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 Wednesday, 10 July, 2002, 12:24 GMT 13:24 UK
Language lessons for toddlers
holiday snap
Young linguist and mum on a field trip

It is said that you are never too old to learn, but it looks like you might never be too young either.

Children as young as one are learning to speak a second language.

She can barely speak English, but she can already say 'merci'

Nicky Kennedy
Anna Kennedy is only 21 months old. She can barely speak English, but already she is learning a second language.

"Croissant", "limon", "bonjour" and "au revoir" trip off her tongue as easily as their English equivalents.

Her mother, Nicky, is delighted with Anna's progress and hopes she'll soon have an extensive French vocabulary to match her burgeoning English one.

But Mrs Kennedy is quick to deny that she is "hot-housing" Anna in preparation for a great academic career.

Rather than being a pushy, over-ambitious parent, she says she is simply keen to offer Anna more opportunities and the pleasure that a second language can give her.

National shortcoming

Like many mothers and academics Mrs Kennedy knows the importance of starting to learn a language young.

She is among those worried that children in Britain start learning languages far too late, a criticism often used to explain why, as a nation, we are such poor linguists.

And although Anna has done only 10 weeks of French so far, she is already starting to gain confidence and feel comfortable in the language.

This confidence is something her mother and teacher fear she would have missed out on if she'd waited until 11 or 12 to start learning French.

Word a week

Mrs Kennedy said: "She can barely speak English, but she can already say 'merci' in French.

"When I say to her that we are going to her French class she will say 'bonjour'.

"I think sometimes when she gets to the class she is a little overwhelmed because they are speaking French all the time. They will have a picture with fruit on it and I want to whisper in her ear what it is in English.

"But I think it is good to learn early and Anna will learn about one new word a lesson, because they really do focus on the children.

"They do about 45 minutes of play, singing and art. Last week they made a croissant and that was the word of the week.

"Now when she goes out she knows what a croissant is and where to get it. They learn by repetition."

Not self-conscious

Although Mrs Kennedy can speak French herself she admits she does not speak it to Anna at home, preferring to focus on the class and the work done there.

Mrs Kennedy thinks that one of the benefits of such language classes is that they offer children a chance to learn without the embarrassment and self-consciousness felt by many adults and older children trying out a foreign tongue.

"Adults who learn as children are very open-minded. And I think that, more than speaking French, it gives children an awareness of other cultures.

"The younger they are when they come to Club Petit Pierrot the more receptive they are. It is excellent.

"I think they learn through play. It is just like going to music class - they learn rhythm and it is challenging and good fun."


Stella Bataille, who runs the London-based club, agreed that the key to fluency in another language was an early immersion in its sounds.

"You should start as young as possible. If you start a second language early enough you can be bi-lingual later in life," she said.

"But you must keep up with that language on a regular basis by going to a class maybe once or twice a week, then by the time you are about 15 you will have a confidence in that language.

"If you start young then you will have no inhibitions, you will just absorb the language.

"We do not try to teach them sentences by heart, but we try to teach them through natural things and situations."

Ahead in class

She said confusion between the two languages was minimal as the children quickly learnt the differences between French and English.

Mrs Bataille has been running her club for 10 years now and said parents had noticed, not surprisingly, that their children were streets ahead of their class mates in French.

"The 10 year olds have great grades, they work well in their French classes and they are confident."

That is something Mrs Kennedy hopes her daughter will learn through a fun meeting with language at the earliest opportunity.

"What the long-term outcome is I can't say, but it is like learning to swim early: it is never too young because at this age they are fearless."

See also:

10 Jul 02 | Education
07 Apr 00 | Education
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