Objective: the interculturally aware child
The early start involves calling up all available resources in order to give children the best possible prospects for development in the foreign language learning process; this involves the emotional, creative, social, cognitive and linguistic dimensions of overall childhood development. But it also very much involves intercultural communicative competence.
A child who is alert to and interested in the intercultural dimension has the potential to develop later into an intercultural speaker  and this is a declared aim of current foreign language teaching.
The learner’s foreign language competence is no longer measured solely against the linguistic competence of native speakers, but in terms of his or her ability to master the multiple and various tasks of intercultural communication. For the child learner, and in early foreign language teaching, the types of stimulus and educational content provided should form a basis on which the open-mindedness and tolerance of the intercultural speaker can find scope to develop. The early encounter with the foreign language must awaken interest in languages, foster enjoyment in language-learning, and ‘motivate the child to converse meaningfully in a language not his or her own’.
The early start in foreign language learning, while concentrating on development of linguistic competences, should also foster general and intercultural abilities and learning strategies.
In the context of any early foreign language programme, efforts should be made to foster the development of the following general competences:
- Self-competence: By way of achievements and insights gained during acquisition of a foreign language, the child enhances his sense of self, learns to assess and esteem himself and his personal role inside a group, and develops the courage to take action.
- Social competence: Sound self-assessment leads to a just perception of the other group members. The child perceives the others as individuals in their own right, learns to value each of them individually, works as part of a team, develops a we-consciousness.
- Affective competence: In daily contact with others, the child learns to express feelings and to recognise conflicts and problems, and also comes to know the routes that may lead to the solution of a problem.
- Motor competence: Physical movement during the learning process is a fundamental childhood need, enhances receptiveness, and fosters the child’s motor development.
- Cognitive competence: The foreign language becomes a medium of communication, less of an end in itself. Foreign language content items prompt reflective thought and enhance memory performance. This competence develops at earliest when a child has reached the age of about ten.
- Creative competence: Unfamiliar sounds and symbols, and new and unaccustomed content, arouse pleasure, stimulate curiosity, open up new ideas, and prompt the child to test out new approaches.
- The competence of close attention: new influences sensitise the child to our immediate surroundings, to our environment, to the needs and necessities to which other human beings are subject. The competence of close attention leads to due recognition and respect, and also to trust.
The one exception is the fact that – given the requisite input of effort – children are capable of mastering the foreign language’s pronunciation.
It must assumed that the linguistic competences of the child learner develop differently in discrete skill areas. This is probably connected with the emphasis of early foreign language teaching, which is concerned, particularly in beginner classes at primary school, with listening and speaking. At nursery and pre-schools it is the receptive skills – listening, listening comprehension, and comprehension generally – that play the central role. In the primary school, productive and interactive strategies and activities are increasingly added (speaking, writing, spoken interaction).
- Irrespective of when the early start is made, every child should be allowed time during the initial stage to absorb linguistic stimuli without being pressed to speak or suffering inappropriate correction of any attempts he or she does make to speak.
- The special ability shown by children in the field of pronunciation should be fostered discriminatingly and intensively, particularly through the use of authentic audio materials.
- Acquisition of writing skills in the foreign language should proceed with great caution.
- The content, linguistic form and methodology of all inputs aimed at building foreign language competence should be designed for compatibility with the children’s communication needs.
- ethnographic material relating to the target language culture (e.g. on festivals and customs)
- contrasted materials from the other culture and from the child’s own culture, which can be used to sharpen the child’s perceptions (e.g. everyday objects, artworks).
- materials suitable for raising the level of empathy with people of the other culture.
- lifelike situations (role-playing) in which acting within intercultural situations can be trained.
Content and methodology should be selected so as to ensure that the children retain and deepen their natural openness to what is new, and over the course of the learning process acquire sensitivity in self-perception and perception of others.
The learning materials should be selected as to enable the child:
- in familiar things to discover the Other, and in the Other the familiar
- to accept the Other as the Other
- to learn to cope with the insecurity and fears that arise out of encounters with the Other.
Learning with all the senses means that the child becomes better at self-understanding, and observes the own learning behaviour, and this observation in turn teaches him or her how to learn a foreign language most effectively. If a child has been introduced to the widest possible range of learning strategies, he or she can identify preferences and at a later stage direct his or her learning process and pace autonomously.
Learning strategies make the foreign language learning process easier and evidently engender a positive attitude to learning and using the foreign language. Benefit accrues for the learning of further languages.
- Teaching content and methodology in early foreign language teaching should be designed from the start to enable the individual child to learn to observe him- or herself and his or her personal learning behaviour, so coming gradually to identify the learner type to which he or she belongs, and to discover which of the senses are instrumental to his or her fastest and most successful learning.
- Training in basic communication strategies (enquiring, use of gesture and mime etc.) and memory strategies should begin early.
- Children should be given the chance to become familiar with and try out the fundamental techniques that will gradually equip them for autonomous learning.
The richer a child’s surroundings in written material, the easier it will be for him or her to recognise the usefulness of any such material. It is thus good practice to have written culture featuring consistently in the surroundings from an early stage, e.g. in the nursery school.
These processes can be initiated in early foreign language learning and developed over time. When shorter pieces are being read aloud, follow-up should not be concerned with content aspects alone: the children should be encouraged to develop a feel for e.g. tension-generating features or the distinctive characteristics of different text-types (‘Once upon a time …’).
It helps to smooth the path for children entering the early foreign language learning process if individuals in the immediate environment,
- e.g. parents or older siblings, are readers and in that respect role models, and also if:
- the child has easy access to a wide range of reading material
- books for reading aloud and for personal discovery are available
- the learning environment – e.g. pre-school and primary school – offers reading and writing corners
- adults are receptive to children’s questions and in this way assist the learning-to-read process.
- Before children look in any detail at the written form of a foreign language, they should be familiar with the written form of their mother tongue.
- The child’s everyday environment should provide as many ways of accessing written material as possible, so as to stimulate curiosity at an early age about books (etc.) and general interest in reading.
 Cf. e.g. Zarate (1997), Krumm (2003), House (2008)