Children are born with special language learning skills. Research has confirmed what we have all observed – it is easier for children to learn foreign languages than it is for adults. A child’s brain is specifically designed to learn and apply language efficiently. I have called this function the Language Box – and it is amazing!
The Language Box
Different aspects of language skill are housed in different parts of the brain, but the image of a box with a closing lid helps to remind us that the Language Box is open only temporarily. It operates for the first seven years of a child’s life. After that it starts to close and by the time a child is eleven years old, the box has, to all intents and purposes, shut.
Of course we can learn languages after that age, but it is much harder because we can’t use the special features that a child’s Language Box offers. These features are uniquely useful because they provide the young brain with three key skills that adults lose over time:
Multi‑lingual mapping: The Language Box automatically sorts the sounds of different languages into pattern groups so that it can separate and use each language efficiently.
Automatic use of grammar: The Language Box recognizes grammatical rules and applies them automatically to new ideas that are expressed using the same structure. This means that only exceptions to grammar rules need to be actively taught to children.
Perfect pronunciation: The Language Box memorises how the face muscles move physically to make each new sound and copies them. A young child has a soft, flexible face and so can learn to pronounce any language perfectly.
The sounds that children learn to make appear to be a product of their environment. That is to say that they learn to say the sounds they hear. They can therefore vocalise the sounds for any language if they have the chance to hear it during those years of early language development.
This makes the years from tiny to ten the ideal time to learn not just the home language but also a second or even a third language. In doing so, children take full advantage of the skills offered by the Language Box while it is still open.
Many parents say they don’t want their children to start learning English before they have mastered their home language and some teachers agree with them. This sounds perfectly logical until you see how the Language Box works. It really is a case of ‘use it or lose it’. You, as a teacher, are in the best position to make sure the children you teach use this golden language opportunity.
Filling the Language Box
Babies start to sort sounds into language patterns from birth. No one tells a baby to start saying Mama, Baba, Dada. A baby instinctively listens to the sounds people say and watches their facial expressions intently. The baby then starts to use its mouth to copy those expressions and the sounds that are made as a result.
Babies sort the sounds into language patterns and sometimes mix in other sounds they find interesting – a dog’s bark, car engine, bird, aeroplane, splashing water and so on! They will then automatically sort the language sounds from the other noises they hear.
Through this process children work out enough sound patterns by the end of their first year of life to begin to distinguish separate words. Children practise ‘babble’ or making noises like speech for long enough to gain more control over their face muscles and to pronounce simple words correctly.
Children are very practical, so the first word they say is likely to be the name of an item that they need or want. Sometimes children amuse and surprise us by saying a very complicated first full word, but usually it is a word like ‘dog’, ‘ball’, ‘cup’ or ‘egg’.
We can perhaps think of each new word children learn as a Language Button. When children learn a new word that is useful, they keep it in their memory. Little by little, children build up a store of word buttons.
Generally, speech starts with single nouns. Children use single words to try to convey a whole concept or sentence of meaning, known as holophrastic utterances.
Over time, children patch meaning together by linking a string of useful items in two‑word phrases, for example: “cup, hand” for “Please give me the cup”. The words they use are limited to their small world of daily needs and experiences.
Children soon add a few essential verbs that also serve to get them what they need or want. “Give” is usually learnt quite early!
When children notice that combining the verbs with the nouns means they can get anything quicker and more accurately, they put more words together and start to build two‑word phrases, such as, “Give ball”. You might like to think of the different types of words as different coloured buttons. Children pick out the brightest or most useful button words first. Over time, as their speech develops, they learn to add the rest of the buttons needed to complete the patterns of full speech. Within one year, they can say a simple sentence like, “My ball is green.” This applies across different cultures and different languages
So what happens in the Language Box if we throw in buttons from different languages? This is the really amazing part! They are sorted into separate languages according to the different patterns of sound each language makes. These new patterns are then stored independently from one another in separate ‘language bags’ within the box. Perhaps we can imagine a Bag of Buttons for each language in the box: the English bag; the home language bag and so on.
Bag of English buttons
The multi‑lingual Language Box stores all these language bags in the same box, so children can switch from speaking one language to speaking another instantly. Languages learnt later in life are stored in separate areas of the brain, which is why it takes more effort to switch between them. Simultaneous translators are generally people who have learnt two languages from birth and can switch from language to language faster and more accurately. This is because both language bags are stored in the same place – the Language Box.
It works in the same way when a child is already learning two languages before they start learning English, for example, the national language and a local language or dialect. These children will simply develop three language bags and store them all in their Language Box.
These multi‑lingual children may make a few more mistakes at first when speaking and keep doing so for a few months longer, but don’t worry - children aged tiny to ten accept that making mistakes is part of learning and they are less self‑conscious about it. In fact, being happy to make mistakes and be corrected is a vital extra advantage that young learners of English as a second or third language have over adults.
So how can we help children to learn English better and faster?