Interview of Neil Roberts with Vietnamnet

Teaching foreign languages, especially English, to children at kindergarten age is an issue that is of great concern to Vietnamese parents. 

For Vietnamese children, what is the best age to start learning foreign languages?

Neil Roberts: A great deal of time, effort and money has been spent on researching this very controversial question. Unfortunately the results are inconclusive as it’s almost impossible to separate the age of students from other relevant factors, such as the learning environment, motivation and teaching quality.

Many people believe in a ‘Critical Age Period’ for learning languages and that this may apply to second language learning. This is the age where children are developing and the brain is predisposed for success in language learning. Most people believe this age to be before puberty and it’s a time when children are more reliant on learning innately. Once puberty arrives learners tend to rely on more formal learning ‘skills' and ‘strategies’. This may lead to the apparent greater success of children when learning foreign languages, as compared to adults, but it may also be due other factors such as the fact that children have more time in school to spend on learning. It may also be that children have more exposure to English through television and the internet than adults.

One area that does seem clear is that children who learn a second language before the age of 15 are far more likely to gain a ‘native like’ fluency in that second language.

What is the most effective method for teaching foreign languages to children in this age range? (Should we concentrate on serious learning with great accuracy of language or should we focus on play and enjoyment?) What is the most important thing that parents/teachers need to pay attention to when setting up an English learning environment for children? 

Neil Roberts: I don’t feel there is one correct method to teaching foreign languages to children. Children all have different strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes, and study in a great variety of different settings. Teachers need to have a clear knowledge of how a foreign tongue is acquired and use this knowledge to teach these children as individuals within a social group.

For children, play and serious learning do not necessarily need to be differentiated. Indeed, children learn a great deal through play and teachers and parents should treat this opportunity to play as a very serious part of all learning. In play, children can try out new roles and language, and often perform beyond what they are capable of in more formal settings. In play, they can make discoveries about language that are stored better in their memory than language that is ‘presented’ to them by a teacher. Therefore, the teachers’ role is to support the children and guide them, modelling language that is needed for success, and prompting and challenging children to learn. 

One area of concern for me in teaching children is that of assessment and tests. It’s true that tests are a part of life and, especially in secondary school,  children need to develop skills to help them succeed in doing tests. However, in my experience, children tend to actually learn a language better when they are interested in it and motivated to learn by the language being set in a context which they are familiar with. For example, we are all used to seeing children being asked to do a ‘test’ by themselves so that their individual ability can be assessed. This, however, works against what we often use language for, which is to communicate with others. We call this the teaching and testing gap. Language is for communication and success really is about how well ideas and opinions have been given and received and what impact they have had.  Unfortunately, this way of assessing students can be difficult for parents to understand as it is harder to award an ‘A’ or a ‘10’ to. 

Vietnamese parents often have two opposite opinions about this topic: the majority of parents want their children to learn foreign languages as soon as possible while others want them to concentrate on their mother language before learning foreign ones. Could you share your opinion on this?

Neil Roberts: Firstly, I think we need to look at the difference between bilingualism and learning English as second language. My children, for example, have an English speaking father and a Vietnamese speaking mother, and have grown up hearing both languages at home. As a result, they appear quite comfortable in using and understanding both Vietnamese and English. This is bilingualism.

Most students in Vietnam are learning English as a second language. This is different to bilingualism. Recent research indicates learning a foreign language from a very early age may have a negative impact on the mother tongue. Although opinions vary, most research suggests that the critical age for developing the mother tongue is between 2 and 4 years old. 

Two well-known studies from 1987 and 1991 found that children’s acquisition of their first language may stall if they are submerged in second language instruction for long periods at pre-school or day care. Some parents even felt the need to stop using their mother tongue at home, but this can lead to confusion for children and loss of self-esteem. 

Many parents decide that their children have to switch from international kindergarten/schools to Vietnamese public schools when they discover that their children’ English is much better than Vietnamese. In your opinion, does this fact result from learning a foreign language too young or from the poor teaching methodology?

Neil Roberts: Regardless of when they start, from my experience the students who develop the best language skills come from supportive environments. This does not mean with parents who speak English themselves; rather ones that take an interest in what their children study and offer encouragement and praise for any production, however modest.

As mentioned above, it can be a difficult balance for parents who want their children to speak good English, but who also want them to be fully fluent in their mother tongue.  For children who learn English as a second language it may be useful for them to spend the majority of their learning in their mother tongue in the pre-school years. It’s very important that any second language learning is done with good quality instruction and has a supportive, rather than an enforced setting. 

In the United Kingdom, what is the common age range for children to start learning foreign languages? Which languages are commonly taught and learnt? What is the expectation of the school and parents when letting children learn a new language? 

Neil Roberts: According to the National Curriculum, children should start learning a second language from the age of 6 or 7. The most popular languages are Spanish, French, German and Mandarin. Increasingly in Britain, parents are becoming more aware of the advantage that children can have in later life if they learn a second language. However, as languages are not compulsory after 14, the challenge for schools, teachers and parents is making the children themselves see the relevance of studying these wonderful subjects! 

Thank you for sharing!