Babies Learn Best

Our columnist argues that learning a language doesn’t require an age minimum…

Recently in, an online local newspaper, I read an article about a new decree that will not allow Vietnamese children under five to attend international educational programs in the country. The decree’s basic premise is: “Very early second-language acquisition would dilute the Vietnamese identity of children as well as their identification with Vietnamese culture and interfere with their ability to learn their mother tongue properly.”

“If Vietnamese children study at international schools, they will very likely speak foreign languages instead of their mother tongue,” Nguyen Thanh Huyen, deputy chief of the Education Ministry’s International Cooperation Department, goes on to say.

My husband and I co-authored a white paper, now translated into 11 languages, which proves that the earlier children are involved in learning a second language, the more natural it is for them to understand and speak the language without diluting their mother tongue.

Internationally, there is a developing awareness of the importance of introducing foreign language instruction at the youngest age possible, and recent research indicates that a baby has the ability to learn any of the world languages. Linguist Patricia Kuhl ascertained this conclusion based upon brain measures in the form of electrophysiological scans (ERPs).

She documents the transformation that occurs between eight and ten months of age as infants learn to “take statistics” from the language to which they’re exposed, already beginning to determine which sounds are linguistically significant and which are not.

Adults are culture-bound listeners, but a six-to-eight month-old baby can discriminate any sound in any language. In addition, new technology further verifies an already accepted premise that only human speech can trigger language discrimination. When exposed to a new language for the first time at nine months, infants will learphonetically from a live, interacting human being, but not from a disembodied source, such as audio or television, even though the acoustic information remains the same in both situations.

International examples abound as English language learners in many countries begin their foreign language education as early as 15 months. In France, the Education Minister suggested in January 2011 to have children at age three begin English education in maternelleor nursery school. The most effective approach to facilitate English Language Learning (ELL) for very young children is the “Natural Approach.” Its important underlying principle is an emphasis on language ‘acquisition’ as opposed to language ‘processing’. The child is encouraged to speak and think in the second or foreign language, and this takes precedence over analytical processing of formal language structure and syntax.

Meaning is considered the essence of language, and vocabulary, not grammar, the heart of language. Emphasizing the need to make children as comfortable as possible during the learning process, a wide range of activities including music, focused listening, movement (Total Physical Response – TPR), and story time should be incorporated into the curriculum.

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