Foreign Language Acquisition in Early Childhood

Sunshine Holistic Program for Multilingual Education

Sunshine Preschool in Stäfa, Switzerland

by Tatjana Drapsin Popov

Tatjana's class

Among all forms of symbolization and expression, language is one of the most popular. That is why teaching of a language has become synonymous with education. Just as the potentiality of a tree lies latent in a tiny seed, the capacity of expression lies dormant in each and every human being. The duty of proper education is to inspire, nurture and guide the process of expression and make us understand how to enjoy its gifts individually and collectively.

Neohumanist Education recognizes the importance of all forms of symbolization and expression in uplifting human culture. Local dialects, mother tongues, common lingua franca, classical languages, scripts and literature are all equal factors in personal language development. While it is desirable to use the natural tongue in early childhood education, we understand that the role of common lingua franca for the entire world is paramount in building one human society. For this reason Neohumanist playgroups, kindergartens and schools have accepted English, beside mother tongue, as one of the mediums of instruction in the present age.

But Neohumanist education is more than just learning languages. It is a holistic education that integrates all aspects of the child’s being: body, senses, intellect, emotions, imagination, intuition and spirit. It is a harmonious synthesis of rationality and creativity, freedom and responsibility, idealism and practicality, self-reliance and interdependence.


Children feel a full and unconditional acceptance of themselves as unique and precious beings. Values we are projecting include friendliness, compassion, dignity, justice, tolerance, respect, helpfulness, trust, and unity. Looking at all creation we see it is a complete and harmonious system where the sky, the clouds, the earth, plants and animals all help each other. We are all part of this united earth. No one is insignificant. We are much more than just a little body, we are complete beings. Let us experience this at our homes and in our schools!

Our learning of languages starts at this point of deep love and words are the tools of expressing it. We can truly say that our main method is love. We utilize the subtle curriculum called “Circle of Love” where the topics about seasons, festivals, plant and animal world, everyday life and oneself are combined with a variety of activities such as movement, music, arts, crafts, storytelling, acting, fun, sports, quiet time, guided visualizations etc. No wonder we pay big attention to the constant improvement of our teachers so that such lofty ideals get established in practice. Since autumn 2001, several tiny kids are enjoying this magical way of learning English, German and/or Spanish in Sunshine Preschool in Stäfa. We would like to give more children opportunity for such an experience.

Key factors in raising Multilingual Children

1. Timing and the Windows of Opportunity
What is the best age to start learning another language? If you have a bilingual situation in the family the answer is very easy: right from the beginning. If you have just one language in the family you may consider the Windows of Opportunity. In any case it’s good to know what they are and how they influence the child’s language development. For every skill the child has to acquire, there is a neurological predisposition in the brain, and at certain time it is fully open (like the window). This openness indicates that it is the best time to practice the skill. For learning languages there are 3 such windows.


1. between 6-9 month
2. age 4.
3. age 7

The best thing to do with your 6-9 month old child is to expose him/her to the sounds of different languages. Each language carries a combination of particular sounds but none has all of them. As we speak one language the child’s brain starts to select these sounds and neglect others and this is how, in time, the knowledge of one language comes. When we are babies we all have potential of learning any language in the world. By exposing the child to a variety of sounds we stimulate the brain to select more and neglect fewer sounds. At that phase we can’t speak yet about “learning languages” in the terms of the child being acquainted with particular words, rather, it is like preparing the soil for future seeds. After the age of 9 months the child’s brain is preoccupied with physical development: crawling, standing, walking, running, climbing etc.

For most of the children at age 2 it is normal to talk. At that age the vocabulary starts to develop.

Age 4, also known as the age of curiosity, opens the 2nd window. Children who were, prior to this window, exposed to another language, can suddenly start using it. For others, due to curiosity, an interest in another language can appear. The reasons and methods of learning can change now.

Age 7 coincides with starting of school life. The child becomes more social and due to prestige wants to show him/her self as somebody worthy. Knowledge of another language becomes a tool of establishing social status. Again the methods of learning can change.

Windows of Opportunity are neurological. How they express depends on variety of other factors. And here they follow.

2. Strategy
The child identifies language with a person, space and/or time. These 3 relative factors are part of the strategy. Example of personal factor: one person speaks language A, another person speaks language B. For the child it is very clear with whom to use which language.
Example of space strategy: In our house we use language A, at school we use language B
Example of time strategy: every Monday afternoon we use language A, otherwise we use language B

Needless to say, most of the attempts are of combined strategies. Strategy is important because it gives a child clear division. It is not advisable to change the strategies since it can lead to confusion in the child’s mind. Therefore, before choosing a strategy think carefully how persistent can you be, and what suits your family situation. Artificial choices are not very successful.

3. Consistency
There are several aspects of consistency
– How often (every day exposure will bring faster results in language acquisition than if it is just once a week)
– For how long ( length of the exposure will depend on the age of a student, generally longer exposure is better than shorter, but too long exposure may negatively affect motivation)
– How regular (even just once a week, but regularly will make a difference)

Regular kindergarten, school or playgroup classes or various courses are therefore a good opportunity for learning languages. Moving to another country, where we are naturally exposed to a new language, most of the time will make us learn faster (except if we are forced due to circumstances or having culture shock). When I worked in a kindergarten in Oslo all the children were coming every day, only some for a full day and others for half of a day. Still after 3-4 months they all spoke English with me. On the contrary, working in Switzerland with one group of 3 year olds just once a week for 2-3 hours, I could achieve that everybody understood me by the end of the school year ( if I would use simple words) but most of the children found it difficult to talk to me in this new language.

In the home situation parents may decide to talk to a child in a particular language on a particular day, in a particular situation, for a particular amount of time and thus create consistency for a child.

4. Motivation
This is a very important point, since without motivation we can’t really do anything in the life. Some children have more natural motivation than others. In the science and art of pedagogy various methods have been developed to support and even create motivation in children. Success is an important ingredient for motivation. When the child feels “I can do it, I am good at it” the motivation increases. Some modern specialized courses in “how to teach children languages” have developed motivational methods such as awarding children with stickers, praises and even sweets. In NH we strive to see the child holistically, so the way we motivate the children should be more profound. This doesn’t mean that we will never use some of the “superficial” methods, rather that we will be aware of their limitations and side effects and therefore use them carefully and rarely.

From personal experience I would like to share an example about motivation. A 5 year old girl, already having 2 languages in the family, started attending my program for learning English. She started a friendship with a native English speaking girl who only knew English and had a very profound vocabulary but wasn’t eager to learn other languages. Since both girls were very motivated to cherish their relationship, first one learned English within 4 months (coming to the classes only 3 times a week for 6 hours). She would use full sentences and developed the same high standard of English that the second girl had. After some time I started motivating the second girl to learn some German words from her friend in exchange. This was a bit slower (proving that those who have 2 languages since birth are faster in learning the 3rd one, while those starting later need the time to build neurological structures and that the second language comes) but eventually the second girl learned her second language and is now a successful student in a regular school in German language.

5. Aptitude
It can also be called “predisposition”. It has been discovered that in every population there is certain percentage of the population, about 10%, that can learn any language easier than other people and are able to learn it accent free even at a later age. So far, this quality is independent from other factors (like social status).

6. Opportunity and Support
If we don’t have any opportunities for learning languages we may not learn them even if we posses other qualities. Some opportunities are due to circumstances (e.g. My grandfather lived in the north of Serbia, close to Romanian border and in an area with many national minorities. Due to this natural circumstance he learned Romanian, Hungarian and some German, beside his mother tongue Serbian). In modern societies we are offering organized opportunities. Even if opportunities are there but no support comes, the opportunity will be of no use. Due to lack of proper knowledge and interest, and the dominance of complexes, many parents don’t support their child, and in some cases even forbid or discourage the child in the learning process. A simple and inexpensive way is usually neighbor exchange. My child may go to a neighbor’s every Monday afternoon and be exposed to one language, and the neighbor’s child may come to me and practice another language on another day. Such situations are usually very supportive for both parents and children.

7. Linguistic Relationships
The closer the linguistic relationship between two languages, the easier and faster it is to learn that language. Those who know Spanish are faster at learning other Latin languages like Portuguese, French and Italian. Even if languages are not learned the feeling of understanding most of what another person says makes us feel comfortable. I, having a Slavic language as my mother tongue, can understand other Slavic languages to some extent, although I don’t really speak them. Those that are closer I understand better (like Ukrainian, Macedonian, Bulgarian and Polish). Study of classical languages can help us to understand the roots of the words and thus increases the understanding of all the languages that have root connections. In Gymnasium I’ve studied Latin. I didn’t find it fascinating at that time. When, later on, I found myself in India and took some Sanskrit classes, there was a lady professor of Latin studying Sanskrit too, and she was explaining to me the similarities of the two. Suddenly a new door opened to me and I felt the connectedness of all “Indo-European” languages.

8. Siblings
Younger children can profit from older ones. It has been proven that having siblings who learn another language increases the chances of other children in the family learning. The reason is very simple. Children like to share their knowledge. At home they often play teachers, and act out everything that is happening to them. Single children are teaching their toys.

9. Gender
Generally girls are more gifted in languages than the boys. So called verbal intelligence is higher in the female gender; males have better spatial intelligence. Probably this has roots in our genetic inheritance. However, do not give up if you have a boy. Genetic code can be overcome. I have a boy too. He prefers mathematics to languages but currently, at the age 8, he speaks Croatian, Serbian, German and English.

10. Hand Use
Left-handed individuals are generally more gifted for languages than right-handed ones. The reason lies in the brain hemispheres. Centers for verbal expression are in the right side of the brain which also regulates the left hand. Flexible fingers of both hands can support language development. That’s why we use mudras in NH schools and kindergartens.

11. Personality
The child’s own personality is the crown factor. Therefore the study of psychology is necessary to be a successful teacher, even if you only want to teach languages. Every personality is unique. Language is the natural companion of the child’s personality development. The language of our inner self, which is foreign to some but actually most natural of all the languages, is the ultimate tool of education. Whatever language we teach we should never forget that our goal is holistic development of a child.

kids playing chess