The child-centred language programme
Any foreign language programme tailored to childhood learning must address the child’s developing personality as a whole.
It must foster the child’s emotional, creative, social, cognitive and linguistic capabilities in equal measure with the aim of bringing about communicative acts in the foreign language.
For this to be possible, every individual child must be supported in ways appropriate to his or her personal development.
From about the second year of life, language acquisition becomes conscious. Language and thought converge. Self-centred in play, but remaining always in continuous social interaction, the child forms an image of the world and in doing so also acquires the ordering structures of language.
The child’s continued linguistic, cognitive and emotional development will depend on his or her social and cultural situation and on whether he or she is perceived as an individual and treated by others in ways appropriate to his or her needs, inclinations and capabilities.
According to the particular developmental stage that the child has reached, the following recommendations for the foreign language learning process may be noted:
- Children’s spontaneity and lack of inhibition make them exceptionally capable of enthusiasm and quick to join in playful activity. Their normal abundance of curiosity, their urge to explore, readiness to learn and capacity to absorb should all be turned to good use in the form of practical, activity-oriented learning and experimentation.
- Children are strongly focused on the here and now, on direct, tangible experience. In a non-target-language environment they need to be motivated in ways that make sense to them.
- If children are to understand, material must be presented to them in terms of tangible realities that they can visualise. Until they have reached a certain age, they cannot cope with abstract concepts. Situational and action-linked stimulus material and learning procedures are accordingly of key importance for their learning attainment and their pleasure in learning.
- Children are able to concentrate for short periods; playful means should be sought to address and further develop their usually good memory powers.
- Children’s fundamentally open-minded attitude invites an engagement with intercultural topics.
It is now accepted that “human beings are capable of learning one or more new languages at any time. However, findings from research on language acquisition and from brain research have produced evidence that the acquisition of an unfamiliar language should take place as early as possible. It has been shown, for instance, that children up to the age of six can learn to speak a second language without an accent. Up to the age of puberty, syntax and morphology can be acquired with less effort than subsequently . However, many other factors also have a bearing on children’s learning attainment. These include the quality of the teaching staff and the materials used, and the duration and intensity of the language contact.
- The childhood foreign language acquisition process should be viewed in as close association as possible with linguistic development in the mother tongue.
- During the language learning process, the child should be given sufficient opportunities to try out newly learnt material in social interaction, e.g. with the teacher or with fellow pupils.
- The realisation that language acquisition is clearly a phased process entails a rethink on the issue of errors arising during language-learning: errors are now seen to be development steps along the path of language acquisition: that is to say, they are a legitimate sub-aspect of the learning process, and as such should be dealt with patiently and tactfully.
- Practitioners and teachers should see errors as valuable evidence of the stage that the language acquisition process has reached, and use them to help in giving the child continued support.
Together with specific capabilities, every child also has very definite needs: and these should be fed into early foreign language teaching, so that the child learner feels comfortable and the learning process can be correspondingly fruitful. A child needs -
- to feel safe and secure while in the learning environment
- to receive affection and be able to show affection
- to express feelings, be happy, and make others happy
- to communicate with others, to express thoughts and feelings
- to play, be active, move, romp about
- to express him- or herself creatively
- to experience successes and be praised
- to encounter new things by experience, by learning, by discovery, or through conscious research
- to re-run new experiences and insights in role-play (or similar) and thus assimilate these emotionally.
In planning and implementing the aims, content and methods of early foreign language learning, the practitioner or teacher should always ensure that the child’s needs are taken into account.
The right to education, specifically the right to learn a foreign language, thus implies the opportunity to penetrate into foreign cultures, to understand the foreign and the Other more readily, to develop both curiosity and tolerance, to pursue paths that but for the knowledge of languages would remain closed, and so to develop one’s personality without constraints.
Young children are unafraid of the unfamiliar, and are open-minded in their approach to language that has strange sounds. But they cannot assert for themselves their right to be given the opportunity to acquire foreign languages in child-friendly ways.
Early foreign language learning should confer on all children the following language-related rights:
- The right to early and comprehensive linguistic education (aimed at equality of opportunity). This comprises both the development of competence in the mother tongue (or language of origin) and the extension of the child’s linguistic resources through early learning of foreign languages.
- The right of access to learning material of an intercultural nature and to the opportunity to engage in intercultural communication
- The right to have the child’s innate potential in all its aspects developed to the maximum by the language programme. That includes learning through the use of all senses for the purpose of acquiring knowledge.
- The right to autonomous action and to participation in joint decision-making in the context of the language-learning programme
- The right to commit linguistic errors unpunished
- The right to be accepted and equally treated, irrespective of one’s language, religion or culture of origin.
The early foreign languages programme should provide as many practical opportunities as possible, specifically tailored to the age-groups concerned, for children to experience and appreciate children’s rights, and thus for the individual child’s sense of self to be strengthened. This includes listening to children, inviting them to express themselves, permitting questions, and exercising sensitivity and discretion in the correction of errors.
 Cf. Jean Piaget’s stage theory, Bleyhl (2000), Tracy (2007)
 Cf. Apeltauer, Hoppenstedt (expected publication date 2010)