A considerable body of research has been conducted at the Council of Europe, its European Centre for Modern Languages in Graz and the European Union which confirms the value of early language learning, but also points to difficulties and challenges. The importance of quality pre and in-service teacher education is paramount.
The ECML offers a range of support materials and training modules to ensure that appropriate pedagogies, based on plurilingual and intercultural approaches, are embedded from the very beginning. These approaches also emphasise the use of active, communicative and interactive teaching methods and new technologies. They encourage cooperation with parents as home-school partnerships can strongly support the learning process and foster favourable attitudes toward other languages and other cultures. Collaboration between class teachers, language specialists and teachers of other subjects is also promoted.
The benefits of early language learning
- There is a good fit between the methodology used in active, communicative language teaching and the ludic approach used in nursery schools and the early years of primary.
- Younger children are at a stage in their development where they are to new phenomena and motivation to learn are both still very high.
- Children enjoy learning a new language and are receptive to it; they are less self-conscious than older learners and therefore may be more able to absorb language rather than block it out.
- They are in the phase of "natural" language acquisition, particularly between the ages of 2 and 4 where the brain is in a critical phase in relation to natural language learning - and they pick up good pronunciation easily.
- Starting early helps sensitize children to "otherness" and to the introduction of plurilingual and intercultural education from a very young age.
- It also contributes to language awareness and supports the development not only of a second, but also of the first language of the child.It enhances cognitive growth through communicative activities which help to develop linguistic skills as well as memory and concentration.
- It supports the social and emotional development of the child by means of motivating tasks in pair and group work.
Moreover, there are logistical and pragmatic reasons for starting early such as:
- Competence in at least one additional language is a basic skill, so it is logical to begin as soon as possible.
- It makes it possible to lower the age at which students start acquiring another second or foreign language according to the formula of "mother tongue + 2" (two foreign languages in addition to the mother tongue).
- Time gained in early language learning provides some space for the other requirements of schooling.
What are the challenges faced by the generalisation of early language learning?
The generalization of early language learning raises a number of issues:
- How sustainable are the language competences acquired in early language learning? Are they maintained when children begin with more formal methods? Or is there a risk that teachers start again from the beginning, and that children lose the early enthusiasm?
- How do schools meet the needs of their learners when some will have started early whilst others have not?
- What skills are required by those teaching languages to young learners? What kind of training do they need? Should there be specific qualifications?
- What are the specific language learning outcomes of early language learning? Can CEFR descriptors be used? What quality criteria can be used to assess early language learning?
These are issues which require further research and experimentation.
ECML resources relating to early language learning
ECML early language learning projects provide support for the development of professional competences in this area. The Centre’s 2012-2015 programme includes a project specifically targeting early language learning:
The project is developing a tool for reflective practice in initial teacher training, targeting professional competences and attitudes of teachers of 3 to 6 year olds with regard to languages and cultures. It has adopted the basic approach of the European Portfolio for Student Teachers of Languages (EPOSTL) and is intended to provide a framework both for initial teacher training and for continuous professional development.
This is an ECML publication that considers the topic of how to assess young learners in relation to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. The handbook and website offer materials and guidelines for the assessment of their pupils’ reading and writing.
The Centre also offers a vast array of materials in several languages in order to help teachers and teacher trainers select and introduce motivating language activities, integrate language learning with the curricular content and provide useful training materials.
These take the form of publications, toolkits, case studies, classroom material and reports, all available free of charge.