Preschool fun!

I love TED talks because  they’re such a huge source of inspiration and when I saw Mary Dunn’s Facebook advert:

……… reminded me of one of my favourite talks by Dr Patricia Kuhl entitled ‘The linguistic genius of babies’. As a former languages teacher,  I’ve always been interested in the whole question of language acquisition and I found the results of this particular piece of research absolutely fascinating.

Dr Kuhl is the hugely respected co-director of the Institute for Brain and Learning Sciences at the University of Washington. She’s internationally recognized for her research on early language and brain development, and studies that show how young children learn. Her work has played a major role in demonstrating how early exposure to language alters the brain.

Dr Kuhl explains that until the age of about six or seven years old, children are linguistic geniuses. Later, as her graph below shows, their ability to learn a second language steadily declines. She points out that whilst scientists do not dispute this curve, there is still much research being done to explain why it works this way.

Regardless of what the graph shows, I would argue that there is never a bad time to start learning a language and that doing so at all ages reaps so many intellectual, emotional and social benefits. It all depends on factors such as effort, exposure, and teaching style.

With regard to those wanting to do so in the latter stages of their life, there has been much in the press about language learning helping to improve cognitive development and slowing down the brain’s aging process. There has even been research showing that second language learning can fend off the effects of dementia because it exercises certain critical areas of the brain.

In terms of children! Where do I start? The benefits are countless, well researched and documented. They include:

  • Improved communication and social skills
  • Improved problem-solving, critical-thinking
  • Improved memory and concentration
  • Greater confidence
  • More curious about the world  and more receptive to learning in other areas
  • Increased social opportunities
  • Increased empathy towards others and more receptive to other cultures
  • Greater awareness of own language, including a bigger, richer vocabulary

The way the language is taught is critical and speaking as a language teacher of many years, I think Mary sounds as though she’s got it just right for children of this age!

At French for Fun! we know that children learn when they are happy and in a fun, stimulating environment. We teach French through games, songs, rhymes, dress-up, role-play and funny puppets.’

Mary’s pre-school classes in Yatton and Clevedon  think she’s got it right too:

‘Mary’s French for pre-schoolers classes are great! Her experience in working with children, and French language expertise, encourages a fun filled learning environment! My children thoroughly enjoy the weekly classes and French words regularly feature in our home life now.’

My little one absolutely loves her French lessons. Mary is really engaging with the children and teaches at a level and speed that’s relevant to their age. I would 100% recommend this class to everyone.’

Mary is so kind and patient with the children and it is nice to take part in a session that is a bit different to the usual things I do with my little boy.’

My 3 year old has just done week two of French and I’m surprised by how many words she can remember already! The class is very engaging with great songs and props that keep her attention while having fun. I’d recommend to anyone looking for an activity to do with their toddler that gets them thinking and learning while also having a great time!’

Mary’s classes last forty minutes and the first session is free. Costs after that are between £18-22.50 per term.

Back to Dr Kuhl who focuses on the first critical period in development, the period in which babies try to master which sounds are used in their language. She explains how babies under eight months from different cultures can detect any sound in any languages from around the world, whilst adults cannot. When the babies are trying to master the sound used in their native language, they enter a critical period for sound development.

Dr Kuhl conducted a study on  a group of babies in America learning ra and la sounds compared to a group of babies in Japan. At six to eight months babies in both cultures recognized these sounds with the same frequency. However, by the age of ten to twelve months, after multiple training sessions the babies in America were much better at detecting the ra and la sounds than the Japanese babies.

Her research showed that babies take statistics on how frequently they hear sounds in their native and non-native languages. Because the sound ra and la occur more frequently in the English language rather than in Japanese, the American babies recognized these sounds better. She believed that the result in this study indicated a shift in brain development, during which babies from each culture are preparing for their own languages. It is why she calls babies “citizens of the world” and adults “culture bound listeners” – we can discriminate the sounds of our own language, but not those of foreign languages.

Dr Kuhl was curious as to whether babies would take statistics when exposed to a brand new language. She had already carried out similar experiments with monolinguals tested with Mandarin in Taiwan and America with similar results. At six to eight months, the babies are totally equivalent but two months later the Taiwanese babies are getting better, not the American babies.

During this period she exposes the American babies to Mandarin. She compares it to having Mandarin relatives come and visit for a month and move into your house and talk to the babies for twelve sessions.  What she discovers is the babies exposed to Mandarin for twelve sessions were as good as the babies in Taiwan who had been listening for ten and a half months.

Another very interesting aspect of Dr Kuhl’s research revealed that that  babies cannot learn from television, they need lots of face to face interaction to learn how to talk. This is primarily because a baby’s interaction with others engages the social brain, a critical element for helping children learn to communicate in their native and non-native language. Mary attested to this explaining that the children or their younger siblings were very keen to interact with her and watched her face and mouth very intently. She explained that it wasn’t  uncommon for one of the one year-old siblings to stand right in front of her and just stare at her face for long periods of time!

Based on Dr Kuhl’s unique research which relates to the first critical period in development, if you want to give your child the very best opportunity to learn a second language, you have to start in your baby’s first year of life.

Although her research is about the first critical period in development, other educators  such as Maria Montessori, Glenn Doman, Shichida, agree that exposing children to other languages at an early age offers them the most chance of success.

If you would  like more information about Mary’s classes, email or check out French For Fun Yatton on Facebook

The dates for Mary’s new term March classes are 3rd, 10th, 17th, 24th and 31st; don’t forget, Mary is happy for you to go along to the first one and see what it’s all about, free of charge.

If you’d like to listen to Dr Kuhl’s TED talk yourself, here’s the link

Have something to say? Leave a Reply...