Interest and patience paramount for progress
The key to getting children to learn English in a cosmopolitan city such as Hong Kong is to capture their interest and retain it, say educators.
'Children learn best when they are comfortable, happy, motivated and doing something that interests them,' says Anna Bate, senior teacher for young learners and teacher training, at the British Council. 'They must also be challenged, otherwise they will get bored.'
Ms Bate says there is no conclusive theory on how children learn, but much of the council's teaching is based on child and early learning development theories, such as those of Vygotsky, Piaget and Donaldson, well-known experts in the field.
The Russian Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) attached great importance to social interaction and communication in learning. This theory posits that people learn best when learning with someone who has a better grasp of the subject. Vygotsky's theories are being rediscovered by today's academics and linguists, Ms Bate says.
Another development theorist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980) formulated a four-stage development map. An interactionist, Piaget believed that language learning takes place in different ways at different stages, and he advocated varied approaches to teaching children of different ages. He said a baby learns through imitation; a young child can think for himself; and an older child can imagine a hypothetical experience.
Margaret Donaldson, an early childhood development theorist, follows Piaget and believes that if children find tasks and language acquisition meaningful, they would find it easier to learn and retain.
'We have found that children learn best holistically with teaching achieved through performance of a task, for example,' Ms Bate says.
It is also important to set achievable targets so that children do not find the challenge too daunting. She suggests that parents who want to improve their children's English should look at what they enjoy and tie that in with the language.
'Be aware of what interests your child and attracts his attention. Children like to share experiences, so it is important to have parent or sibling involvement. If what children are doing is meaningful, they will remember, especially younger children.'
Ms Bate cautions parents not to put pressure on their children, but rather encourage them and build up their confidence. She advises to 'make the learning a game, with rewards even. Children should not be pushed before they are ready. All children learn to read and write at slightly different times'.
Dr Anne Ma, senior lecturer, Department of English, Hong Kong Institute of Education, agrees on the importance of capturing a child's interest.
'Getting children interested is the most important thing. At an early stage, cognitive development is not advanced, but if you capture the interest the child will remember,' she says.
Getting parents to adopt a positive attitude is also important. But what children are learning should be relevant to them; if they do not see reason or advantage in learning English, the learning process will become a chore, Dr Ma says.