I’ve been called on recently by a preschool in Johannesburg to assist with the growing number of Chinese nationals now filling this upmarket Sandton School; resulting in discipline issues and constant disruptions from these children who do not yet understand English commands and instructions. It immediately got me thinking about the scores of children entering preschools or even primary schools every year, with little to no English proficiency. This is a common problem in our country and not one dealt with effectively because of the many myths and misconceptions about second/multiple language learning.

The rules of learning a language apply whether you are 8months, 8yrs or 80years, and the way any language must be introduced (1st, 2nd, 3rd) is done the same throughout as well. Failure to do this process correctly, skip a few steps or undermine the process altogether, will result in confusion, disinterest, and at worst rebellion. In our experience at LinguaMites Multilingual Preschool, the following fundamentals need to be in place for language learning:

  1. One-Person-One-Language & being Consistent in that:

There is no mixing of language or translations in our classrooms. No matter what, each teacher sticks to one language in all circumstances

  1. Start as young as possible

Because language learning is what children are doing from birth, it’s important to start as young as possible. It also means there is less chance of rebelling against the language which may come in later years.

  1. Quality

Although colloquial language is prevalent throughout society, we have taken the decision to teach language of a high standard. Children can learn how to mix later, but it’s easier to go down than up.

  1. Quantity

We do each language every day so there is enough input in that language for language learning to take place. Children need to hear a word 500x before it becomes part of their vocabulary so having enough exposure to a language is important for them to make it their own.

  1. Environment (includes no English/translation)

We create an environment where a child needs to speak that language, like moving to a new country and having to find the bus station, you get creative in how to communicate because you have to.

  1. Peer to Peer

There needs to be a balance between speakers and non-speakers so that the non-speakers can watch and learn from their peers as well as from the teacher. If non-speakers dominate the class, they will dominate the teacher that results in a loss of Environment/necessity.

We discuss these in more detail at one of several open days held throughout the year, but suffice to say these pillars have meant that language learning within our preschool environment has been effective and enjoyed.

However, in addition to a second language English teacher being consistent, speaking good English, creating an environment where there is a need to speak English, and starting young (all of which we assume is taking place in an English-medium preschool) these teachers need to employ additional tactics and methodologies to get their message across. After all, if you can no longer rely on your messages being understood, how do you convey meaning?

This was one of the first problems we were faced with back in July 2013 when our Multilingual preschool opened it’s doors to children who had never been exposed to Chinese or isiZulu; and our amazing and experienced staff quickly got to work breaking new methodologies down in a practical setting.

It was also this very problem that birthed our caregiver training for nannies in homes to help them become ‘isiZulu Language Tutors’ – because it is not as easy as being a native speaker, and simply speaking your language ‘around’ the child in order for them to acquire it. That is in fact one of the great myths about language learning for children: that it is effortless, and almost happens through osmosis! If that were true more people in SA would speak isiZulu or a number of other languages for that matter. I know plenty of people who have lived in China for years and never learnt to speak Chinese, and many Chinese in SA who haven’t learnt to speak English! Being ‘around’ language isn’t enough, other things simply must be in place – and the same goes for children.

So how do you teach someone a new language (preferably your first language)?

Well, the very same way you would teach a toddler or infant who cannot yet speak:

  1. Use actions

Use visual aids (of all sorts) to convey the subject you are talking about. For instruction or commands, you must initially follow through with a demonstration and in time the instruction together with the action will be understood and followed.

  1. Enunciate and slow down your speech

Children need to hear clearly where words end and begin. Second language speakers hear a whole line of babble and need clear distinction between words.

  1. Simplify your sentences to their most basic parts

Don’t use unnecessary or fluffy speech; this is especially true of big adjectives. Start with nouns and verbs – things that children can see and do, before focusing on what things are like. Specifically instructions, simplify “You need to go to the bathroom now” to “go bathroom” followed by a modeling of that action.

  1. Be prepared to do this 1 on 1 or in a smaller class environment

It is extremely taxing to be spoken at all day without comprehension of whats going on around you, which is why children in this environment will just switch off (and in turn become naughty). A teacher must make deliberate effort to spend 1:1 time with a child who is struggling, creating a deliberate ‘necessity’ for them to listen, repeat and respond appropriately.

  1. Get the child/person to respond back to you

Comprehension is only one side of the language coin, and many people are satisfied with just this first step. But being able to speak language involves participation and this must be required by the teacher. Don’t settle a child just following an instruction – can they respond back appropriately or at the very least copy what you say. Pronunciation is very important, and must be emphasized in second language classes. 

  1. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Like a baby learning language through songs and rhymes that mommy and daddy must repeat hundreds of times, repetition is as essential to second language learning as to first. Songs, rhymes, routines, repetition of simple instructions every day like “get your hat” before break time; slowly these ongoing habits solidify language knowledge in a child’s mind. It may be taxing for the teacher, but essential to the child’s language learning.

As I mentioned before, this forms the basis of our training to all our teaching staff, Caregivers, and ZuluMites Activity workers. They follow these tactics religiously and the results so far have spoken for themselves. Of course, we emphasis play, engaging activities, gross motor movement and music to solidify the vocabulary, but essentially all our programmes use these tactics above.

We know that there must be many parents, teachers and schools who are facing some of these challenges in a very real way. We offer training for schools on this subject, and welcome questions and comments to help you along your way! – info@linguamites.co.za