As the uptake of languages declines, many possible solutions come to the front. Perhaps starting language teaching earlier or changing the style of language qualifications, just to name a few. But is there another alternative?
It’s often debated how early children should begin learning a language at school. According to the European Commission, the average age for children in the EU to start learning a language is 6-9 years old. This naturally differs between countries, but more recent headlines have proclaimed that language teaching in the UK is one of the least successful systems. Uptake of languages at later stages of education are falling, and the approach to language learning is not always positive. However, several solutions are viable, for instance, an overhaul of language qualifications, a different approach to language teaching, or starting to teach languages earlier.
But what if there were another way? A method that could encourage language learning, give the foundations for a better understanding of language, and introduce children to language diversity - all without learning a language itself. A method that can be used with very young learners to discover all languages, not just begin with one. At a first glance, it might sound futile. In fact, this method already exists, and its results have proven it to be very effective. This article will give you an overview of its history and goals, ways we can implement it into the curriculum, and the effects it can have on learners.
The “Language Awareness” approach is a pedagogic method presented by Eric Hawkins in his 1984 work “Awareness of Language: An Introduction”. It aimed not only to reduce the issues within foreign language learning but also to combat prejudices and illiteracy in English (or the language of instruction). The method has since evolved and is represented in many worldwide organisations, such as ÉLODIL in Quebec, and Evlang Project which is supported by the European Union. Hawkins stated that the principal aim of the Language Awareness method is to offer a bridge between the language of instruction and foreign languages in the school curriculum. This can be implemented in three main ways.
Firstly, by developing learners’ metalinguistic knowledge. These metalinguistic skills can consist of the ability to observe language phenomenons and the vocabulary to discuss variations, similarities or structures in language. These skills open up the world of language learning by making it easier for children to ask questions or notice similar structures that they can apply in their own language use. It also becomes a foundation for later language learning, for understanding grammar and other concepts.
Secondly, the method aims to provide exposure to many different languages and cultures, through fun and positive activities. This also includes sharing languages that are already known to individual children in the class, for example, the language they speak at home with a parent.
The positive approach towards diversity can encourage children to appreciate multilingualism, be it their own or in the world. This also gives children the confidence and space to begin to understand their experiences with language, by sharing with and learning from classmates.
Thirdly, implementing Language Awareness in the early classroom intends to strengthen children’s motivation to learn a language. Having been introduced to language concepts in engaging ways, the children leave having gained an understanding of the power and beauty of language. The method encourages this global understanding of language as a tool and key into culture, as well as igniting a fascination with language structures and comparisons.
Throughout a Language Awareness programme, with the aim to achieve each of these three goals, there is no focus on any particular language. Instead, languages are introduced with their sounds, individual words in comparison, or through their culture. For instance, singing a nursery rhyme in the language of a classmate, comparing the word for “tomato” in different languages or language families, or listening to a story in a mix of English and another language. The opportunity for learning is drawn out from exciting activities where children discuss language in a safe space, with no fear of making mistakes. This exploration allows children to develop confidence to approach language learning later in life and ignites a passion for discovering the concept of language.