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Kicking off in kindergarten - Iatefl special

Wait a second: Nasy Pfanner (centre) finds her secondary students do best if they start young (Courtesy Nasy Pfanner)

 

Nasy Inthisone Pfanner describes how many Austrian parents are improving on state provision by giving their children a really early start

Children are not afraid of making mistakes – they say anything and everything without hesitation! Such boldness contributes to the assumption that when it comes to language learning younger is better, especially for pronunciation. In second language acquisition research the critical age hypothesis claims that the optimal period for language acquisition stops at puberty.

In Austria, English language learning doesn’t officially begin until the beginning of secondary school, so to give children a head start many primary schools hire a native English speaker to teach several hours a week. Children learn through fun activities such as singing and reading. The state does not pay for these programmes.

So if primary schools want English learning, they have to finance it themselves. To earn money for this project, schools hold fundraising events like putting on an English language play, which are usually well attended by the communities. Or, in some schools where the regular subject teachers can speak English (even though they may not be formally trained), they arrange English lessons. Such lessons are informal – children learn simple words and vocabulary, and they do not get a grade. Basically, it is up to the schools to decide whether they want to offer English and how to best go about it.

Many parents want their children to learn English even earlier than primary school. There are a few English-speaking nurseries and several English-medium kindergartens throughout the country. The nurseries accept babies from as young as eighteen months to three years old. The kindergartens accept children from three to six years old. Some of these institutions opened their doors in the 1990s with a small number of children.

Vienna, the capital and Austria’s most cosmopolitan city, has the most English-speaking kindergartens in Austria. Some are English-only. Others are mostly English speaking, but offer some basic German language activities to children whose native language is not German in an effort to prepare them for German-speaking schools. And some are bilingual.

Kindergarten staff are not always native English speakers. For example, certain kindergartens are run by international teams, many of whom have a lot of experience gained from living in English-speaking countries. These are private sector, so they’re more expensive than the state-run nursery schools. However, some are subsidised by the government. Most of the children come from middle class or wealthier families or are the children of international couples who communicate with each other in English.

English is a big draw, but it’s not the only one. For instance, the Children’s House International Montessori Kindergarten in Vienna attracts many parents because of its curriculum. Some of the children there have older siblings, aunts or uncles who went to the school. In essence, it is English combined with the method of teaching and caring that win parents’ hearts and wallets.

Michaela Präg, who put both of her children in the only English-speaking nursery and kindergarten in the state of Vorarlberg ten years ago, said, ‘Yes, it definitely was worth it. I was amazed at how much and how quickly the children learned, and the environment of broad-mindedness.’

Today, most nurseries and kindergartens are fully booked, with long waiting lists. Parents who still hope to get a place for their child must act fast as – surprisingly – these kindergartens have no plans to expand.

As a secondary school teacher, I notice that children who have had English before they enter secondary school transition better than those who have not. For example, in our first-year secondary school coursebook we learn colours, days of the week, numbers and so forth. The children who have had English have already been exposed to these themes, however fleetingly. For example, my second graders, aged eleven or twelve, all had some English before entering secondary school and they found it to be helpful. English was already a part of their lives, not a foreign language to be feared.

Education is one of the most important investments parents can make in their children. Given that English is mandatory in secondary schools and that it is a world language, parents want their children to be exposed to it as early as possible. Many parents know how difficult it is to learn a foreign language as an adult and want their children to make the process easier, with more fun.