Antonella Sorace: Teaching children a language is investment

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Why is it good to learn languages at a young age? For two main reasons.

First, a young child’s brain is more flexible and receptive to new languages. But it is important to bear in mind that young children don’t learn in the same way as older children or adults: as long as they are exposed to the language in situations that they find engaging, they are better at learning in an implicit way, without focusing on rules and formal aspects of language.

Second, young children haven’t had enough time to internalise the negative attitudes about foreign languages that are so common in the UK. Too many people still think that learning a second language makes children confused and unable to develop good language skills in their first language; or that language learning is unnecessary because “everyone speaks English”.

Research on bilingualism, however, provides a different picture: early language learning makes children better at understanding the structure of any language, taking into account other people’s points of view, and paying attention to tasks in an efficient way. In short, language learning opens the mind in many different ways and so it is a long-term investment in a better society.

That’s why the Scottish Government’s 1+2 plan is an important step in the right direction. For the plan to work, though, it has to go together with an information campaign to get parents and teachers on board, so that they know the facts and benefits of early language learning. We think that researchers can play a vital role in connecting research with the community.

The information centre I direct at the University of Edinburgh – Bilingualism Matters – is doing just that, working to raise awareness about the results of research in all sectors of society to enable more and more people to make informed decisions on this matter. We believe that the Early Chinese Language pilot project will tap into young children’s natural curiosity and implicit learning skills and show that Mandarin is not “a difficult language” at that age. However, it is crucial to have realistic expectations about what can be achieved in a short time and on the basis of limited exposure: not fluency in Mandarin but a natural awareness about words, sounds and sentences of this language that can be a good basis for further learning of Mandarin or other languages.

Even though things won’t change overnight, we are seeing many positive signs of a change in attitudes towards language learning in Scotland.

• Antonella Sorace is professor of developmental linguistics at Edinburgh University and director of Bilingualism Matters