In the UK, at least, debate surrounding ‘an early start’ has existed for more than thirty years, with some stating that teaching foreign languages to children as young as four was futile. The danger of such an attitude is reflected in the results of a European Survey on Language Competences, undertaken in 2011, which revealed that performance in modern languages of 15 and 16 year olds in the UK is considerably lower than their European counterparts. At Wandsworth Prep, however, this is not the sole reason underpinning our decision to teach both French and Spanish from an early age.
Dr. Pascual-Leone, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, undertook research with a specific focus on the benefits of early second language learning. The study provides an important first step in understanding the impact of learning a second language and the ageing brain; his research paves the way for future causal studies of bilingualism and cognitive decline prevention.
Why should learning another language be started at such a young age?
Quite simply, the younger the learner, the better they are at mimicking new sounds and adopting pronunciation. The brain is more open to new sounds and patterns in pre-adolescence, and young children intuitively understand that language is something to explore, to play around with, and to enjoy.
Children who grow up learning about languages develop empathy for others, a curiosity for different cultures and ideas, and are prepared to take their place in a global society. Furthermore, in later years, career opportunities increase for those with additional languages to offer.
However, the benefits of learning a foreign language extend beyond the ability to communicate in another language. It has been shown that in preparing children for success in 11+ examinations, learning a second language leads to higher test scores, a by-product which we would be wise not to ignore.
One of the most tested key skills at 11+ is comprehension. A study undertaken by York University in Canada revealed that children's knowledge of a second, or indeed third, language leads to distinct advantages in learning to read, most notably on the child’s ability to infer meaning from texts- a skill which challenges many 11 year olds.
Whilst we are committed to ensuring that each child reaches their academic potential here at Wandsworth Prep, we are also concerned with preparing our children for life beyond Year 6. A recurrent outcome of research spanning more than 40 years is that young language learners are more creative, and better problem solvers than those who do not study a second language. Even more significantly, Genesee and Cloud report that ‘multilingualism is a key step in understanding and appreciating differences’- an ever called upon skill in our increasingly turbulent world.