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Acquiring Another Language

When Should Children Learn Another Language? Although the brain maintains its ability to learn throughout life, it is quite clear from the research described earlier in this text that language learning occurs most easily during the first 10 years or so. We should take advantage of this window of opportunity if we offer additional languages in schools.

Why Learn Another Language? In addition to knowing our native language, we benefit from learning another language. Language instruction should start as soon as possible. Here are some reasons for learning another language at an early age:

  • It enriches and enhances a child’s mental development.
  • It gives students more flexibility in thinking, greater sensitivity to language, and a better ear for listening. (The brain learns to respond to phonemes that are different from the native language.)
  • It improves understanding of a child’s native language. (Unless a language or hearingdifficulty exists, research does not support the claim that learning a second language early will interfere with learning the native language.)
  • It gives a child the ability to communicate with people he or she would otherwise not have the change to know.
  • It opens the door to other cultures and helps a child understand and appreciate people from other countries. (This is important as our country becomes increasingly multicultural.)
  • It gives a student a head start in language requirements for college.
  • It increases job opportunities in many careers where knowing another language is a considerable asset.

What are the Characteristics of an Effective K – 6 Additional Language Program?

  • All students have access to the program regardless of race/ethnic origin, learning styles, home language, or future academic goals.
  • Program goals are consistent with the time devoted to additional language instruction. In the primary grades, the main goal is to hear the sounds, flow, and syntax of another language. here are different types of K–6 second language programs that achieve different levels of language proficiency and require different time commitments.
  • Sequence of language instruction should be available through the K–12 school years. Acquisition of another language requires consistent practice, so a K–12 sequence is crucial to mastery. For this reason, instruction in other languages is often exempted from block scheduling formats that limit classes to one semester per year.
  • Systematic curriculum development in content of another language is part of the school plan. Look for ways to include these language experiences across the curriculum.
  • Native speakers must be used for the primary-grade instruction to ensure that the young brain hears authentic language sounds.
  • Connections between language and culture are made explicit so that the learners understand the development of the additional language in the context of its culture.

Teaching Strategies for Acquiring Another Language

Teaching strategies for instruction in another language vary with the age of the learner who is beginning the study. Primary-grade teaching focus is mainly on recognizing, discriminating, and practicing the phonemes of the other language, as spoken by native speakers. Grammar is not taught, per se, but implied through extensive student conversation. In the intermediate and later grades (including adult levels), the main goal is to develop communication competencies so that the student feels comfortable speaking, writing, and thinking the other language. Thus, teachers of other languages and of English language learners should follow a sequence that begins with young learners. This sequence aims to do the following:

  • Develop Communication Competence. One of the primary goals of learning another language is to gain competence in communication. This involves acquiring four major competencies, requiring integration of the verbal and nonverbal aspects of language as well as right- and left-hemisphere processing. Teachers should keep these four competencies in mind as they select their instructional strategies:

Grammatical Competence. The degree to which a student has mastered the formal linguistic code of the language including vocabulary, rules of punctuation, word formation, and sentence structure. This entails the analytic and sequential processing of the left hemisphere.

Sociolinguistic Competence. The ability to use grammatical forms appropriately in contexts that range from very informal to very formal styles. It includes varying the choice of verbal and non-verbal language to adapt the speech to a specific person or social context, and this requires sensitivity to individual and sociocultural differences. This is essentially the right hemisphere’s ability to contextualize language.

Discourse Competence. The ability to combine form and thought into a coherent expression. It involves knowing how to use conjunctions, adverbs, and transitional phrases to achieve continuity of thought. This requires the integration of both hemispheres: the analytic ability of the left hemisphere to generate the grammatical features and the use of the right hemisphere to synthesize them into meaningful, coherent wholes.

Strategic Competence. The ability to use verbal and nonverbal communication strategies, such as body language and circumlocution, to compensate for the user’s imperfect knowledge of the language, and to negotiate meaning.

This research points out the need for teachers to ensure that the nonverbal form of intellect is not neglected in second language acquisition. In planning lessons, teachers should

  • not rely heavily on grammar, vocabulary memorization, and mechanical translations, especially during the early stages of instruction;
  • do more with contextual language, trial and error, brainstorming of meaning, visual activities, and role-playing; and
  • give students the opportunity to establish the contextual networking they need to grasp meaning, nuance, and idiomatic expressions.

When these skills are in place, shift to more work on enlarging students’ vocabulary and knowledge of grammar.

  1. March 16, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Dr. Sousa,

    Good morning! My name is Craig Sherman, and I am with AEI Speakers Bureau in Boston. I hope you are doing well today. I am working with Drury University in Springfield, MO, and they have asked me to find out your availability and fee for a speaking engagement later this year.

    They are looking for a day somewhere between Sept. 20 and November 10. The event is their Developing Successful Youth Conference. Generally the audience is about 350 (or so) students and area teachers. They look for at least a half day but ideally a full day of speech plus workshops/breakouts on topics of interest to new teachers. There would be an interest in your newest book as a topic for this year’s event.

    I have booked Carol Tomlinson for the 2013 event, and I am working on booking Harry Wong for an additional event, as well. I notice that you and I share a mutual connection on LinkedIn – Jay McTighe. If you have any questions about us as an agency, you could surely ask Jay about us – we have booked him a number of times and I believe he enjoys working with us.

    I look forward to hearing back from you soon. If you’d be able to email me or give me a call as soon as you have a minute, I would greatly appreciate that.

    Thank you very much,

    Craig Sherman
    Vice President
    AEI Speakers Bureau
    (617) 782-3111

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