Appropriate content for an early foreign languages programme
Selection of thematic and linguistic learning content will be oriented towards the children’s interests and current developmental stage in terms of learning psychology. The content should both appeal to and expand their interests, appeal to their emotions and their readiness for commitment, foster their imaginative and creative powers and give them fun.
The content of early foreign language learning complements and nuances the image of the world that children are and have been constructing in the mother tongue. They follow a semantic and pragmatic progression and dispense almost wholly with grammatical progression. Content elements should be delivered as far as possible by way of authentic learning materials. Simple text-types such as rhymes, songs, sayings, fairy-tales and other stories are recommended. Non-authentic texts written for teaching purposes should be based on authentic language and authentic text-types and should feature dialogue forms and narrative forms.
If learners are to be able to develop linguistic competences in the skills of listening, speaking, reading and writing, and to acquire independent communicative competence in their childhood everyday world, they need vocabulary and linguistic structures appropriate to their life and circumstances as children. Teaching plans here should not simply provide a selection of topics, but should prescribe the structures that are to be learnt in the context of the topic in question, and these should be bound into picture books and textbooks.
Pronunciation training should be an integral part of the learning programme. Here, audio and audio-visual media offering recordings of native speakers are valuable aids. Paralinguistic communication such as gesture and mime is a further very important content component in early foreign language teaching, as are other linguistic resources intimately associated with the social and cultural dimensions of language use in the target language (greeting and other polite formulae, forms of address etc.).
The teaching content of an early foreign language learning programme should touch on general topics such as those listed below and should be designed to introduce relevant vocabulary along with each topic. The content elements specified should be embedded in communicative contexts.
Topics and situations
- Everyday life and childhood culture:
The child in various contexts, e.g. my family/friends and I, nursery/primary school, play, hobbies, sports, animals, travel, seasons/weather, food and drink, the body and health, clothes, festivals and popular customs, environmental protection/sustainable living etc.
- Aspects of general knowledge:
In contexts provided by the topics enumerated above, new information and new insights relating to human beings and the world we live in are imparted.
- Intercultural geographic aspects:
Learning from examples about everyday life/customs and manners in the target language country and comparison/contrast with those of the own environment.
- Within the parameters of the topics and situations specified above, child-appropriate vocabulary featuring as far as possible all parts of speech should be learnt.
- Correct pronunciation and intonation should be treated as important from an early stage.
- The child learner should be made aware of differences between the mother tongue and the foreign language.
- The pronunciation training offered should include both exercises in listening and speaking.
- Communicative aims should be embedded in syntactically simple structures (predominantly main clauses), especially when the productive work required is direct oral communication. In the case of (listening and reading) comprehension texts, structures of greater complexity may be gradually introduced with a view to extending receptive language grasp.
- A certain measure of awareness of linguistic rules and of underlying logical principles can lead to improved transparency in early foreign language teaching, and lays a foundation for future analytical thinking about language. This must not be confused with the teaching of grammar, and should only arise out of communicative or content issues. Schematically conceived exercises, deductive introduction of grammar rules, and references to metalinguistic terms are wholly inappropriate to the stage of cognitive development that has been reached by children of approximately four to ten years of age, and do not lead to the desired outcome of a communicative use of language.
Non-verbal modes of communication
- Communicative situations should be accompanied both by confirmatory practical actions (pointing to something, mimicking an action etc.) and by appropriate paralinguistic body communication (gesture, mime, body posture, bodily or eye contact etc.). The marked cultural specificity of paralinguistic modes gives them a key role in the success or failure of a communication.