Didi Ananda Devapriya's Meditation and Yoga Blog

Foreign Language Aquisition in Early Childhood

Date: 16 July 2006 15:09

The mind of children is already in a state of creative problem solving all the time as they constantly absorb new information about their world and how to interact with it, making it easy and natural for them to learn new languages.

Language acquisition is even easier for children than adults when presented in play way format because they have no inhibitions about learning something new.  They naturally parrot-imitate new things. Often you can find small children babbling new words to themselves as they gain mastery over them during moments of free play.

Expression is motivated by feelings and thoughts which are universal to all human beings. Everything in the universe emanates particular vibrations. To communicate thoughts or ideas, we use sounds that we learned to associate with those different vibrations.  Communication means to share or exchange our inner state with another – and this can be transmitted both verbally, through sounds, as well as non-verbally. Tone of voice, gestures and context are just as important to effective communication as having a common vocabularly of words. In fact, according to the science of Biopsychology, all human expression is universal up until it reaches the 5th cakra. It is only there that expression takes the form of a particular language.  So, if we are able to remain undistracted by the difference in the sounds of a new language, and try instead to simply  connect to the person that we want to communicate with,  then that exchanging flow of communication can happen, regardless whether we understand their words or not. In order to do this successfully, we must open up our minds and let go of our inhibitions so that we can communicate from a subtler, more intuitive layer of the mind.

When I was living in Sweden, sometimes we went door to door in Swedish neighborhoods to do fundraising. I had memorized a small introductory speech in Swedish and had learned a  handful of vocabulary words. I remember once meeting a lonely older lady, who, glad for some company, immediately began talking to me in Swedish without realizing that I didn’t actually speak the language. Yet as she pointed to photographs, I could easily understand that she was showing me her daughter who lived in Florida where it was very hot, and how her son had just graduated from university, and that they hadn’t visited in a while and she missed them. When your heart is open to people, you can understand them. I nodded, smiled, expressed sympathy through my facial expressions, and used my few words of Swedish to keep up the conversation. I don’t think she ever realised that I didn’t understand her words, because she could feel that I had understood her.

Children are already doing this naturally, as they learn like a sponge everything they can about the new world they find themselves in.

Teaching new languages to small children through playway has many advantages. As their minds are relatively free of complexes, it is easier for them to learn through direct intuition and experimentation rather than through intellect, a far more laborious and inefficient process.  Also, by having  a positive, affirming experience of learning a foreign language, they already have a taste of the joy of realizing that there are other ways to express things, and that it is fun to learn and understand this seemingly ‘secret code’.

Last school year, I did an experimental class in teaching a new foreign second language to small children aged 3-7 years old in Romania.  As the teachers already were doing English classes with the children, I decided to use Italian as the foreign language. In this way, it was a language that the children had no previous systematic exposure to, and I could more easily evaluate the effectiveness of the methods I was using.   In addition, I am fluent in Italian and know many stories and songs as I had been working in a NH school in Italy previously.  I had also experimented the same style of play-way teaching using English with Italian children, and the same principles used here would be applicable to teaching any new non-mother tongue  language to small children.

From the very first session, lessons were conducted entirely in Italian. Sometimes, when the teachers were present, they would translate parts of what I was saying, however I noticed that this usually disrupted the flow of comprehension of the children, as they would stop trying to directly intuit and guess the meaning and instead shift into a more indirect, intellectual flow of understanding through the teacher, instead of through their senses. I would reassure the teachers that it did not matter if the children were not able to understand all of the words. If I was successful in engaging their interest, and provided enough context and clues, they would soon figure out on their own the overall meaning of the individual words. Adults usually attempt to learn new languages by processing words through their intellects and translating each one into the familiar mother tongue language and then, in a second step, attempting to piece together the meaning of the whole sentence.  Philosophically speaking this is an analytical approach, dividing the whole into parts and attempting to understand each part in order to understand the whole.

Children, however, are still working in a synthetic way, unless they are trained out of it. Synthetic approach is to perceive or grasp the whole – to get an intuitive feeling for meaning, and then later, gradually the parts of that whole also become more clear and organized, but always in relation to the whole meaning, not as isolated bits. The approach to teaching language presented here, is essentially synthetic in nature. Rather than presenting new vocabulary from a page with pictures of a diversity of items such as “book, apple, bicycle, tree” that have no inherent connection, new vocabulary is presented within the context of a whole story, song, or dialogue. It is then repeated, and presented again through more songs, games and stories. Gradually experiencing the same vocabulary repeated in various circumstances, children understand not only the meaning of the word, but recognise it in the context of a whole sentence and know how and when to use it.

The lessons  always  began in a playful, joyful way introduced by a doll named “Arianna”.  Arianna was introduced in the first session as a little girl from Verona, Italy. We began with songs that the children already knew in Romanian, such as “Good morning dear earth.” As they already knew the melody and the meanings of the gestures, it was easy for them to guess at the meaning of the new words in the song.   To introduce greetings  ( hello, how are you, fine, thank you), Arianna first asked me “Buongiorno, come stai? ” , and I replied. Next  I introduced a song based on “Here is Thumbkin” which reinforced this new vocabulary, as the same introductions are repeated as a dialogue between the fingers of each hand. Because that song is so simple and repetitive, repeating the same formula of greeting for each finger, the children quickly were singing along. At that point, Arianna then went around the circle, singing in the same tune  “Hello, how are you” to each child and then letting them respond.

This is an example of the principle of vocabulary building through context and repetition. It is important for new words to be introduced not abstractly, but in a context or situation where it is easy for them to guess at the meaning. Then, after the initial introduction of the vocabulary, it is good to repeat it several times throughout the lesson, but in a variety of ways:  in this case, first as a dialogue between the teacher and the doll, then as a song, and finally as an interaction with each child. Later lessons would typically open with a quick refresher of one of these games – either Arianna would sing an introduction to each child, or we would play the game with the fingers, for example. Even once the children knew the routine very well, still I often began classes with this simple ritual because it is easier for them to switch into a playful mood with something familiar in the beginning, and then building from that to something new.

Related to the principle of introducing new vocabulary through repetition, is the principle of building vocabulary systematically. As most lessons usually centered around a story, when planning the lesson, I would usually consider the following:

1. What vocabulary that they already are familiar with can be repeated again in this story as a reinforcement?

2. What vocabulary is new and how can I introduce those words before introducing the story?

3. How can I simplify this story to maximize the use of familiar vocabulary, limit the amount of new words, and make sure to repeat new words many times?

4. Is there a simple song, poem or game that I can use or invent to reinforce the meaning of the new words introduced?

For example, I based one lesson around a story about fish in a pond. First a big fish comes and tells that he knows 100 ways to escape the fisherman’s net, and then an even bigger fish comes and says that he is even smarter and knows 1000 ways to escape. Finally a teeny tiny fish named Guiseppino comes along and says he is not very big, and not very smart and knows only one way – to hide!  When the fisherman comes with his net – Guiseppino runs and hides and saves himself, but the others get caught.

After warming up the children with some familiar songs, using hand gestures, I introduced the ideas of big, bigger, little, and teeny tiny. I used a louder, lower voice for  “big” and “bigger” with wide outstretched arms, and a squeaky voice for “tiny” miming with my fingers as if holding something very small. Children love making silly voices and gestures, and easily and naturally repeated after me, squealing in delight. I also introduced the 3 colors of the fish by going around the circle and pointing at different clothes and saying the name of the color. Then I asked who else has on orange, or yellow etc? Asking simple questions is another excellent way to reinforce and repeat new vocabulary. Also, being able to understand and respond to questions is an essential part of being able to interact in a  new language. The idea of hiding was also presented as a simple “peek a-boo” game. In this way, most of the main new concepts of story had already been introduced. This increases comprehension of the story, and then the story itself serves as reinforcement of new concepts.

I had prepared cut outs in paper of the different fish characters, the water of the pond, and the fisherman’s net, which I used to illustrate the story as I told it. As the children already knew the basic greetings, in the story the fish start by greeting each other. I took care to repeat several times the new words such as little, big and really big (grandissimo!) throughout the story, every time that fish appeared. I also used very expressive and theatrical voices for the characters, as children understand much of the meaning according to the tone of voice. At the end of the story, I introduced a song about fish that repeated again almost all of the new words. Children easily learn new words when they have been put to music and rhythm, as the music and rhythm helps them to memorize entire phrases even before they understand the separate components. It is a very synthetic tool for vocabulary reinforcement.  Singing also creates the blissful happy atmosphere that is a key to good retention of knowledge.

When the vocabulary has been prepared, and enough clues are provided through facial expressions, the tone of voice of the teacher, actions or movements, and through props and pictures, it is not difficult for children to guess and deduce the main meaning of a story, even if they haven’t understood every single word within it. The process of guessing is in itself a very active, participatory task that fully engages children. It is inherently delightful for  children to  discover meaning in this way, and I believe that their ability to retain what they have learned is far greater when they have discovered the meaning of a word themselves, rather than having had it translated and explained to them, which doesn’t involve their own cognition, but only shallow memorization skills.  Guessing meaning however,  fully engages their attention in the same way as figuring out an interesting puzzle.

Sometimes to clarify a meaning, it is helpful to introduce the opposite. For example it is easier to introduce the concept of open if it is presented together with closed using an open hand and closed fist. Also the concepts of big, bigger, small and smallest were introduced in this way. Or instead of replying to “How are you? ” with the usual “Very good”, the doll can reply “Sad” one day – with the teacher modelling the appropriate facial expression and tone of voice.  Then children can be asked “How are you today – very good or sad?”

Pacing is also very important, and requires good observation skills on the part of the teacher. It is important to not overwhelm children with so many new words that they cannot follow and “tune out”, and yet it is also important to keep the pace challenging enough so that children are actively involved, as otherwise they will again become bored and “tune out.” The teacher must stay in active communication with each child, mostly through eye contact, and feeling whether or not they are “with” her.  If even one child is starting to look distracted, it is important to try to directly involve them – perhaps through a simple question or game, and it is important to understand whether they need you to go faster or slower. My experience with the children in our school last year, was that I really had to move quickly to keep the pace lively, interesting and challenging enough for them. I could usually not repeat the same story more than 2 or 3 sessions before they were able to fully comprehend it and were hungry for something new.

As their vocabulary systematically expanded, I was also able to tell increasingly complex stories without losing their interest. It is a great delight for them to realize they can recognize words even in completely new stories and situations. Throughout a story, I would often stop and ask simple questions or let the children anticipate a phrase that repeats throughout the story – the more that they interact in this way with the story, the more that they are manipulating the information and integrating in deeper levels of their consciousness.

In Biopsychology, knowledge is referred to as a type of “pabulum” or food for the mind. In the same way that we absorb and digest food, so new information must be presented in a “tasty” or interesting way, to even enter within the mind. Next, just as food must be chewed properly, the new knowledge must be manipulated, interacted with, broken down so that it can be better assimilated. This chewing happens with language when the words are repeatedly used and experimented with in variety of different situations and contexts so that their full meaning and usage can be understood. Finally, the digestion of the language happens as the words are internalized and become intuitive knowledge – no longer is there a conscious need to think about what a word means – you just know it. Anyone who has achieved fluency in a new language knows that there comes a moment in which the mind is no longer engaged in translating but rather can just think directly in the new language, even if in a limited way due to lack of vocabulary. Once the mind achieves even a limited ability to directly think in the new language, absorption begins to accelerate exponentially. I think of it as a kind of “snow-ball effect”. Once there is a small workable kernel of internalized language within the mind, new words and phrases stick to that core and it quickly grows and expands. With children, the “translation” stage that adults go through is skipped, and they begin acquiring a kernel of internalized language immediately when the language is presented in this synthetic style.

Another fact that is important to understand when teaching language, is that though languages may be very complex in their full vocabulary – for daily use, most human beings use a much more limited vocabulary – averaging around only (xx) number of words for the majority of daily interactions.

When teaching a language, mastery does not necessary come from the quantity of words memorized, but rather from understand the rules of how and when to utilise them meaningfully. Language is actually a machine for transmitting ideas.  A machine is not just composed of metal bits and wheels – it needs a certain structure in order to work. The words are simply building blocks, but the structure is grammar.

Most of us when we hear the word grammar, think of very abstract, rather dry and boring classes explaining rules and formulas of grammar.

But actually, grammar can be just as fun and exciting a part of understanding a language as learning new words, if it is not taught separately and intellectually, but rather simply demonstrated in action.

When the vocabulary is simple and easily understood – then basic rules of grammar can be demonstrated effectively with examples. Children’s minds are in a state of trying to absorb the whole universe, and to do this efficiently, the mind is constantly searching for patterns and laws so that complex amounts of information can be simplified by organizing them into predictable, systematic patterns.  It is this natural tendency towards classification and order that can make grammar easy to intuit if simply presented in a way that that focuses the attention on a logical pattern or law, and demonstrates it as a consistent  in a diversity of situations.

For example, the law of plurals can be easily presented using a few sets of similar objects such as fruits. First one apple is shown with the word “apple”. Then “two apples, three apples, many apples”  – each time emphasizing slightly the final “z” sound. Then the same pattern is demonstrated with pears, with oranges. Then to further generalize and assimilate the rule – it can be demonstrated with body parts – hand, hands, leg, legs, eye, eyes. Of course – in the beginning only examples that follow a regular rule should be used (ie not child, children right away).

The idea of possessive case can also be demonstrated through a dialogue or game. “This is your apple. This is my apple”, with the child giving an apple to one child and keeping one for himself, and then using other objects so that the consistency of the your, my pattern is highlighted. Then a playful game can be invented – “Is that my shoe?” the teacher asks the child. “No! it is your shoe!!!”

In languages where verbs change their endings to agree with the subject – this is best understood by hearing simple sentences with just subject/ verb repeated. In this way the common change to the ending can be recognized.

When you consider that most children have achieved significant mastery over their mother tongue before they enter into formal education about grammar – it is obvious that we can and do learn grammar in an intuitive, practical way through perception, then generalizing the pattern and practicing it. This is far more synthetic, and holistic approach than trying to memorize abstract rules and then figure out how to put them into practice which requires a lot of interference of the conscious intellect, and only slows down the process of internalization of language. Once one has achieved a workable grasp of language has been achieved however, then intellectual understanding of the rules does help provide deeper insights into the working of language, but this is not necessary with small children.

In summary, to learn how to teach language in the most synthetic and efficient way possible, it is necessary to intuitively study how children absorb and acquire language. This can be done through objectively observing small children as they learn language, but a more yogic approach is to also do subjective research as we seek to remember and observe our own experiences with learning language. Having had to learn and achieve fluency in several new languages as an adult, I have found that the process of acquiring a new language brings up many early-childhood memories of learning language, and has also provided me with many insights into the functioning of the mind as it acquires and organizes comprehension skills of a new language and also learns how to mobilise and utilise that information for self-expression. It is a very fascinating process to observe oneself as the mind creates new connections and patterns, almost like new circuitry, for the expression of a new language. This subjective research then makes it easier to intuitively understand and discriminate effective psychological ways of presenting a new language to children.  For example, I have observed within my own mind that when I am learning a new language, my mind tends to lapse into a sort o “parrot” state where when I have grasped a new word or concept, I tend to find myself repeating it many times in order to “chew” and digest it. I may even unconsciously play with it, imagining using it in some situation where I needed it and didn’t know how to say it. Usually, I seek opportunities to again repeat that word later in the day to further make it “stick”. However, if I hear a new word, but do not go through that “parrot” process, it quickly fades and disappears.  I also noticed that when I read many new words from a vocabulary list, I may understand them when I read them – but later in real-life situations where I need to use them – they are very difficult to recall.  However, when figure out the meaning of a word on my own – for example, seeing a word I have been hearing for days written on a poster advertising juice, and finally I understand what that word means and how it looks written – I am very unlikely to forget that word ever again.

So all of the various principles that I have mentioned in this article, such as repetition, systematic vocabulary building, deducing grammar through learning to recognize patterns, answering simple questions, guessing meaning from context and clues as more effective than having it translated, using music and rhythm, and making the knowledge practical and interactive – are all things that I have subjectively discovered work best for me when I am learning a language. Having read and studied various other techniques of teaching language have served to clarify and better express some of these basic discoveries.  I believe it is an essential part of Neo-humanist teaching to develop this synthetic, subjective approach of reflecting on our own experiences as learners in order to improve our teaching techniques and make them more intuitively rooted. Neo-Humanist teaching techniques cannot simply be learned from the intellectual level like a recipe, but must be grounded in our personal intuitive experience so that they are a spontaneous and natural expression of our being.

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About anandadevapriya

I am an acarya, or spiritual teacher of Ananda Marga yoga and meditation.

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