Learning a language begins with baby steps
Vietnam projects that by 2020 more Vietnamese students graduating from secondary vocational schools, colleges and universities will be able to use English in their daily communication because of an early enrollment in private English language tutorial programs. A government mandate that proposes “English will become a compulsory subject at the third grade [level] onward” is too late of a start. From birth to age seven, children are more adept at learning languages. After that, their ability starts dropping dramatically before leveling out at age 17 or 18.
Babies’ brains are sensitive to subtle sound differences and can register how often they hear particular sounds. At six months, babies distinguish the minuscule variations in sounds that mark different languages called phonemes – speech sounds that distinguishes one word from another, for example the sounds “d” and “t” in the words “bid” and “bit.” A phoneme is the smallest phonetic unit that can carry meaning. Babies can do so for every language in the world. Search “Patricia Kuhl Ted Talk” on YouTube to see the Linguistic Genius of Babies – where this is proven by measuring a baby’s brain activity when they are spoken to by a parent and then again by a person speaking a foreign language.
Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl is internationally recognized for her research on early language and brain development, and studies that show how young children can learn. Dr. Kuhl’s work has played a major role in demonstrating how early exposure to language alters the brain. It has implications for critical periods in development for bilingual education and reading readiness, for developmental disabilities involving language, and for research on computer understanding of speech.
A critical period in language development occurs between eight months and 10 months, when babies begin to focus on the sounds of a particular language and lose the ability to hear subtle sounds of other languages. That’s when Japanese babies lose the ability to hear the difference between “ra” and “la,” sounds not used in the Japanese language.
Reviewing the largest English language learning institutes does not yet reflect this newly recognized fact. Only ILA, for example, offers a Jumpstart program for children as young as 2.5-years-old. VUS offers a Smart Kids program for children from 4-years-old and Apollo English Center also offers Apollo Junior classes for 4-year-olds. The British Council offers classes for children from Grade 1, approximately 6-years-old. The only English language program currently available for babies in Vietnam is Kindermusik where classes begin at birth and continue up to 6-years-old.
So how can Vietnam solve the challenge of teaching “competent enough English teachers to churn out an English savvy young workforce by 2020″? The answer lies in convincing government and private sector educators that language programs must begin as early as possible. The methodology for teaching the youngest children a foreign language exists; it basically incorporates music, nursery rhymes and movement combined with picture cards and picture storybooks.
Meanwhile, a bilingual society in 2020 appears to be a long shot.
Bio: Lauralynn Goetz, B.A., M.M.Ed. US, is the director of an early childhood education center in Vietnam