Government rolls out trial to teach preschoolers second language through apps

Apps to teach preschoolers a second language.
Apps to teach preschoolers a second language. Photo: Getty

Learning a second language is considered a challenge for most but for kids it's child's play.

On Tuesday the Assistant Minister for Education Sussan Ley announced that the government will be delivering its promised Early Learning Languages Australia (ELLA) trial.

Between the ages of zero and eight children's brains are forming at a rapid rate, making preschool the perfect time for children to learn a second language.

"Our youngsters are inquisitive and soak up large amounts of information like sponges – often putting us adults to shame with their ability to pick up something like a new language with speed and ease," Ms Ley said in a press release.

The ELLA trial will use play-based apps on tablet devices and used to teach children a range of languages, including Chinese (Mandarin), Japanese, Indonesian, Arabic and French.

"For many of us, our children are now technology whiz kids from an early age, so this play-based approach to learning a language makes sense," Ms Ley said.

Kristy Goodwin, a children's technology and brain researcher, agrees, saying young children can benefit from technology and from learning a second language.

And while it was once thought that learning a second language early disadvantaged kids, Goodwin says that's not the case at all.

"Children that are competent in two languages often out perform their peers who only have their native language," she said.

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In fact, a 2009 study found children who were raised to speak two languages from birth, "display improved cognitive control abilities compared with matched monolinguals."

They perform better because, essentially, they are learning something twice.

"When children know what an object is in English and Spanish they form a stronger neural connection because they've got two words for it," said Goodwin.

Still, technology alone isn't going to teach a child a new language.

"Children don't learn from technology they learn with technology,

"One of the worst things I think we could do is hand over an iPad with an app on it and the think the children will just learn from the app," said Goodwin.

Therefore, if the program is going to be successful the staff will need to embrace it.

While not all teachers specialise in language education, it's crucial that they engage with students in a range of activities both on and off the screen.

You see, making a connection on the screen is one thing but children often find it very difficult to associate with the same object off the screen, this is something Goodwin calls "3D and 2D jumps".

The fact that they can name an orange on the screen is great but they still need to be able to make that connection in real life, she said.

One way to ensure the links are being made is for parents to be actively involved.

"The parent has to engage with their child and help them make those connections otherwise it [learning a language] can be a meaningless and rope learning type of exercise for them."

But with the right support children could benefit so much from using technology in an educational way.

"But it needs to be supported by the teachers and the parents," said Goodwin.

The one year trial is expected to roll out in 2015 and would see 40 schools participate.

Any early childhood services interested in participating in the trial need to express their interest and fill out an application form by 5pm Monday 29 September.

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