“Fun is the limit in language learning with children”, Professor Minna Huotilainen

Team-Linguajoy had the great pleasure and honour to be able to interview a well-known brain researcher, Helsinki University´s professor of pedagogy Minna Huotilainen. Huotilainen considers it only a good thing that very young children are studying foreign languages.

Fun is the limit in language learning with children

“When an adult studies a foreign language, it requires motivation and effort. But when a child studies a foreign language, it is nearly the same as embracing their mother tongue. It isn’t tinkering, as in with some adults, but rather a fun way to explore the world, to experiment and to learn through trial and error.”

Minna Huotilainen encourages children under the age of 10 to be in a native teacher’s course

“The younger the child in question is, the more important it is to have a native language-teacher,” Huotilainen explains.

In Minna Huotilainen’s opinion, a native teacher is a guarantee of quality language teaching, especially in small children:

“Of course the native language can be brought into the classroom by any teacher. You can listen to stories or practice singing, which are part of an album by a native singer. I would use this way a lot if I were there myself teaching young children.”

Linguajoy language courses are often attended by very international families. The home may already be bilingual, and the child attends for instance an English-speaking nursery within a Finnish speaking environment. When some children have become interested in learning the fourth or even fifth foreign language like Mandarin Chinese, parents have worried about there being a limit, but is there such a limit?

“A good basic rule for children learning languages is that if the child thinks it is nice in the situation where a foreign language is learned, then learning is effective. Then learning the language won’t be a burden when it’s fun. Parents do know their children. I think that the limit is if the child is happy to go to the Chinese Mandarin class, for example. If so, it certainly means that it is positive and interesting. It is also about gaining language awareness. The child is looking for samples of different languages and takes over them to the extent in which the capacities are sufficient.”

What is a phonics map and what is its significance?

“The mother tongue phonics map appears in children at the age of six months. The development of the map and the age of deadlock is individual, in part genetic and partly defined by the environment the child is in. By the age of 10, the map will usually be final and learning brand new sounds becomes challenging. It is therefore important that the child is exposed to foreign languages as early as possible, after the birth of the phonics map of the mother tongue. At this point, the child begins to distinguish the sounds of the foreign language, often with repeated words and phrases. The phonics map is indispensable for learning the language.”

Which foreign language should my child choose first?

From the child’s brain point of view, you might consider choosing a language that your child could use in everyday life.

“A language that the child can use in their everyday lives would be a good option. If a child has a Chinese speaking family living next door, then a great choice for the child could be Mandarin Chinese. It is very natural for children to practice a language with a friend, by playing and spending time together. On the other hand, it is also possible to choose a language that is phonetically as far as possible from the Finnish or another mother language. Tonal languages like Chinese are great examples. However, the languages in which the sounds differ as much as possible from the Finnish language, including e.g. French, Portuguese, Polish or Russian are also great choices. The phonics map becomes more flexible through the use of differing languages like Finnish and French.”

“English is the language of the world; as seen in Finland when English is present in every child’s everyday life – this could be a reason for the family to choose a language other than English as the first language studied. On the other hand, if the child has a slight delay or difficulty in the development of language skills, then English would be good starting point, because this is a language everyone needs at least in their life,” Huotilainen explains.

Supporting your child’s language learning path through awareness

Many parents or grandparents might think about the best ways to support their child’s language path. Huotilainen believes that the parent’s own language awareness is the first, essential step, which means that the adult needs to be interested in languages

An easy, practical way to encourage the language path is literature. Instead of the parent just reading the book, both the child and parent together discuss and explore the book, by looking at the pictures, and allowing the child to ask many questions. This is a very effective technique to boost language development. I would encourage children and parents to bravely expose themselves to other languages. It may sound crazy, but children have full capacity to learn foreign languages and to them it is not a scary thing, but rather something fun. Further, singing and playing with a foreign language is a lovely way to familiarize the child to it. A good is idea to start off through daily routines. For example, when there is music on the radio, I would ask the child: “Can you guess what is being said?”, or when another child in a shop speaks a language other than Finnish, I would ask “Do you know what language he/she is speaking?”

According to Huotilainen, music and language learning are highly associated with one another. Music and languages are linked to the same brain areas.  A child having a music-related hobby is highly beneficial in his or her linguistic development.

There is no difference between singing and speaking for young children. Researchers even argue that mankind’s first language is singing, meaning it is the first language we understand. It is only after that we begin to learn that words can have a certain meaning.

Reporter: Reeta Vilhu