How young is young to say, Oui

Published: 13 November, 2011 09:46 IST | Fiona Fernandez |

If you found it tough to juggle English, Hindi and Marathi in school, bow in reverence to today's kids, some as little as three, who are learning to speak foreign languages with the ease of a pro

If you found it tough to juggle English, Hindi and Marathi in school, bow in reverence to today's kids, some as little as three, who are learning to speak foreign languages with the ease of a pro

Eight year-old Aditya Bhasker is a unique young customer at Colaba's Belgian boulangerie Le Pain Quotidien, part of a chain that serves organic French fare. Unlike his kiddie friends, or even other adults who drop by at the all-day dining outfit, Bhasker is able to read the menu effortlessly; complicated names of dishes rolling off his tongue in a flourish.

A 16 year old will use English as a base for French. A six year old has
no reference point, so he'll remember the rules as it is. I had read about
three year olds learning a new language, and was now seeing it at home.

French instructor Fatema Sabuvala on how her
5 year-old son learnt
French faster than the
7 year old. Her 15 students are aged between
six and 10

His mother, Priya, says her son takes "us for a ride", especially when they shop for French-made products at a supermarket!" "I hope he didn't hear me tell you this," she whispers with a smile. Behind the hushed voice is a satisfied parent whose son's affinity for the foreign language has helped her on more occasions than one. The Cuffe Parade resident has been a regular at Fatema Sabuvala's French classes for the last two years.

The age to wire the brain for languages starts at 0 and goes up to two
The learning window stays open till age seven. If a foreign
language is introduced to a child under seven, he'll find it easier to learn.

Swati Popat Vats

"As a six year old, he picked up French beautifully. It can be a difficult language, particularly with its accents. Yet, Aditya took to the song format, thanks to his love for music. He can pronounce well, and has picked up writing quickly," says Priya about her son. It was a vacation to France that the family took when Bhasker was little, that led to his curiosity for French. "I noticed how even my half-baked attempts at speaking French helped the average frosty Frenchman warm up to us," says Priya.

Sabuvala holds classes in the same apartment complex that the Bhaskers live in. Every Tuesday and Wednesday, the trained language instructor readies herself for a ninety-minute session for students aged six to 10. Singing Hakuna Matata in French, reciting Fr re Jacques -- a popular nursery rhyme, watching Didou -- a Dessin Anime and learning about the French tricolour keep Bhasker and his 14 classmates hooked.

"I have created my own teaching method. Previously, I taught older school and college students. I took to teaching little kids only two years ago, and it has clicked. It's far more rewarding when they are little and learn a language free from the pressures of exams and competition," says Sabuvala.

Bhasker can vouch for the riot Sabuvala's classes are, peppered with role-playing, singing and art work. "It's fun learning new words. Sometimes, I try and explain the rules of the language to mum," says the little student who is keen to explore Spanish next.

Indian kids have a headstart
Sabuvala is just one cogwheel in a machinery that's been acquainting Mumbai's kids, some as young as six, with foreign languages. What this means for the city's little ones is that they end up being introduced to close to four languages (mother tongue, Hindi, English, and a foreign tongue) even before they hit class three.

Speech therapist Shailee Anjaria believes Indian kids have an advantage. "Multilingualism is common in India, especially with the rise of mixed marriages. It might not be too difficult for our kids to pick up a foreign tongue. Language acquisition is done mostly by listening -- a child is a far better listener than an adult."

A six year old speaking fluent French makes for a great story, but can a kid grapple with more than two languages? Sabuvala tells us how her five year-old son was able to grasp French words far better and quicker than her seven year-old.

"It was my eureka moment. I had read about three year olds learning a new language, and now I was witnessing it at home."  Echoing her sentiment is educationist Swati Popat Vats. The younger you start, the better, advises Vats. "The age to wire the brain for languages starts at 0 and goes up to two years. The learning window stays open till age seven. If a foreign language is introduced to a child under seven, he'll find it easier to learn."

Vats says kids as young as three can juggle their mother tongue, English and another language (including its word formation, meaning, and accents) well. "Yes, any language... the more the merrier! Cultivating accents, though, may be difficult," she adds.

A chat with Avani Manaktala, Assistant Director: Studies, Alliance Francaise, Mumbai, reveals how young parents from the city have taken a cue. "In the 12 years that I have taught French, I've seen a growing interest in parents wanting to teach their young ones. We get requests to tutor four and five year olds," she shares This year, Alliance introduced short batches at Ecole Francaise in Worli, for eight to 12 year olds. Bright classrooms and the use of skits, workshops and art make for an interactive mind workout for kids.

Planning the curricula is important, say instructors. Sabuvala made sure her research was in sync before she launched her first batch. "I have family in France, so I travelled there to get a grip on local school curricula. Obviously, Indian kids would have to be taught several levels lower. Kids have limited concentration so there

has to be an activity change every 15 minutes," says Sabuvala, whose sessions include watching educational cartoons, cracking worksheets that teach key French words and phrases, colouring, poetry and nursery rhyme recitation, singing and role-playing."

Sabuvala steers clear of exams, and prefers to revise key elements from the previous session at the start of every class. "French has lots of rules. Words end in silent letters, so pronunciation is a challenge. It's important that kids retain whatever they are taught especially since they are still learning English grammar at school."

Sabuvala explains the difference in how adults grapple with a foreign language, as opposed to kids. "A 16 year old will learn English as a base for learning French. The six year old has no reference point, so he'll remember the rules as they are," she says.

Catch them young
Across the city, in suburban Santacruz, office assistant at Instituto Hispania, Kamya Dharmani says they have been conducting tutorials for young kids since 2002. Poems, stories and numbers are taught using the play-way method. "It's not a classroom setup. Visiting tutors adopt a similar structure to teach kids privately at home. We receive enquiries from parents of three and four year olds too. At least 12 young kids have registered for Spanish class this year," she says.
With Manjiri Palicha, Project Co-ordinator with PASCH, a German language initiative by Max Mueller Bhavan, the age barrier truly crashed. "I have taught the basics of German to a two year old. Kids are free with language. Five and six year olds are frequently taught German by our home tutors."

Max Mueller may not offer regular batches but their hobby sessions are a hit with the kids. A regular inflow of guest performers from Germany, including puppeteers and shadow artists, might have something to do with it. "We encourage kids to get into the mood. Connecting with them through interactive methods is our USP," says Palicha.

Sabuvala roots for starting young. "It is an added skill to their all-round development." By the time these little geniuses touch 10, they can afford to jump a level, she suggests. "By then, speech is natural, and they are able to recollect rules and converse fluently. When they hit 12 years, they will be competent in a foreign language apart from the languages they learn in school."

The parent trap
There are no 'rules' of course, as far as the ability of kids go. Each child is different. Dr Pervin Dadachanji, Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist and consultant psychiatrist at Ummeed, a not-for-profit child development centre based in Jacob Circle, says, "Studies have shown that kids absorb a lot more before they turn seven. But every child is differently abled. While some crack a new language, others might end up confused."

While urban kids find themselves spread thin while straddling school and play, the stress to deliver is as real in sport and extra-curriculars as it is in academics. "If a child is unable to cope with learning a new language, it could result in low self esteem and frustration. Parents must watch out against over-stimulating kids with numerous activities," warns Dadachanji.

Palicha speaks of parents who spend thousands on hobby classes only to realise that their kids have lost interest once they hit adolescence. Sabuvala admits parents think it fashionable that their kids can speak a foreign tongue. "It makes for a good conversation at an adult dinner party," she says.

Mind your mother tongue
Experts warn about the mother tongue taking a beating, though. "In most cases, it's the mother tongue that gets sidetracked. This can hamper the socio-emotional development of young children since they are unable to think or express themselves in a foreign language.

Parents must converse with their kids in their mother tongue," suggests Vats. Schools have a role to play too. "Institutions must be sensitive about their system of fining and punishing children for speaking in their mother tongue in class since for kids, it creates an impression that the mother tongue is 'bad'."

Little wonder then that even languages with strong community backing, like Bengali, for instance, are witnessing a dip in following. Archana Datta, a teacher of Bengali at Mumbai's Banga Bhasa Prasar Samiti since 1975, says, "Until a decade ago, we would be inundated with requests to tutor young kids. Now, parents are biased towards foreign languages. Besides, where is the time for kids to soak in their mother tongue? The pressure to master two languages apart from English at school is bad enough."

Datta rues the fact that despite free classes that the Kolkata-headquartered Samiti, offers, currently, they have no kid students. "All our students are adults. Of these, 10 per cent are Bengalis while the rest are Maharashtrians."

Even one of the world's oldest languages doesn't have much to offer to Mumbai's young. Vishwanathan of the Bombay Tamil Sangham says, "We have classes for adults. Parents who want their kids to learn Tamil usually admit them in one of the many schools in Sion, Mulund, Chembur or Vashi, that teach it as a third language, after English and Hindi."

Datta's words ring true when she says it's ultimately up to working parents to ensure the deep wealth the mother tongue offers is not lost to the uniform invasion of English, or the glitz of foreign grammar.

Immersion programs
"in the West, young kids are introduced to other languages early, thanks to Immersion Schools and programmes," says Dr Dadachanji. "Here, children are taught languages that aren't part of their regular vocabulary." Such programmes allow children to spend part or all of the school day learning a second language.
In total immersion programs, they learn all subjects in the second language, while in partial immersion programmes only a section of the curriculum is taught in the second language. So, a child may learn maths and science in Spanish, and art in English in the second half of the day. In both cases, the second language is the medium for content instruction rather than the subject of instruction. It's proven that such kids reach a higher level of competence than those participating in other language programs.

Quick fact
In the first eight months, a baby's brain has about 1,000 trillion connections. After that, the number of connections begins to decline, unless the child is exposed to stimulation through all his or her senses.

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