The advantage of a third language

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2010, 12:00am

Recently, Grade Three pupils from Nanguo Affiliated Primary School of South China Normal University chose to pick up a third language and learn Spanish.

The students have lessons once a week. The teacher teaches them commonly used phrases, such as where they come from or what their favourite food is. The lessons also serve as an introduction to European culture. At present, there is no examination.

Zhang Suxia, the school's headmaster, says most pupils are interested in the course and think it is fun.

'We planned to start Spanish courses two years ago,' she says. 'Nowadays, one who can speak fluent English has no advantage over others. Equipped with one more foreign language, students can get more opportunities in the future.'

According to Zhang, the school had discussions with the parent council and consulted some linguistic experts before starting the course.

'Parents basically support our decision,' she says.

Ma Li is one of the parents supporting such classes. Ma says children have great potential for learning languages and they are sure to master three or four foreign languages if inspired properly.

She says: 'I hear of children in Europe that begin to learn a second foreign language in Grade Three or Four and are able to master both languages. If our children only learn English, they'll be left behind.'

However, some parents are sceptical about the course. Yuan Doucheng is concerned about whether it will place too great a burden on the children.

'I am not sure if children are able to master Chinese Pinyin and English well. To learn one more language may confuse them and I'm afraid that the children would not be able to master any,' he says.

Liu Yu, a doctor of linguistics at Sun Yat-sen University, says it is not a bad idea for pupils to learn a third language, but he emphasises that the course must not be too demanding and must stimulate children's interest in learning.

'On the mainland, the lack of multi-language environment makes it hard for children to master more than one foreign language. Learning English is for communication, so children should master it well.

'As to second foreign languages, the course should aim at developing students' language proficiency,' Liu says.