By Felicia Jennings-Winterle
Column Bilingual Education
I’ll confess – I cannot ride a bike. I am a 28-year-old adult, but it seems that there was never an opportunity for me to learn and practice. The truth is I’d love to enjoy riding in the park on a Sunday morning, but in order to do that, I need to go out there, have someone holding me and, in front of everyone, do something I should have done in childhood. Too late? No. But you can see how that would be embarrassing.
I am trying to draw a parallel between cycling and learning to speak, read and write in a heritage language (also known as mother tongue, minority language, family language). I often meet families who, for various reasons, come to me with 5, 6, 7, 8-year-olds who do not speak Portuguese (the language with which I work). In most cases, parents have regrets and think it is too late. In others, they feel so guilty that they think it is not even worth it to try anymore.
Too late? No way.
Children, as well as adults, have a highly elastic brain. By that I mean a brain that learns and adapts to different situations. And if the question is learning a skill, if there is stimulus, the brain will learn it. Realistically speaking, however, there are differences between the processes of learning a language at the age of 2, 3, 4 or 5 and at the ages of 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. The questions are inhibition and attention.
Children between the ages of 2 and 5 have fewer inhibitions because their understanding of the world around them is limited to their concrete experiences – home, school, playground. They are aware of few social norms and therefore differences in accent, language or culture are interesting and captivating facts.
From the age of 5, upon entering school and beginning to have a more specialized development of symbols (letters and numbers), the child starts to anchor her attention on standards and norms, in an attempt to organize the facts around her. She starts to focus more on specifics than on the whole. On top of that, the curious minds of children this age try to capture as much as possible. Sounds, images, objects, facts, people, animais… all of that is stored and categorized.
At the age of 4 or 5 the child learns to relate graphics to sounds and meanings. At those first encounters, letters are symbols that can have as many sounds and meanings as presented. According to the famous psychologist Ellen Biaslystok, at the age of 7 or 8, when the relationship between spelling/sound/meaning is already much more consolidated, it becomes more complex for the child to concentrate on the whole rather than on details.
Returning to the example of the bicycle. As an adult, I understand that it is strange for someone my age not to know how to ride a bike. I know that I need to balance myself using parts XYZ, but I also know that if I fall I’ll get hurt. A 4, 5, 6-year-old does not think about any of that. He or she may even be thinking about racing the neighbor, but they have no idea that this is a complex skill that involves the whole body.
The tricky, yet the best, thing is to get them to start talking when they are very young.
Any language, native or not, should be part of the child’s environment – home, school, playground. Moreover, in regards to literacy, various studies and dual-language programs around the world show many reasons for simultaneous teaching, either at school or elsewhere (at home or at a community minority language school). I mean, you should start teaching a child to write and read in the additional language at the age of 4 or 5. In this phase, a second (better yet, an additional) system is just another system and not a mystery like our (the adults’) second language was when we learned, later in life.
Never give up or think it is too late!
If any learning had an expiration date, we would never be able to learn new things after the age of 7. It will require more effort, but it is certainly not impossible.
Felicia researchers Portuguese as a Heritage Language and is the Founder and Educational Director of Brasil em Mente, the organization that maintains this platform.
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