ON CHILDREN’S FIRST (ENGLISH) WORDS
- February 1, 2018
- Posted by: Jelena Marjanovic
- Category: Blog
Discussions on early English language learning, regardless of whether they are led by parents or experts, reveal some disputable issues. One of them refers to the initial vocabulary, or as it is usually defined by laypersons – “the basic things” that preschool children can/should learn. However, the answer to the question – what are the basic things of a language (including English) – is not so simple.
That working with children is far from being simple and that it is always multilayered becomes immediately clear at the first encounter with a group of children. Even if you have never experienced pedagogical work, you can easily imagine yourselves or some other persons with five, ten or fifteen (obviously different) children who are to be introduced to a particular topic, relating to English language, for example. How that process is to be developed and what kind of vocabulary is to be considered as appropriate will depend on various factors. One of them concerns the choice you have made between two kinds of English language program, i.e. whether you have chosen an academic or comprehensive (holistic) approach. The difference between those two approaches refers, among other things, to the perspectives of adults on early childhood and on their own roles in early childhood education. More than twenty years of experience of teaching English in preschool institutions have caused me to opt for the holistic, and not for academic approach. What is the difference between those approaches in terms of vocabulary, i.e. the choice of English words?
An academic approach implies a strictly prescribed program with predetermined outcomes (results) and precisely defined contents. It is a typical model of foreign language learning/teaching – through predetermined topics and words, usually those referring to colors, numbers, body parts, family members, animals… Thus, in that respect, there is no significant difference between numerous textbooks designed for preschool children. They introduce English language through the so called “basic” vocabulary. Could there be any problems with such a choice? Yes, many! First, nowadays practitioners work with groups in which children have different levels of “knowledge” concerning English language. Due to an ever earlier start of children’s exposure to English language through media and the growing interest of parents in enrolling their children on English courses at ever earlier ages, certain number of children can already use English words to denote the notions from the abovementioned list. But, not all the children in the group! Every parent, of course, takes the greatest care of her/his own child. A practitioner, on the other hand, has to take the greatest care of EVERY CHILD in the group! As for the choice of vocabulary, it means that one should choose contents and accompanying activities that would be motivating and interesting to both the children who can denote, for example, five colors, fifteen animals and eight body parts in English and their mates who cannot do that. Is it possible? I believe it is and that it is certainly worth putting an additional effort. Particularly inasmuch as you have incredibly inspiring “helpers” – the very children, who tell you (both verbally and nonverbally) what they like and what they don’t like. And here we face another problem with the academic approach in selecting vocabulary. It presumes that ADULTS know in advance what CHILDREN will be interested in. The reality, however, is completely different, and fortunately, more beautiful! It is like the one described in a poem by Dusko Radovic – Deca vole/Children like (peculiar things, sweet things, funny words, like a chimney sweep or rice pudding).
Indeed, children are interested in many things that are not categorized as “basic”. Practitioners cannot know in advance what the children are interested in, but they can find it out while playing and communicating with the children, watching and listening to them… Whether they will take their findings into account in designing English learning activities will depend on the choice we, the adults, have made. If we opt for the academic approach, this will not be of great significance to us, for such a program implies predetermined English words and expressions that we consider as basic or useful. What is important to us there is that the children learn as many words and expressions as possible while mastering particular lessons or units (e.g. that they use English words to denote body parts – a mouth, a nose, ears, eyes or answer some questions, such as What’s your name?/How old are you?). What could be problematic here? Well, let’s say – disharmony with the assumption that learning in early childhood is not learning through lessons. Children will be introduced to such a kind of teaching in their first grade of primary school, when they will learn exactly the same English words and expressions as the abovementioned ones. If we limit the topics of early English learning, we will also limit the possibility for children to explore and learn many other things that exceed mastering “the basic” vocabulary – for example, to explore how to make MASHED POTATO from the song DO YOU LOVE ME?, what the BOBBIN from the song WIND THE BOBBIN UP is used for, what a sewing box contains and how to use it in order to sew a curtain for the sun from the song YOU ARE MY SUNSHINE, how it looks like when we climb the ladder and shout WHAT A WONDERFUL WORLD, to find out that POPCORN is made from CORN that POPS and that it can be glued on our POTS drawing, how a SUNFLOWER looks like, what is a BUTTERCUP which the NIGHTBEAR from a familiar story has been named after, what type of instrument a BANJO is… When you participate in such activities with children, you can easily see that they are more willing to learn and do what is meaningful TO THEM and that they have more fun when, instead of reacting to the commands belonging to the category of “basic things”, such as Sit down! Stand up! or Point to a boy!, they react to POSE or TWIRL! Why is that so? Probably because in the first case they are expected to perform a task in a correct manner, while in the second case they are given an opportunity to use their freedom and imagination in order to make unusual poses and twists, where there are no correct solutions – they are all perfect! And probably because preschool children still live in a wonderful world in which EVERYTHING can be an object of fun and learning, including English language. Why then do we confine it initially to “the basic vocabulary”? Mainly because we make an analogy with a mother tongue and think in the following way: the initial English vocabulary should be confined to the basic things because: 1) the first words in a mother tongue also belong to that particular list; 2) preschool children’s vocabulary refers primarily to the words denoting objects from their immediate surroundings; 3) in selecting vocabulary one should carefully choose words that are frequent and usable in real communicative situations.
However, such a line of thought disregards the fact that preschool children have already acquired many other words in their mother tongue (the list is too long!), that those words refer not only to their immediate surroundings (just think of a heart, dream, a dinosaur, the world, Africa, noise…) and that ON THE PART OF THEM, real communicative situations do not amount to the questions/answers of the following type What color is the dog? The dog is yellow. They find it quite “real” to hear or say PUT THE CORN/A PINCH OF SALT IN THE POT or I COME FROM ALABAMA, to mention but a few expressions we used in the abovementioned activities. In children’s “reality”, there are no boundaries or basic things! It is up to you then whether you adapt your English language program to children’s reality or you attempt to make children adapt themselves to the program’s reality! I have chosen the first option. However, it does not mean that as an English teacher, I should only be an animator who entertains children (although I have to be one as well), but I should teach them English, too. I have no doubts that by being introduced to English vocabulary that is not considered as “basic”, children can also be introduced to the basic elements of spoken language, such as intonation (e.g. melody of sentences) or pronunciation (e.g. sounds that do not exist in their mother tongue, open or close vowels, diphthongs). Thus, by listening and pronouncing the abovementioned English words, the children could acquire certain typical English sounds, regardless of the fact that those words were not dog, cat, one, two or red. At the same time, they were introduced to certain linguistic structures (e.g. asking questions (Do you…?), imperative, usage of English prepositions and possessive adjectives (in the pot, with my banjo on my knee), the definite article, idioms and phrases (you broke my heart; a pinch of salt), syntagms consisting of an adjective and a noun (wonderful world, dark starry night)… They could also learn some new words of their mother tongue (e.g. Serbian words: kalem, ljutić, Alabama), and talk about what the stars do in their spare time and why the world is wonderful, and find out that it is ok to say I like/I don’t like my mate’s drawing but that it is not polite to tell that person that her/his drawing is ugly, because everyone has their own “cup of tea”… If all the above mentioned things are equally important to you, the process of learning/teaching in which you participate together with children will not be focused only to the development of foreign language competencies through a predetermined vocabulary, but rather it will widen beyond limits. Such a process will be unpredictable, but thereby more inspiring – for both the children and the adults.
Vanja Jovanović, a preschool English teacher