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Kids World

Topics of interest to teachers of English as a second or foreign language to young learners.

February 16, 2001

The Student Baby

Why study so young?
Kids At first sight, the idea of teaching babies a SECOND language, when they haven't even mastered the FIRST, would seem to be a daunting task! However, it is common knowledge that children who are lucky enough to be born into bilingual families, can easily learn to communicate with ease in both languages at a very early age.

When is the best age to learn?
Educators don't agree when to introduce the second language. Some recommend starting at birth. Others say that can put a child at a disadvantage with both languages for a short time, and recommend waiting until two and half or three years old to introduce the second language. On the whole though, expert opinion seems to confirm that children can learn languages most easily up until the age of three. After that, it's downhill as other factors come into play.

For example, when they wait until High School to start studying a foreign language they find that they have to physically study grammar and sentence structure. They also have to get used to translating everything. A baby can do this naturally. The reason for this is that children who learn two languages simultaneously experience no first-language interference - they don't have to worry about pre-conceived ideas!

Physically, the brain appears to be more receptive to language learning at a younger age. A child's brain differs to an adults because it is developing so rapidly. In fact, a two-year-old child has twice as many connections (synapses) in the brain as an adult. The young brain must use these connections or lose them. It makes sense to take advantage of this time to give the child as much knowledge as possible - a second language is the ideal medium.

In addition, when considering the best age at which to start this extra language training it's important to remember one very important factor. Learning to talk does not begin with the child's first words, but long before that. Understanding is always one step ahead of talking. If we are learning a foreign language then we find that we can understand what is being said way before we are able to formulate phrases and actually talk in that language ourselves.

With babies, it is generally accepted that their understanding is about six months ahead of their speech. Therefore, the younger the better - in theory. Ideally, a good age to start formally teaching a young child is probably around 6 months or more. At this age they are taking some notice of their surroundings and can usually sit up. Obviously, if they can be exposed to the language before this age then it can be of great advantage. However, this article is looking at the concept of teaching a child in an actual classroom type situation and a baby younger than 6 months would find it difficult to be comfortable with this.

How can they learn?
Children acquire language in stages. Coos and babbles, the language of babies, comes first. Then around 10 months old, babies begin to say one word; soon after, the baby can say two words. Once the two-word stage is reached, the child's language ability explodes. The child puts together more than two words but only uses nouns, verbs, and adjectives, not speaking in complete sentences.

The best way to prepare an actual program for teaching babies is to think about how they learn and to adapt these ideas to create suitable activities. The two main facts to consider are:

1) Babies learn from listening to other people - they use their hearing powers to pick up sounds.
2) Babies learn from looking at other people - they watch what people do and try to imitate them.

Any program then, must be based upon both sounds and activity.

The next important thing to consider about babies is - parents make the best teachers! At least, they do initially. This makes the concept of attempting to teach somebody else's baby a little difficult. Naturally reserved and suspicious of strangers, it can take a long time to forge a relationship with this particular type of 'mini student'.

Home or school?
For many parents, the idea of taking their babies to a language school to learn to speak a foreign language is an alien concept. They feel that their offspring will learn best in their home environment with people that they know well. Besides, having a baby and looking after them is hard enough - without the added problem of getting them to classes on time! In fact, having a teacher come to the house can be a viable option if the parents are really keen. The child will be much more relaxed for a start.

However, there is another side to this coin! The parents will feel obliged to have the house tidy, there may be outside interruptions and other people may be around to distract from things.

The classroom environment
Why not make the 'classroom' a home from home? Day care centers have used this concept with success for years. It's just as feasible for language schools. Babies need several things. These have to be considered when setting up a room. They include:

* Comfort
* Food
* Relaxation
* Stimulation
* Safety

One of the things that new parents appreciate most is the chance to relax and enjoy their offspring without the outside pressures that inevitably form part of their everyday life. It follows, therefore that the 'classroom' should be presented as a place that is both restful and relaxing. A comfortable chair or cushion for the caregiver (who will need to be present for the very young), brightly colored rugs on the floor and lots of interesting looking and SAFE toys. The room itself should be as 'baby proof' as possible.

Next, the teacher needs to be relaxed and not expect too much at first. If they haven't seen the baby before then he/she will probably scream and create a big fuss. This is normal of course! The other important thing to remember is that the caregiver needs to be comfortable too. Not just physically, but mentally. Obviously, the teacher needs to have a natural empathy with babies, but they have to relate to the adult in the room too. There are two ways to look at this:

1. The caregiver is grateful for any time you can give their child and appreciate you 'taking over' and letting them relax.
2. The caregiver is quite keen to learn the language too and wants to be actively involved in the process.

It's important to recognize what is wanted. Sometimes their feelings may alter, depending on levels of tiredness etc.

Methods of teaching
Dealing with a baby is totally different to dealing with an older student. For a start, the baby's temperament can change on a minute by minute basis. You cannot exactly 'plan' a lesson. At first, the challenge is to get the baby to accept you. Remember that you are a stranger to them and they won't be at all interested in anything you have to show them unless they have overcome their apprehension. If they can see that their caregiver is happy with you and that you seem to be relaxed with them then they should start to unwind and relax.

This may take longer than you think, especially if you don't see them very often! A big disadvantage of teaching a baby in a formal situation is that you don't have continuous contact. This can be used to your advantage though if the parent is prepared to work with the child themselves at home in between times, using the words you have given them.

After that, it's a question of trying to decide how to get them to start recognizing some simple words. In reality, this is actually quite easy! The first things that are learned in a language program are usually:

* Colors
* Body parts
* Numbers
* Objects
* Phrases

If you can find a way of teaching these to the child via a method that is stimulating and understandable to them, then you are on the way to success!

Teaching tools
Whatever interests the baby. If this is a cardboard box and a plastic mat then so be it. Teaching babies can make you very creative… However, there are some things that can be introduced. It's best to do this in stages as a small child can be overwhelmed by the sight of a big pile of toys or a laughing, all singing, all dancing, teacher. Much better to produce something incredibly interesting, such as a brightly colored activity toy and to sit there playing with it and talking about it's virtues. Nothing so stimulating as curiosity! Some suggestions for teaching aids include:

These are a wonderful way to teach colors and numbers. They can also be used to introduce phrases e.g. "Open the door, close the door", "where is it?" etc. Baby toys are often produced in bright, primary colors that catch the eye and are very distinctive. With such a variety of toys to choose from there is no end to the opportunities they provide. Good toys include:

* Activity boxes with colorful shapes.
* Colored blocks - especially ones that make noise
* Items with recognizable characters. It's amazing how young children can identify people like Mickey Mouse.
* Balls - great for rolling backwards and forward
* Plastic skittles - fun to knock down and perfect for counting practice. The very young like to throw them about.
* Soft toys - animals, characters etc. Good for naming objects.

At this stage we are just looking at baby type toys. Boxed games are not so suitable for them. They prefer games that you invent such as "peek a boo" and hiding things.

NB: Always remember that any toy used has to be carefully checked to ensure that it is suitable for the age range you are teaching. Babies will put things in their mouth even if you tell them not to.

Even a small baby can enjoy looking at books. It is easy to find special "baby versions" produced in thicker cardboard and made to be durable. They usually have very simple stories and are visually interesting with bright colors and lots of pictures. The baby will only want to look at the pictures and maybe chew the book. However, they are a great way to teach objects.

As the child gets a little older then "lift the flap" books can be introduced so that they can see what is hiding underneath. These too are often made of durable materials. Familiar books can help the baby to relax and they are wonderful tools for the beginning or the end of a lesson.

Things in the room
Pictures on the wall, colorful friezes, brightly colored rugs, interesting ornaments, tables, chairs, windows etc. The baby can see all of these things and they can all be incorporated into a teaching program. Items such as pictures and windows can be good diversions if the baby is starting to get restless and needs some extra stimulation.

The people in the room
There will probably be at least three people in the room, including the baby. They are perfect for using to teach parts of the body, colors ("she's wearing red shoes") numbers (How many shoes?") and objects. In fact, using the natural resources of people can be a great way to learn. In addition, interactive words and actions such as "thank you" and "good-bye" (with a wave of the hand) can be the ones that stick best in the baby's mind. If everyone in the room is showing them the way then they will be sure to copy.

Singing songs
Music can be so important to a child's learning that it deserves it's own mention. Learning to sing songs is very easy and the baby can soon learn to recognize words and actions. They may not understand the concept of "Twinkle, twinkle, little star", but they will certainly be able to pick up on how to raise their hands up to the sky and wave their fingers to make stars.

There are many songs that encourage the child to move around, count and remember phrases and colors. In addition, singing a song with a child is very interactive and they usually love it. A familiar repertoire of songs will make them feel very at home as they learn.

Language programs
Having said all this, you don't actually have to rely on being creative yourself. Teaching young children has become a specialized business and there are many available resources that do a wonderful job of providing all the materials and ideas you could need. However, when you are selecting a resource, bear in mind the factors above and see if you can find a program that effectively covers the various areas.

LETTERLAND, for example, is an English language phonics system that has been designed by a company in Britain to introduce the sounds and shapes of English. It caters to a wide age range and provides a variety of interesting resources and ideas that will keep children of all ages occupied for a long time! For the very young there are brightly colored, durable teaching materials such as wooden jigsaw puzzles and small picture books with chunky board pages. There are a variety of eye-catching wall friezes and posters to add interest to the room. Not only that, LETTERLAND have produced a selection of musical tapes and videos which hold a baby's attention. Overall, this shows a good example of the type of useful program that can be utilized by teachers of English as a foreign language.

If you can begin to teach a child a new language at a very young age then it's a wonderful start for them in life. The best teachers and supporters are caregivers, but they can help and learn at the same time and feel good themselves. If they are able to speak some of the language too then they can reinforce the child's learning when they are away from the classroom.

Teaching a small baby can be incredibly rewarding for the teacher. At no other stage in life do humans go through rapid development. Not only are you seeing them learn a foreign language, you are watching them grow and develop. It doesn't take long for them to change from a quiet child who sits on a rug to a mobile maniac who try's to test everything in the room, to an older child who actually listens to what you say. Hearing them speak to you in the language you have taught them gives you a wonderful feeling of achievement!


Newsweek "Your Child" special edition
Spring/summer 1997

Two or More Languages in Early Childhood
Annick De Houwer

Gray Matters. The Developing Brain
Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives

Mindpower System
Jonathon Hancock

Infant Dual Language Acquisition revisited
Lee Pham

Why should your children be bilingual?
Bet Key Wong

Can preschool children be taught a second language?
Jeanette Vos

Babies learn language lessons before they are taught
Peter Jusczyk and Gary Marcus. Johns Hopkins Medical School

Babies Understand "Baby Talk"
Peter Jusczyk. Johns Hopkins Medical School

Goo-goo, Ga-ga really helps baby learn to talk
Patricia Kuhl, University of Washington

Infants Learn Language
Richard Aslin and Jenny Saffran. University of Rochester

Infant Language Acquisition
Peter Jusczyk and Rochelle Newman

How Infants begin to extract words from speech
Peter Jusczyk


Lynda Watson

Originally from England, Lynda Watson is currently living in Japan with her Kiwi husband and two elementary school aged children. With a background as a corporate trainer, she has since worked as a writer producing textbooks for use in New Zealand and Australian schools. The arrival of her children helped her develop a keen interest in child development and language learning. Prior to living in Japan, she was an active member of the New Zealand Playcentre system and a president of the Toy Library association. Both of these societies encouraged the concept of "learning through play" which Lynda continues to use in her teaching in Japan.

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