is no point until the child can read and write." In fact, language learning is based on four capacities (listening, speaking, reading, writing) the order of which applies to learning one's first language as well as to learning further languages - as long as it is carried out naturally and not by way of "instruction". In other words, the first two skills can be attained and then serve as a basis for the other two.
3. "There is no point until the child has fully mastered its mother tongue." Quite the contrary: learning a foreign language at an early age in a light and playful way in no way inhibits the development of the mother tongue, as the learning capacity of a child's brain is enormous and the versatility of the two cerebral hemispheres ensures that there is no clash between the two.
4. "Children who learn a number of languages simultaneously will achieve proficiency only a later point in time." The fact of the matter is that the speed and efficiency with which one reaches proficiency in a language depends not on the number of languages one is subjected to simultaneous stimuli from but on individual aptitude. One can observe significant differences among those who grow up only with their mother tongue in terms of both the time it takes to reach proficiency and the quality of their proficiency.
5. "There is little time to spend each day on language games and sessions, thus it is not quite efficient, even a waste of time." Quite the contrary - whatever learning process we are looking at, the duration of a "session" is much less important than the frequency of these occasions. The decisive factor here is regularity - better results can be achieved by holding short but frequent practice and learning sessions than by devoting more time to these sessions but holding them less frequently. Information stored in the short-term memory need to be reinforced over time to mature into "long-term information" which in turn can over time become true "knowledge."
6. "Instruction is not purposeful and learning by rote delivers no real knowledge." Whereas in fact, certain information stored in a child's versatile brain (pronunciation, idioms, the rhythm and music of the language, intonation and structural clichés) constitute a solid and reliable base for the conscious language learning in a later age.
Scenes and levels of early childhood language learning in Hungary
Education policy in Hungary has a top-down approach to regulating when foreign language education commences in the classrooms - in other words, experts have determined that the latest age which can still be regarded as optimal for children to undertake foreign language acquisition is the age of 9 (4th grade/class of primary school). At this age, it becomes compulsory for children to start learning their first foreign language. This is the "critical age" when the mental and physiological versatility necessary to acquire language skills has not lost its vigour - in other words, children can handle new linguistic information with a great deal of efficiency and simultaneously maintain the versatility needed to acquire further languages.
In the opinion of Hungarian experts, developing foreign language competence may and should commence as early as possible - either through private, individual means or in organised and institutionalised forms. An obvious scene for the latter is the kindergarten - there are 3,450 independent kindergartens nationwide and another 4,759 operate as part of a larger education institution. The national average of child per preschool teacher is 10.6, the average kindergarten group has 22.3 pupils. Preschool (kindergarten) education is part of public education. The enrolment rate is high: 92% of the 3-6 age group takes part in institutionalised education. In 2005, the number of preschool teachers was 30,704.
The issue of preschool foreign language education has intrigued pedagogy experts for a long time. The development of foreign language skills in preschool-age children can only yield results if the instruction is not limited to sessions, classes or specific events but is provided continuously throughout the day, linked to the everyday activities of the children, in other words, it is offered in a way that is similar to first language acquisition. Only this type of learning situation will guarantee the kind of language acquisition that focuses not on performance but on skills and on a positive attitude towards learning while building on the child's actual state of knowledge and pacing him/her according to his/her individual ability for development.
Since 2003, the Ministry for Education and Culture has devoted special attention to developing foreign language instruction (Nikolov 2007). Within the framework of the "Világ-Nyelv" (World-Language) programme a good number of projects aimed at the methodological revitalisation foreign language instruction and the experience exchange of teachers have been realized (such as conferences, grants, publications, curricular recommendations, open days). In order to support and widely propagate early childhood foreign language education, the World-Language programme prepared, in 2009, an activity manual titled "Good Practice in the Development of Foreign Language Skills of Preschool-Age Children" designed to help the age group in question. The purpose of the publication is to present the programs, methods and processes which can constitute a solid foundation for creating a long-term positive attitude towards foreign language acquisition in the children. Preschool foreign language instruction usually involves two teachers, in accordance with the "one person - one language" theory. Thus, children can acquire a foreign language in a natural environment. The success of these programmes, however, can only be guaranteed if the four conditions often named in the relevant literature are fulfilled simultaneously:
|The intensity of language instruction
|The competence of the teacher
|The sustainability of the programme
|A favourable family background
Support and encouragement on the part of the parents - as well as their patience - can greatly contribute to the development of language skills in children. The key to the success to any language program, however, is the teacher and the chosen methods. Teachers who work with preschool-age children must have an extraordinarily high level of language competence in order to be able to offer a rich and ample linguistic content to the children, thereby creating a natural foreign-language environment in the course of everyday activities. Because the conceptual thinking of children is not fully developed at this stage, they will acquire the language through the activities accompanied by continuous and rich foreign language use - just like they acquire their mother tongue over the early years. The primary purpose of early childhood foreign language education is the creation of a positive attitude to language learning and the development of communication competence.
Foreign Language Education in Schools
In Hungary, learning a foreign language becomes compulsory in the fourth year of primary schooling (about age 9 for most children) and commences with 2 or 3 classes a week. The first foreign language is not necessarily English - it could be any language the school is best equipped to teach. However, besides these more traditional opportunities for learning foreign languages, there exists another, more intensive and efficient, albeit more expensive option: bi-lingual schools.
Certain secondary schools started in the academic year 1987-1988 to offer education in two languages in accordance with a unified curriculum and they were later followed by vocational schools and primary schools. Bi-lingual primary schools made good use of the earlier experiences of secondary school programmes. In 2008, 136 secondary schools and almost 90 primary schools offered bi-lingual education nationwide (Vámos 2008). There is a conspicuous variety of second languages: besides English, German and Russian, some schools offer instruction in French, Italian, Spanish and Chinese. Besides these schools, there is a good number of so-called "ethnic bi-lingual" schools which offer education to ethnic minorities (Roma, German, Romanian, Serbian, Slovak) living in Hungary in their own mother tongues.
What has justified the creation of bi-lingual schools?
|Firstly, the previously mentioned increase in the demand within the society to learn foreign language
|The need to provide "ethnic language" education to minorities is not negligible either
|Further motivation is provided by foreign (migrant) students enrolled in Hungarian schools
|There is a good number of internationally-run educational institutions in Hungary
What is the practical side of a bilingual school? On the one hand, it is an intensive instruction in the target language. On the other hand, it is an instruction in various subjects in the target language once sufficient competence is reached.
Continuously throughout the recent years, the Ministry for Education and Culture has taken care to present, through a uniquely wide spectrum of publication aimed at age groups 3-6, 6-10 and 10-14, good practice in English and German language instruction in public education institutions in Hungary, thereby aiding professional development and dialogue.
Tasks and challenges
Even though there are, in society, plenty of positive acknowledgements of the success of early childhood foreign language education, it would be a gross exaggeration to say that the practice of preschool foreign language education is a general and a widespread one. The greatest challenge is posed by the paucity of sufficiently trained professionals: highly trained and highly proficient language teachers do not always take on the task of educating small children and vice versa: preschool teachers are not always capable to learn a foreign language to a high level of proficiency, just to be able to pass their knowledge on to children.
An associated problem is teacher training. The traditional system of training language teachers has not been concerned with the methodology of language education in the lowest age groups and its unique challenges. A specific university program needs to be developed to address this issue - this is a task for the coming years.
The costs associated with introducing foreign language education into the lowest age levels of public education are not negligible either. Private schools and kindergartens usually manage to produce the extra funds by integrating the costs into their fees, but public schools and kindergartens, run by the local governments, do not have access to the extra budget.
The challenges then are numerous - but the situation is doubtlessly improving as both the society and education policy show clear intentions to find the optimum solutions to these problems in the near future. To a certain degree, EU support for this is secured, since the first steps on the road toward becoming a "plurilingual European citizen" must be taken in early childhood.
Nikolov, Mariann (2007): Magyarországi nyelvoktatás-fejlesztési politika - nyelvoktatásunk a nemzetközi trendek tükrében (Language Education Development Policy in Hungary - Hungarian language education as viewed against international trends). In: Fókuszban a nyelvtanulás. OFI, Budapest, 46-69.
Vámos, Ágnes (2008): A kétnyelvü oktatás tannyelv-politikai problématörténete és jelenkora (Issues of language use in education in a historical and current perspective of bilingual education). Nemzeti Tankönyvkiadó, Budapest.
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