EC Initiatives on Early Language Learning

Early language learning directly and positively affects the academic and personal development of children. Introducing foreign languages at a young age, preferably before the age of 12, can result in faster language learning, improved mother tongue literary skills, and better performance in other areas.

Because of this, European Union Heads of State or Government called, in March 2002, for “at least two foreign languages to be taught from a very early age”.
Early language learning can take place within a multilingual family or as part of pre-school education. Long-term positive effects include:

  1. uninterrupted, long-term language instruction
  2. labour market advantages
  3. greater self-esteem
  4. better knowledge and understanding of other cultures
However, an early start does not guarantee better results. It must be combined with effective teaching methods that focus on listening, and spoken skills, delivered by appropriately trained teachers. Equally important are small classes, adequate resources and fun language learning techniques.

See the 2007 study "The main pedagogical principles underlying the teaching of languages to very young learners"

EU Language Policy

Languages 2010

The contribution of languages to the Lisbon Strategy
In 2000, the EU was set the goal of becoming the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010. This included the achievement of greater social cohesion while also being capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs. The plan to achieve this goal is known as the Lisbon Strategy.

Education policy has a central part to play, and language learning is crucial in this respect.

EU education ministers have highlighted three major goals to be achieved by 2010 to support the Lisbon Strategy:

  1. improving the quality and effectiveness of EU education and training systems
  2. ensuring that education is accessible to all
  3. opening up education and training to the wider world
  4. undamental goals and specific steps for achieving them are contained in “Education and Training 2010” - the education and training contribution to the Lisbon Strategy
Ambitious aims for 2010

Education and Training 2010 covers a lot of ground. It sets out the shared ambitions for 2010, including the incorporation of diversity and co-operation into the overall goals. It specifies how these goals will be achieved - through the open method of co-ordination, whereby Member States agree to co-operate and be measured against common benchmarks.

Finally, the plan sets out 13 specific objectives:

  1. improving education and training for teachers and trainers
  2. developing skills for the knowledge society
  3. ensuring access to ICT for everyone
  4. increasing recruitment to scientific and technical studies
  5. making the best use of resources
  6. creating an open learning environment
  7. making learning more attractive
  8. supporting active citizenship, equal opportunities and social cohesion
  9. strengthening the links with work and research and society at large
  10. developing the spirit of enterprise
  11. improving foreign language learning
  12. increasing mobility and exchange
  13. strengthening European co-operation
The language learning objective is framed as a contribution to the aim of opening up education and training to the wider world. The EU’s guiding principle is that every person should be able to speak two foreign languages in addition to their mother tongue.

Education and Training 2010 sets out benchmarks for assessing the progress of Member States and also prioritises three areas that will benefit from the exchange of experience:

  1. methods and ways of organising the teaching of languages
  2. early language learning
  3. ways of promoting the learning and practice of foreign languages
EU initiatives to support early language learning

The Action plan for Language Learning and Linguistic Diversity (Section 1 1.1) states

"It is a priority for Member States to ensure that language learning in kindergarten and primary school is effective, for it is here that key attitudes towards other languages and cultures are formed, and the foundations for later language learning are laid. [...] Early learners become aware of their own cultural values and influences and appreciate other cultures, becoming more open towards and interested in others [...] Parents and teaching staff need better information about the benefits of this early start."

It is now one of the key areas for action in education systems and practices identified in the Framework Strategy for Multilingualism (Section 11.1.3)

"In most countries at least half of all primary school pupils now learn a foreign language. However, as the Commission has previously made clear, the advantages of the early learning of languages only accrue where teachers are trained specifically to teach languages to very young children, where class sizes are small enough, where appropriate training materials are available, and where enough curriculum time is devoted to languages"

The EU Comenius programme for school education offers opportunities and grants for language teaching professionals in the primary sector to gain experience by working in other countries.

Pedagogical principles
In 2004 the EU commissioned an in-depth study of published research, good practice and the main pedagogical principles in Early Language Learning. The resulting report on The main pedagogical principles underlying the teaching of languages to very young learners states that an early start can confer considerable advantages on children by activating such natural languages acquisition mechanisms as they possess, by affording them more time overall and by providing them with a linguistic and intercultural experience which can have a beneficial formative influence on their cognitive, social, cultural, acoustic, linguistic and personal development (including qualities of persistence and participation) and on their sense of self.