We’ve assisted MANY Preschools and private Primary Schools over the years – with strategies and resources, teachers and training – that aimed to make their classrooms more effective and fun when it comes to teaching and learning Zulu. Our experiences have got me thinking about the scores of children entering preschools or even primary schools every year, with little to no English proficiency, and how they cope and even excel in such a short period of time, because the full immersion environment remains the very best way to learn a language effectively. This article aims to address the key factors that MUST be in place for an effective immersion environment, and what all schools should be aiming for when it comes to teaching second and third languages.

The rules of learning a language apply whether you are 8months, 8yrs or 80years, and the way any language must be introduced (1st, 2nd, 3rd) is done the same throughout as well. Failure to do this process correctly, skip a few steps or undermine the process altogether, will result in confusion, disinterest, and at worst rebellion. In our experience, first as a trilingual preschool, and later as ZuluMites, the following fundamentals need to be in place for language learning:

  1. One-Person-One-Language & being Consistent in that:

There is no mixing of language or translations in our classrooms. No matter what, each teacher sticks to one language in all circumstances

  1. Start as young as possible

Because language learning is what children are doing from birth, it’s important to start as young as possible. It also means there is less chance of rebelling against the language which may come in later years.

  1. Quality

Although colloquial language is prevalent throughout society, we have taken the decision to teach language of a high standard. Children can learn how to mix later, but it’s easier to go down than up.

  1. Quantity

We do each language every day so there is enough input in that language for language learning to take place. Children need to hear a word 500x before it becomes part of their vocabulary so having enough exposure to a language is important for them to make it their own.

  1. Environment (includes no English/translation)

We create an environment where a child needs to speak that language, like moving to a new country and having to find the bus station, you get creative in how to communicate because you have to.

  1. Peer to Peer

There needs to be a balance between speakers and non-speakers so that the non-speakers can watch and learn from their peers as well as from the teacher. If non-speakers dominate the class, they will dominate the teacher that results in a loss of Environment/necessity.

We discuss these in more detail at one of several open days held throughout the year, but suffice to say these pillars have meant that language learning within our preschool environment has been effective and enjoyed.

However, in addition to a second language English teacher being consistent, speaking good English, creating an environment where there is a need to speak English, and starting young (all of which we assume is taking place in an English-medium preschool) these teachers need to employ additional tactics and methodologies to get their message across. After all, if you can no longer rely on your messages being understood, how do you convey meaning?

So how do you teach someone a new language (preferably your first language)?

Well, the very same way you would teach a toddler or infant who cannot yet speak:

  1. Use actions

Use visual aids (of all sorts) to convey the subject you are talking about. For instruction or commands, you must initially follow through with a demonstration and in time the instruction together with the action will be understood and followed.

  1. Enunciate and slow down your speech

Children need to hear clearly where words end and begin. Second language speakers hear a whole line of babble and need clear distinction between words.

  1. Simplify your sentences to their most basic parts

Don’t use unnecessary or fluffy speech; this is especially true of big adjectives. Start with nouns and verbs – things that children can see and do, before focusing on what things are like. Specifically instructions, simplify “You need to go to the bathroom now” to “go bathroom” followed by a modeling of that action.

  1. Be prepared to do this 1 on 1 or in a smaller class environment

It is extremely taxing to be spoken at all day without comprehension of whats going on around you, which is why children in this environment will just switch off (and in turn become naughty). A teacher must make deliberate effort to spend 1:1 time with a child who is struggling, creating a deliberate ‘necessity’ for them to listen, repeat and respond appropriately.

  1. Get the child/person to respond back to you

Comprehension is only one side of the language coin, and many people are satisfied with just this first step. But being able to speak language involves participation and this must be required by the teacher. Don’t settle a child just following an instruction – can they respond back appropriately or at the very least copy what you say. Pronunciation is very important, and must be emphasized in second language classes. 

  1. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

Like a baby learning language through songs and rhymes that mommy and daddy must repeat hundreds of times, repetition is as essential to second language learning as to first. Songs, rhymes, routines, repetition of simple instructions every day like “get your hat” before break time; slowly these ongoing habits solidify language knowledge in a child’s mind. It may be taxing for the teacher, but essential to the child’s language learning.

Our ZuluMites facilitators follow the above mentioned principles religiously and the results so far have spoken for themselves. Of course, we emphasis play, engaging activities, gross motor movement and music to solidify the vocabulary, but essentially all our programmes and lessons use these tactics above.