The UK government’s decision to introduce mandatory foreign language lessons to school children from age seven is being taken too late, believes Dubai-based education advisor, Micheline Habib. Children acquire foreign languages best in the first three to four years of their lives, she says.
“The earlier children begin to learn a language, the easier it will be for them to acquire the fundamentals of the language,” she says. “The learning of foreign languages should begin before age seven, but even after, it’s not too late, because children are able to learn languages easily up to the age of 11.”
According to Habib, children do not learn, but acquire information given to them, a process that speeds up acquisition of information as compared to learning which is more than just acquiring. “When adults learn a foreign language, they ask a lot of questions about it,” she says. “[On the other hand], learning is a natural process for children, which is why it’s easier for them to pick up languages from people around them.”
Under the new reforms in the UK, the languages to be introduced into the curriculum are Mandarin, Latin and Greek. Which raises the question of how the students will polish their language skills at home, given that not many parents are at ease with classical languages these days.
Says Micheline, “It would be better if children got a chance to practise the language outside of school but modern technology offers good resources on the internet to help enhance language learning.”
Habib refers to Emirati children she has worked with who attend a Chinese school in the UAE. “These kids are learning English, Arabic and Mandarin intensively,” she says. “They are not exposed to Mandarin at home, but they are learning it successfully and moving from one level to the next.”
The UK reforms, she believes, are a step forward. “To learn a foreign language as a child also makes the brain ready at any point later in life to learn a new language and be open to new ideas.”
Researchers are still debating on how many languages children can learn successfully, says Habib. Some argue the ability is limitless, while others believe the maximum language capacity is five.
“I’d have to agree with the research that says a child can easily acquire up to five languages before the age of seven,” she says. “Children are flexible and they do not overthink, so if they are exposed to a language, they will definitely pick it up.”