Learning and Development

MFL in Early Years – How to introduce modern foreign languages

  • MFL in Early Years – How to introduce modern foreign languages

Learning more than one language in Early Years has been proven beneficial, but how can educators make MFL fun? Helen McGonigal investigates…

Studies have shown that children learning second languages in early childhood have better attention and listening skills at an early age. As they continue their education journey, these same children benefit from being able to process information more efficiently and outperforming their peers academically.

With the improved prospects and increased understanding of other cultures bringing even more advantages to the table, should we be introducing modern foreign languages (MFL) into Early Years settings?

If so, how proficient do staff members need to be in those languages? And, crucially, how do we make it fun?

Current MFL provision

In Wales, all children learn Welsh and English from the Foundation Stage onwards. This is to varying levels depending on the type of school.

The Northern Ireland Languages Strategy’s document Languages for the Future recommends that pupils “have the opportunity to study at least two languages in addition to their mother tongue from the earliest possible age… That the teaching and learning of languages in pre-primary/nursery provision be encouraged.”

Looking further afield at Europe, Belgian and Spanish children start learning a foreign language as early as age three. International schools abroad usually integrate second languages into their settings from Early Years onwards.

Putting it in to practice

So, how does this idea work in real life? Jess Gosling has taught internationally in British Schools abroad for more than ten years. This is in schools where all or most children spoke the native language and in international schools where the children spoke a range of mother tongues.

When asked about the impact of introducing a second language in the classroom, Jess said, “Introducing and developing a common language is very inclusive.” Jess also explained that in settings with native speakers of the host country, the impact was more one of exposure to a second language.

The children were learning academic language in both their mother tongue and English. This meant that later on, they would be “enabled to access this knowledge in both languages. This really supports their ability to become bilingual.”

Vanessa Szuchs-Hussain has worked in Early Years settings in Abu Dhabi, where the native language is Arabic. She was one of the founders of what is now Huili Nursery Shanghai in China. Here they implemented an immersion model of English and Chinese, used equally.

She now works at AISL Harrow. Here, children gradually move from greater exposure of home language to equal exposure of home and second language.

Discussing Early Years specifically, Vanessa said the impact is significant. “Sequential learning of language which builds on that of the mother tongue provides a solid basis from which to eventually develop languages simultaneously, if a child were to enter bilingual education.

“If not, it certainly provides a solid platform to develop language technically at school.”

The UK model

Most Early Years settings in England won’t aim for bilingualism. Instead, you might introduce a few phrases and words in a second language, building on vocabulary that is already understood and can be taught at the child’s pace.

If your Early Years setting is linked to a primary school you may liaise with the MFL lead to ensure continuity across the school years. For other Early Years settings, their choice of language might come down to staff preference or which resources are available.

Vanessa and Jess both make it clear that, for introducing a few key phrases and greetings, staff needn’t be fluent. “Use simple concepts to teach, such as days of the week, colours, numbers, etc. There is a wealth of resources for this on the web as well as songs you can use.

“You could invite a native speaker to come read a story,” suggests Jess.

However, if learning the second language moves past this simple stage, it’s important to have a fluent person leading lessons. Just as young children are little sponges who learn easily, it’s also very hard for them to unlearn mistakes picked up at this age.

Putting the fun in foreign languages

When it comes to the teaching, the same rules apply as when introducing any other concept. Engage young children enthusiastically with brief, focused activities alongside learning through play.

“Everything must be fun,” says Jess. “Every concept taught should be engaging and presented in different ways.” Short sessions to retain engagement and allow for processing time are perfect. These sessions could include a wide range of activities.

Never underestimate the power of songs and rhymes to tap into children’s memory and develop language skills. Vanessa recommends “simple songs in two languages, starting with English and then changing key words into a second language.”

Jess also suggests using music for transitions between activities and stages of daily routine.

Sharing stories

Sharing stories is a great way to increase children’s vocabulary. In a bilingual setting, Vanessa noted, it can be hard to source dual language books. But for simply introducing some key words in a second language, these are probably unnecessary.

As with the songs, Vanessa recommends gradually switching out a few key vocabulary words from English to the second language. Jess suggests acting out stories as a way to get children to use the vocabulary themselves.

Using puppets

Both Vanessa and Jess agree that puppets are one of their essential tools. Vanessa explains, “If Claude the sock puppet is here to read The Very Hungry Caterpillar and can tell the children that in his language (French) the moon is la lune then that’s a great start to a new language.”

She also says puppets are useful as a way to bring in cultural aspects too. If you’re introducing a second language, it’s a really good idea to dig out those hand puppets and practise your ventriloquy skills!

Games that you can play in English and the second language are fun ways to help children learn. Jess loves to use a monster building game to introduce body parts vocabulary. However, you can adapt almost any game to encourage children to use snippets of the second language.

For example, a shopping game can introduce please, thank you and the phrase ‘I would like…’. Or children can practise their counting when playing snakes and ladders.

Finally, integrating the second language into daily routine is really effective because the repetition cements learning. Greetings and goodbyes, please and thank you at snack time and counting are just a few examples of where this is possible.

With all the benefits that introducing a second language can bring to children, it’s a great idea to consider integrating some language learning into Early Years.

This needn’t be complicated, nor require staff to be fluent in another language. Just keep it brief, keep it accurate and, above all, keep it fun.

Helen McGonigal is a teaching assistant in early years, an eco-blogger and mum of three. You can find more inspiration from Helen at spotofearth.com