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Language logic – what’s an octopus got to do with it?

We’ve just launched a new report on the crucial role of language in children’s education. It shows how millions of children are having their educational chances ruined because they are taught in a language they don’t understand.

You may be thinking “OK, but I don’t get why it’s such a big problem — can’t kids just get by in a new language?” I personally had two good reasons to believe that young children are natural at picking up a new language.

One is that I grew up bilingual. “Doesn’t your brain get confused?” people often ask me — but I don’t remember feeling it was too tricky. The other reason is that I’ve taught English to nursery and primary school children in Japan, and I was so impressed by how quickly they would remember the vocabulary.

BUT…

Our report pulls together some very clever research which debunks these two beliefs.

It turns out that I was able to effectively learn two languages because I had constant, simultaneous exposure to both languages at home (mum spoke to me in Japanese, dad in English).

The research shows that children can’t be expected to automatically pick up a new language used at school if it’s not frequently used at home too.

And why did my students in Japan seemingly do so well? I look back now and see that it’s actually because I explained new concepts and difficult stuff to them in Japanese — their first language. This obviously helped them to fully comprehend what I was teaching them.

Let’s put it another way.

Teach them the English word for “octopus”, and they’ll remember it. But only because they already know what one is and looks like, and they know what it’s called in their first language.

Presume they don’t know what an octopus is. Then try to teach them the word “octopus” and explain to them — in English — that it’s a sea-creature with eight tentacles, which squirts ink to defend itself against predators…and they’ll draw a blank. They don’t know what “tentacle”, “ink” or “predator” means.

Children are better able to learn new concepts in their first language. When they’ve built up an understanding of the way things are, then a second language (or more) can be introduced more easily. This way, they can link new words with information they already know. Language logic.

If governments, education planners and donors can understand the logic behind good language policy and put it into practice, then millions more children could be getting a better education and develop skills for better chances in life.

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