Nowadays, modern societies place a great importance on proficiency in one or more foreign languages, as part of a certain kind of education that seems to help in the attainment of a successful future professional life. The main motive usually put forward for including foreign language teaching in the primary and pre-primary curriculum, is the idea that young children have a greater facility for understanding and imitating what they hear than adolescents and adults. It seems reasonable therefore, to make the most of such favourable circumstances.
Emotional and affective factors may be seen as another significant motive. Schumann suggests that children are less likely to be ill-disposed towards new languages or cultural experiences than adults. Therefore, we might expect children to be better motivated towards learning languages than older learners.
Another factor that suggests that young learners have a better aptitude for FL learning is the simple one of time. Apart from the fact that an early start allows a greater total number of years for learning the target language, it is also likely that young learners have more time at their disposal than adults who are surrounded by family and work responsibilities which interfere with their learning time.
Even though children are widely perceived to learn second languages more rapidly than adults, there is still an extensive debate in progress whether in fact children are better at FL learning than adults. Indisputably, young children have more favourable opportunities than adults because they are in a permanent learning environment, with parents, friends and teachers all contributing to their individual and social development. Both social pressures and personal needs push children to learn. It is extremely difficult to determine whether they are taking benefits from the external conditions or from some internal characteristics from the young brain or personality.
In fact, Singleton (1989), in a discussion about the teaching of FL at junior levels, suggests a number of reasons which do not rely on the idea that languages are most effectively learnt at that stage. Many of the broader issues raised by Singleton – internalisation of foreign cultures, more instructional time and exposure to the FL learning – reflect differing expectations of the role of the school, differing degrees of economic support for schooling, different expectations about teacher competence and a number of variable socio-cultural factors. Some of these arguments are not within the control of individual teachers and may not be changed by the educational system. Nonetheless, they can be extremely helpful for curriculum organisation of either formal education or private language schools.
Unfortunately, the teaching of languages is a service business nowadays. All over the world, the teaching of “foreign”, “second”, “target” or “international” languages proceeds on a huge scale, including FL teaching to younger learners. Private language schools offer what seems to be a vast range of courses and methodologies without placing too much interest on the social and emotional aspects of FL learning and sometimes employing teachers with no experience who are often underpaid and not fully motivated.
Then, we find formal education which also seems to offer a great deal, with interesting and up-to-date methods, with graduated teachers who are encouraged to carry on researches and paid for taking part in workshops and refreshers courses but even being graduates, are not fluent speakers of the language they teach.
If we follow the mainstream we risk forgetting what should be the real aims of early language learning:
- Linguistic, FL learning helps children to understand their native language system better: they become conscious of language as a phenomenon,
- Psychological/emotional, FL learning supports the growth of individual qualities of the character giving children greater mental flexibility and,
- Socio-cultural, children who speak foreign languages tend to have a wider cultural outlook.
The sooner young children are exposed to differences in languages and cultures, the better. The introduction of a different language at early stages can help children to develop tolerance towards people who are different and, in the long run, contributes to mutual understanding between humans and nations. FL learning can be the inexhaustible resource that makes this possible.