Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Children and Language

Small children are naturally wired to learn language. Our complex language is a fundamental part of being human, and mastering language, both understanding and talking, is one of the most important things that we learn in the journey from newborn to toddlerhood and beyond.

Even our hearing is particularly sensitive when we are very young. Nuances of pronunciation which are lost on adult ears are clearly detectable by small children. This is one reason why if you started to learn, for example, Chinese at age 30, you would probably never be able to develop a native-sounding accent however much you tried. Your ears and brain would simply not detect tiny differences in sound because as your brain developed and only learned, say, European languages while you were growing up, the nuances of sound unique to your own familiar languages would be prominent and those important for languages that are very different would gradually become "invisible" to your ears.

Given all that, as well as the personal experience of going to school in Israel at age 7 when I could barely speak Hebrew, and becoming fluid in a matter of weeks, I was amazed to hear that some schools here in the UK teach classes in several different languages simultaneously to accommodate the diverse linguistic backgrounds of their pupils. A math teacher might have a number of different translators in the classroom to ensure that each pupil has the lesson translated into his or her native language.

While the importance of encouraging and championing all the cultures and backgrounds of the different students is vital, I suspect that the emphasis on language is unnecessary. If small children are immersed in a language which is new to them, rather than having it translated, they will pick it up extremely quickly.

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