Children of Age 5 to 8 as Language Learners

Starting to learn foreign languages at an early age is beneficial especially when it comes to pronunciation and speaking without a strong accent. Even though it has been debated whether the so-called critical period for language learning actually exists, it has been found that the earlier one starts to learn a language, the weaker is the foreign accent in speech.

As language skills are becoming more and more important in the globalizing world, especially good oral language skills are emphasized in modern work environments. Developing these skills, including pronunciation and accent, demands as much repetition on the foreign language words as possible. Repeating the words out loud and keeping them in mind activates the areas in the brain that are associated with speech perception and production, which are essential for language learning.

Starting to learn a second language early and developing oral skills in foreign languages are two goals that actually support each other. As small children learn languages by speaking and listening, language learning by focusing on oral skills comes naturally. This method of learning also suits younger children who haven’t yet mastered literacy, since it does not require reading or writing. According to Sari Ylinen, Docent of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Helsinki, and Mikko Kurimo, Associate Professor of Speech and Language Processing at Aalto University, starting foreign language learning with a speech-based approach may lead to better results than traditional language teaching that is based on textbooks. With Pop2Talk™, children can start learning languages as soon as they can use a mobile device like a tablet, as the game is based on speech and pronunciation.

Traditionally Finnish children have started their second language learning at school at the age of 8 to 10. Now, however, the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture has made preparations for schools to start the teaching of foreign languages already in the first grade, for children of ages 6 to 7. According to a research made by Kristiina Skinnari and Sannina Sjöberg from the University of Jyväskylä, the early start of the language learning is not the only guarantee of good learning outcomes. They also highlight the quality of the teaching and its suitability for the age group in question, and state that the teaching should be intensive, including a lot of exposure to the target language. The research also stresses the significance of speaking, listening, repetition and routines in language teaching aimed for young children, and notes that the use of literacy in language learning may exclude those who have difficulties with their literacy skills from the learning process. As playing Pop2Talk™ requires no literacy skills and encourages the repetition of new words, it could be used in schools as fun but effective tool for early language learning.

Research has shown that a major part of children between ages 4–6 has positive attitudes towards learning English as their second language. They are also motivated to learn through inclusive activities such as songs that involve movement and games and playful activities. Mihaela Brumen from the University of Maribor also mentions that in addition to foreign language learning being fun, learning gives children an intellectual challenge that results in feelings of satisfaction with personal achievement. Because children already have the motivation to start learning a foreign language, this is a great age to introduce new languages to them. When playing Pop2Talk™, children get to practice English words in an interesting and engaging environment, and also get feedback on their pronunciation in the form of scoring stars with the scale of 1 to 5. This type of feedback is not too critical but gives the children an idea of how well they have succeeded in the pronunciation of the words, and hence can motivate them to continue practicing.

Imitating and repeating foreign language words has been a traditional method for language learning in classrooms, but according to Ylinen & Kurimo, in order to achieve native-like speech production, it would be good to practice the words in a relatively quiet environment that allows the learner to repeat and listen to his or her own speech. This kind of an environment could be provided for example with a digital language learning application and headphones that can be used for example at home in a calm environment. Digital learning materials with automated feedback also make it easier to exploit feedback in language learning at schools, as a teacher is only able to give personalized feedback to one pupil at a time, and giving feedback in public might not produce the desired results as some children may experience correcting feedback as embarrassing. Automated feedback coming from a digital application can be used in a way that giving feedback does not result in social pressure and can thus be utilized better in learning.

In addition to game being fun, it provides a learner centered approach, which has positive results in learner motivation and participation. Using games as a tool for learning is also beneficial for children who may not be motivated to learn a new language but find computer games enjoyable. Pop2Talk™ is designed just for that and can make language learning for children even more enjoyable and entertaining!

Writer: Saana Hyttinen, University of Helsinki


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