Using stories to encourage early language learning

Laziness, disinterest or simply ineffective teaching? Whatever the reason, it’s true to say that us Brits have long been at the back of the language class. But with our children’s potential career successes riding on their participation in an increasingly global workplace and their ability to communicate in more than one language, we must now put aside the damaging perception that languages are not important because ‘everyone speaks English’.

The benefits of early language learning have long been recognised throughout Europe. Most European countries have had compulsory language teaching in Primary schools for many years, with many introducing a second and even third foreign language between the ages of 6 and 9. High performing countries such as Singapore introduce languages from the first year of primary and dedicate a larger portion of curriculum time to foreign language study.

The introduction in the UK of compulsory language teaching in Key Stage 2 has therefore been seen as a long awaited step forward by many educators. Studies have shown that the earlier children are exposed to a foreign language the better. At a time when children are dealing with complex language structures in their mother tongue, they are at their most receptive to process and make sense of new language. The language acquisition skills which young children still possess can be utilised to their fullest potential if language learning starts at an early age.

But monolingual teachers and parents may feel inadequately equipped to help and encourage their children in foreign language learning. How can they encourage and enthuse children with little or no proficiency themselves in the language being learnt?

A good place to start may be with a good old fashioned story. Rather than beginning with a narrow topic or scheme of work, stories can be used to convey the very reason for language learning. That is why communication between human beings and the sharing of common experiences is meaningful. Stories convey human themes and topics regardless of the language they are written or spoken in.
Familiar stories; be they fairy tales, fables, real life stories or even rhymes and poems, once translated, can be an accessible way for children to start hearing the sounds of a new language. High frequency words can be picked out and children can draw comparisons between their first language and new words. It doesn’t matter if children do not understand every word, even a guessing game about which words mean what in a familiar tale will initiate discussion and unleash a linguistic detective!

Similarly, dual language stories can also allow young children to enjoy a story they can understand whilst becoming increasingly familiar with the sounds of another language. Side by side text allows a direct comparison between sentence structures in the two languages.

Stories can be simple or complex and as children’s knowledge grows they can be layered and added to. For example, simple connectives can become more sophisticated and tenses can be introduced in an organic and meaningful way. Stories can be used as a starting point for a discussion on new words, for example, ‘what foreign language adjectives could you use to describe the monster in the story?’
Less enthusiastic readers can be encouraged to engage with new languages by storytelling themselves; describing their own characters or settings, even acting out conversations with their friends.

The benefits of reading for pleasure have long been recognised in education and enthusiastic readers tend to have larger vocabularies and an increased ability to process information than those less keen to pick up a book. The powerful impact of reading and storytelling should be utilised by parents and teachers alike when encouraging young children to engage and be interested in learning a new language. Stories are fun and language learning should be too!