Volume 12 Number 1
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Book Review
Towards language learning autonomy for preschool children in Argentina
Colette Despagne

Banfi, C. (2010). Los primeros pasos en las lenguas extranjeras: Modalidades de enseñanza y aprendizaje. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Novedades Educativas.

Teaching second and foreign languages (L2) to preschool children raises much debate about whether the practice is convenient or not, whether it delays first language (L1) development, and whether it increases intercultural abilities (Kramsch, 2001; Sebastián-Gallés, Bosch, & Pons, 2008). Cristina Banfi deals with these questions and much more in “Los primeros pasos en lenguas extranjeras. Modalidades de enseñanza y aprendizaje” published by Novedades Educativas in Argentina in 2010. It is easy to note this researcher’s extensive experience in the field of second language teaching, not only on the South American continent, and especially in Argentina, but also in Europe as evidenced from the wide and diverse theoretical frameworks she manages, mostly in the first part of the book.

Her focus on autonomous language learning, defined by Holec (1981) as the “ability to take charge of one’s own learning” (p. 3), points toward a socioconstructivist vision of teaching where students become the center of the curriculum and teachers are guides who create the conditions for positive learning experiences.

But, why should preschool children start learning a foreign language as an L2? Shouldn’t they first learn their native language (L1) and then build their L2 learning on their L1 learning? Are they ready to develop the abilities needed for autonomous language learning? I focus this review mainly on the two first chapters of the book because of their focus on bilingualism and autonomous language learning.

The first chapteroffers an interesting overview of present-day additive bilingual education. Additive bilingual education is defined as an educational context in which an L2 is added but the L1 of the learner continues to be developed and the first culture valued (Cummins, 2000). Additive bilingualism therefore focuses generally on international languages. This contrasts with subtractive bilingualism (Lambert, 1974) in which the L2 is added at the expense of the learner’s L1, typically a minority language, and culture.

Banfi gives clear explanations of the similarities and differences between L1, L2, and foreign language (FL) acquisition by preschool-aged learners. She expresses positive but also negative points to be taken into account related to learning a different language in early childhood. The historical overview of teaching methodologies that she presents introduces the reader to the discussion about the best conditions for the development of additive bilingualism. Topics such as linguistic imperialism in the case of English, the prestige of international languages, and their impact on language learning are also addressed.

Banfi also lays out several rationales for advocating the teaching of foreign languages at the preschool level. They include young children’s greater brain plasticity, that children at that age demonstrate less fear of making mistakes, that they are able to use their limited linguistic resources to express their interests, and, finally, that their L2 learning occurs alongside their L1 learning. Despite these positive characteristics of young second language learners, Banfi stresses that in order to foster metalinguistic awareness, language contexts have to be favorable. This means that children must be able to hear and use the target language in places other than just the classroom, and the children should hear the language spoken by more than just the teacher. Banfi supports her argument by offering a quick look at what has been done in bilingual education in different parts of the world, with a special focus on Europe and Canada.

The second chapter of the book focuses on the main objectives, not only of the book itself but also of teaching foreign languages to young children. She explains the goals are to create not native speakers but rather intercultural speakers. These speakers will develop tolerance and respect for cultural diversity, and better adapt to today’s complex world. The author suggests that through cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies, learners will be better positioned to find solutions to problems and to learn by themselves. In so stating, she makes a clear reference to the sort of autonomous learning encouraged by the Common European Framework of Reference [1] for languages (Council of Europe, 2001).

Banfi also makes a good point about linguistic objectives such as intercultural communication that “should offer a scaffold on which other goals should be constructed” (p. 56). In other words, to the author, the value of preschoolers learning a second language at an early age is not in the language itself but in their development of long-term intercultural communication abilities, which will serve as a bridge between different cultures. Furthermore, becoming autonomous learners will help the children to adapt themselves and their learning in an ever-changing world. Therefore, Banfi explains, course objectives must be based on the latter goal. She favors communicative methodologies as the best pedagogical orientation to focus on the pragmatic and functional uses of language. She posits that the cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies used in communicative teaching methodologies will gradually help children develop their autonomous learning abilities.

The third chapter deals mainly with practical examples of what to look for and how to create pedagogical materials for preschool children, which are generally more difficult to find. If authentic materials are to be used, they will have to be adapted for the age and for second language learning.

The fourth and last chapter raises issues related to ongoing discussions and debates concerning

  • parents’ beliefs
  • information on parents’ participation in their children’s language-learning process
  • information on the evaluation of teaching programs with a special focus on
  • research,
  • organizational issues such as teacher training and preparation,
  • pedagogical materials,
  • language exposure, and
  • financial investment.

Banfi also stresses that language evaluation, particularly self-evaluation, should be part of the language teaching and learning process. Learners who can evaluate their own learning and who are aware of what they can and cannot do can better define what they want to learn and can therefore better define their learning objectives.

Each chapter concludes with a summary and with some reflection questions that aim to connect with the readers’ personal experiences and make the reading of the information more meaningful.

The general vision of the book is in line with current international research in language teaching. It draws an interesting connection between first and second language learning and clearly explains the paradigm change of teaching languages from a linguistic system toward a more communicative and functional use of languages. Nevertheless, the book focuses mainly on mainstream students and does not take linguistic and cultural minority students into consideration. Today’s classrooms, all over the world, are mainly multilingual and multicultural. This requires that background knowledge building becomes an essential component to foster not only cognitive and metacognitive learning strategies but also social and affective ones.

If additive bilingualism is to be developed, L1 language and culture has to be accepted in society or at least made a valued feature in the classroom. Students must be given the opportunity to invest their own identity in their learning (Cummins, 1996). In addition, identity investment will develop intrinsic motivation for new language learning. If the school context does not offer this crucial opportunity for identity investment, subtractive bilingualism will be the result. This book is therefore a valuable asset for both parents and second language teachers, with a special focus on mainstream preschool children learning internationally accepted languages as an L2.

REFERENCES

Banfi, Cristina, S. (2010). Los primeros pasos en las lenguas extranjeras. Modalidades de enseñanza y aprendizaje. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Novedades Educativas.

Council of Europe. (2001). Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: learning, teaching, assessment. Strasbourg, France: Cambridge University Press, Modern Language Division.

Cummins, J. (1996). Negotiating identities. Ontario, CA: California Association for Bilingual Education.

Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power and pedagogy: Bilingual children in the crossfire. Buffalo, NY: Multilingual Matters.

Holec, Henri. (1981). Autonomy in foreign language learning. Oxford: Pergamon. (First published 1979, Strasbourg: Council of Europe.)

Kramsch. C. (2001). El privilegio del hablante intercultural. In M. Byram & M. Fleming (Eds.), Perspectivas interculturales en el aprendizaje de idiomas. Enfoques a través del teatro y la etnografía. Madrid: Cambridge University Press.

Lambert, W. E. (1974). Culture and language as factors in learning and education. In F. F. Aboud & R. D. Meade (Eds.), Cultural factors in learning and education. Bellingham: Western Washington State University.

Sebastián-Gallés, N., Bosch, L.,& Pons, F. (2008). Biligualism. In Marshall Haith & Janette Benson (Eds.), Encyclopedia of infant and early childhood development, (pp. 172-182). Denver, Colorado: Elsevier.



Colette Despagne, colette.despagne@gmail.com


[1] The Common European Framework of Reference for languages is a guideline created by the Council of Europe to foster European integration. It describes achievements of learners in foreign languages and focuses on autonomous learning strategies. The six levels of reference are now standards used all over Europe to validate language abilities.

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