The intercultural dimension of early foreign language learning

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Interest in the teaching of foreign languages (English in particular) to younger learners has notably increased in the last decades. This phenomenon has partly to do with the fact that parents aim to provide their children with an education that enables them to compete in the labour market in the future. Furthermore, it is also due to globalisation and the growing need to facilitate communication among people from different countries. That is why many European states have included in their primary and pre-primary curriculum one of the main European languages. They are also promoting programmes like “Comenius” and “Lingua” to encourage the exchange of ideas, techniques and resources among teachers from many countries with different cultural and didactical backgrounds. However laudable these initiatives may be, they are still focused on the linguistic content more than the cultural context.
One matter which is usually overlooked is the increasing number of immigrant children all over Europe who are bilingual and not supported by schools to become integrated with their monolingual peers. For some teachers the learning of a “prestigious” foreign language such as English or French at early stages is definitely positive but when the student’s first language is a minority one, the same teachers start to see “difficulties” or “handicaps” in the acquisition of the local language. As mother of two bilingual children myself, I have encountered many people involved in my daughters’ school life who are not well informed about bilingualism and have a totally negative attitude towards it. For this reason, I firmly believe that an effective programme for foreign language (FL) learning could help towards integration. To achieve this goal, language teachers should be trained in that direction. Formal education should reflect the real society we live in and so emphasise the social/cultural aspects of FL learning in the multicultural world of today. This way we can educate our children to accept differences easily and to become more tolerant and thus, we may hope for a better understanding among human beings from the very beginning.

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