by Hanna Vock


Many parents (in Germany) wish that their child already learns English at kindergarten. There are two possibilities:
1. the child attends a bilingual kindergarten – of which there are not many – or 2. English is „offered“ in the „normal“ kindergarten. (Everything that is done here also applies to other foreign languages).

1. Bilingual kindergarten

For children who grow up bilingual at home, a bilingual kindergarten can be a good complement to the domestic bilingual world. It is irrelevant whether bilingualism has arisen because a family has immigrated and now wants to cultivate the child’s language of origin in addition to the new colloquial German, or whether the child grows up in a family in which the father and mother speak different mother tongues. In any case, the child receives a lot of input in both languages both at home and in kindergarten and can practice both languages daily.

In both languages the child also speaks to people close to him or her and who are emotionally significant for the child.

If a child, from about three years of age, attends a bilingual kindergarten without having learned the second language, it is in a more difficult situation, as it often will not be able to express emotionally significant things (unlike other children in the group) spontaneously or even understand them.

Here, attentive and careful pedagogical work that takes this into account is all the more important. But there is also a wide field for social learning among the children, who are sensitised to the needs of the children who are still lagging behind and can help in acute situations.

This problem will be defused if it is ensured to a large extent that a teacher of each language can always be addressed by the children.

For gifted children and especially for linguistically highly gifted children, attending a bilingual kindergarten can be a suitable cognitive and linguistic challenge.

It should always be checked whether the kindergarten only scores with bilingualism or whether other play and learning areas are also represented at a high level. Above all: Is it a place for children where they can live out all their important childhood needs?

See also: Quality Criteria for the Advancement of Gifted Pre-School Children in Kindergarten

2. Offers in the regular kindergarten

Even in normal regular kindergartens, kindergarten teachers are confronted with the demand of parents to offer English, for example.

If an English native speaker is one of the teachers, or a teacher who speaks the language very well for other reasons, then she can always playfully incorporate English into her normal work.

Some parents, however, have other ideas. They want a regular course within the kindergarten day that systematically teaches language skills.

When I was head of a parents‘ initiative kindergarten, I’ve been stormed with exactly this wish from time to time. This happened with reference to the irreplaceable language learning opportunities at kindergarten age.

And these were the considerations that I then threw into the debate at parents‘ evenings:

In the kindergarten we see as our task,
– firstly, to let the children experience that there are different languages,
– secondly, to listen to and try out the sound of other languages,
– third, to see that some languages use completely different characters, and
– fourthly, to make it clear to them that children who (still) have difficulties with the German language often have a good command of another language (which gives these children a better standing in the group).

One must be aware of this – and should tell the parents that occasional playful contact with English (or another language) does not lead to clear language acquisition. Single words that have been learned in this way are almost always forgotten. This is especially the case if
– a time gap of two or more years arises after attending kindergarten, i.e. if only in the 3rd grade or even later English lessons will take place again, or if
– English is not spoken in the home environment.

Children who are not particularly linguistically gifted would be overburdened by an intensive learning programme, especially if neither German nor English is their mother tongue. (Children with a special talent for languages could, however, cope well with such a programme).

The accent-free learning of another language, which is often desired by the parents, only succeeds if the child is gifted for it and / or surrounded by the language at an early age.
It will then still be of importance which English the child comes into contact with (British, American, Australian, Canadian … English). This „accent-free“ English will be learnt by the child.
Here the question also arises: How important is it to master a foreign language without an accent?

If we want to employ a native speaker on a permanent basis, this is a cost factor. If, however, only children whose parents could pay this could participate, it would be very unsocial.

If we entrust the English course to someone from outside, we have to accept time restrictions for our very own pedagogical work: Projects have to be interrupted and we have to get the children out of the game. This is not in the sense of our pedagogical concept.
(See: An „Old“ Concept – Complete Version (German version))

In the evaluation of numerous studies, science has found that

– who would have thought that –

that in bilingual kindergartens „…intensive playful learning of the foreign language, considerable foreign language acquisition as well as the age-appropriate acquisition of the mother tongue takes place, … if the programme offers a suitable environment for this and implements very specific pedagogical principles.“
(Kristin Kersten, Frühes Fremdsprachenlernen in bilingualen Kindertagesstätten – Forschungsprojekt Elias  /  Kristin Kersten, Early Foreign Language Learning in Bilingual Day Care Centers – research project ELIAS, in: news & science. Promotion of the gifted and research on giftedness, published by: Austrian Centre for Gifted Education and Research (ÖZBF), Issue 1, 2012, p. 15.)

In the following, important factors for success there are mentioned:
„…a start as early as possible, a long duration of the programme, a high intensity of contact with the foreign language and high-quality input“.

All this can hardly be guaranteed under the normal working conditions of a regular kindergarten, unless other important areas are neglected.

See also: Improving Framework Conditions! (German version)

In my opinion, similar reservations apply to English courses outside kindergarten, i.e. commercial courses, as listed under 2 to 4.

Experience shows that gifted children rarely get their money’s worth here, because the learning speed for them is too low, (under certain circumstances much too low).

3. What is possible and useful – and what is done in many kindergartens

Due to the internationality of many kindergartens and intercultural projects, the children learn in their daily kindergarten routine that there are different languages, for example when they hear mother and child speak Spanish during pick-up.
Children who are gifted with languages – and therefore particularly interested in languages – listen more closely here.

In many morning circles the children greet each other multilingually. Important words such as „going out“ or „lunch“ can be used in several languages. Creative kindergarten teachers who enjoy foreign languages themselves can think of many other key words for everyday kindergarten life…

A course, such as „We sing songs in three languages“, can enrich everyday kindergarten life and inspire children who are interested in languages.

A kindergarten teacher turned her enthusiasm for the British royal family into a course, which naturally included a number of English expressions.

Such activities are within the framework of the kindergarten’s above-mentioned tasks with regard to foreign languages.

Three very different projects with especially gifted children can be found here:

Murat Wants to Learn: Math Problems with a Minus and English (German version)

About the Book: Have You Filled a Bucket Today?

Cologne Speak in Kindergarten (German version)


Literature recommendation:

(Title and/or availability in English translation could not be determined)

Elke Burkhardt Montanari, Wie Kinder zweisprachig aufwachsen. Ein Ratgeber. Hrsg. vom Verband binationaler Familien und Partnerschaften. (How children grow up bilingual. A guidebook. Published by the Association of Binational Families and Partnerships.)

Colin Baker, Zweisprachigkeit zu Hause und in der Schule. Ein Handbuch für Erziehende. (Bilingualism at Home and at School. A handbook for educators. Also available in Turkish.)


Date of publication in German: 2017, June
Copyright © Hanna Vock, see imprint.

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