Being raised in a city such as Dubai, our children are exposed to more cultures and languages than ever before. ‘Learning another language is no longer a trend, it’s a necessity,’ explains Birgit A Ertl, founder and principal of The Children’s Garden, a unique pre-school for two to six year olds which follows the International Curriculum for Languages and Creative Arts (ICLCA) – an amalgam of different curricula from across the world, where the emphasis is on developing an emotional connection with each child through creative arts, social development, and language skills.
‘Speaking more than one language is a huge benefit to children in our society,’ she adds. ‘Not only is the world becoming smaller, with bilingualists having a huge advantage over monolingualists, but learning another language at an early age has a significant impact on the way a child’s brain develops. At the start of learning a new language, the child has to learn how to switch between the different languages – their brain is busy all of the time, it’s like going for a work-out to flex your muscles. Because bilingualists constantly have to think, they become much more adept at problem solving, thinking outside of the box. It is important how a person can cope with the challenges of the 21st century. In order to achieve this, you have to start very early.’
For Birgit, this ‘window of opportunity’ occurs during a child’s earliest formative years, up to the age of around seven, a golden time for both parents and educators to enable a child to develop his or her cognitive, emotional and language skills. ‘The best investment parents can give is during their early years,’ she says. ‘Here in Dubai, I believe there is too much emphasis on academic dominance. It’s not just about reading or writing – at age three or four, their brain has not sufficiently developed to fully grasp the concept. At this stage they’ll just memorize, whereas the true process of reading is about understanding what they’ve just read. Worksheets are emotionless. In activities at this age where a child’s emotions aren’t involved, learning will not take place. It is only through learning by doing that a young child’s brain will make
At the Children’s Garden, the two languages of instruction are given equal emphasis, meaning that the child learns 50:50 in each language (whether it’s reading, art, maths, music or dance). At the pre-school’s three branches (in the Green Community, Jumeira and, most recently, Al Barsha), the common teaching language is English for all children, with the option of the remaining 50 per cent of the teaching to be in either French or Arabic, as well as German at the Green Community. The second language is implemented from pre-K (age three), with each class having two form teachers, one for each language. ‘We clearly define the difference between English, French and Arabic homerooms,’ explains Birgit. ‘It has to be associative for the children – both geographical between the different class rooms, and with a specific teacher.’
For many of the pre-school’s young students, the languages on the curriculum are not their mother tongue, which means that a consistent method for learning is key. Birgit believes that it takes two years for a child to become stable in a language, and at this age, just three years for them to speak naturally. By the time a child leaves to go to ‘big school’ they will be at a stage where they will retain the language as long as there’s a certain amount of upkeep. The Children’s Gardens in Jumeira and the Green Community are affiliated with sister schools that have a complementary language policy. ‘But if the families decide to send their children to a different school, or to leave the UAE altogether, there is so much access to language resources these days,’ says Birgit. ‘All it takes is regular playdates using the second language, possibly an hour of conversation with a language tutor, and even the internet is full of useful language resources.’
Above all, engaging a child with language is all about fun, Birgit concludes. ‘Even with our new children at TCG Al Barsha, we can already see them becoming excited about their new language. Since we began, we have gained an enormous insight into how the brain functions, and how we can stimulate a young child’s mind in a fun, positive way.
A happy child will be a happy learner – not just for languages, but for every subject.’
The Children’s Garden has branches in the Green Community, Jumeira and Al Barsha. To find out more, go to www.tcgbarsha.ae