In a drive to better school performance later on, Germany is focusing on early childhood education, and in particular, foreign language learning. But the benefits far outweigh improved scores on report cards.
Third-graders are learning English, and liking it
For a long time, early childhood education in Germany was seen as a bit of a burden. The creed among experts was to let children simply be children, and not weigh them down with too much knowledge, too early on in life.
But Germany's shockingly poor performance in the international comparative education survey -- the PISA study -- has prompted experts to think again. It's hoped that an emphasis on early childhood learning will help close the gap between Germany and other Western nations such as Canada, Denmark and Finland, which occupy top spots in the study's results. Part of the plan involves introducing students to foreign languages starting in the third grade.
At an elementary school in Bonn, for example, third-graders are taught English with the help of songs and poems. Learning in a way that feels like playing helps the kids to speak their first English sentences at eight years of age.
Teacher Regine Siebert speaks slowly and clearly, and is quick to praise and encourage her charges. During the English lesson, she only uses German if absolutely necessary.
"The children react very positively," she said. "They're completely unselfconscious and speak spontaneously. They learn very quickly, and it's a lot of fun to teach them."
English lessons at an elementary school
The children don't just learn English during the lesson. At eight or nine years of age, kids tend to view themselves and their surroundings as the axis around which everything else revolves. But when confronted with a foreign language, it suddenly becomes clear that there's something else outside their little worlds. Education and child development experts have realized that there are other big advantages associated with early language learning.
"Children are curious about other things, foreign things," said education researcher Gabriele Kniffka of Cologne University. "They like to learn, and our experience in elementary schools shows that children get a lot of joy out of learning another language and getting to grips with a foreign culture. That can only be a positive thing."
Equal footing for immigrant children
Another benefit of the introducing foreign languages early on has to do with the increasing number of students in German classrooms who come from immigrant families. In German lessons, these children are often very withdrawn because they lack a background in German. In English class, however, all the children start out on the same level -- and suddenly, there are new faces among the brightest, most active participants.