Language training expert Wendy van Dalen explains the impact of immersion on both children and adults for learning a second language.
“I’m trying to read to my children in Dutch as much as possible. Surely this is the best thing to do?”
Yes, reading out loud for children is good for their language development. This is a common question asked by expats considering a Dutch as a Second Language course (NT2) for their children. If you want your children to learn Dutch well and you want them to quickly get the hang of it, then they should be immersed in that language.
Immersion into a second language
Children acquire languages in interaction with their environment. The more they interact in that language, the better. The quality of the language offered and the interactions should meet certain requirements. These should be at the right level and sufficiently frequent. If both parents themselves do not (yet) master the Dutch language sufficiently, these requirements are not easily met. In fact, there is a danger that children learn certain important language elements the wrong way and these language errors are difficult to correct later on.
In addition children experience many advantages of their native language when learning a second language such as Dutch. Developing their native language skills is always a good thing and helps them when learning a second language. Therefore reading to your children in their first language is a good thing. Here is a list of several language facilities that can help you learn Dutch as a second language.
Adults learning a second language
Age and language experience play a role in second language acquisition. It is partly true that younger children seem to pick up a second language faster. However, adults have already mastered their native language and benefit from this while learning a second language. As a result, they ultimately learn a second language faster than children do. Initially young children develop language skills relatively quickly. At a young age, expat children also live more in a second language environment than adults, for example, in a Dutch school and on the street playing with Dutch children. In addition, children in that environment can make do with simple language constructs and they do not need to create a business plan in Dutch for example. So it only seems like younger children acquire their second language faster than older children or adults, but it is not necessarily the case.
How children acquire a second language
Children do not learn a second language just by growing up in a Dutch environment. They acquire this language through interaction with their environment. Based on what they hear, they make assumptions about what words mean and what rules they have to apply. These assumptions are reviewed in the interaction with the environment. Different forms of the language are taught by exposure in high frequency to those forms in the input. As mentioned earlier, the quality of the language exposed to should be high enough.
Children learn a second language the fastest if they have a range of customised, high-quality of language input and are involved in the interaction.
The Dutch school system is often limitedly intercultural. School courses on a regular basis use difficult words, which are not explained or insufficiently explained. Children may have difficulty connecting abstract words such as ‘industry’ to their own life or experience. Therefore they tend to not understand certain texts very well.
It is striking that many schools assume that NT2 children at one point in time have gained sufficient language skills to master the scholastic language requirements and understand all the different subjects. This is not always correct. The vocabulary of children with Dutch as a second language is often not sufficient for the different school subjects (such as geography) to understand everything and to be able to understand linkages in school texts.
In particular, the bad connection between the children’s experiences in everyday life and the abstract texts and difficult words in school ensures that most NT2 children develop a lag in Dutch proficiency during the elementary school period and later.
In short: several factors are of interest in teaching a second language
The social factors, the level of interaction, the age, but also the motivation and attitude towards the host country are all important factors when learning the second language. But most important is the quality of the second-language education. The content and organisation of language education are a major influence on the performance in school