abc anglais is a brand new English speaking playgroup in Grenoble for the youngest of children and their parents no matter where you are from. Mums, dads, toddlers and babies are totally immersed in an English-speaking environment during the session, joining in the nursery rhymes and songs, listening to favourite stories, playing age-appropriate games as well as taking part in art and craft activities all conducted in English. It’s run by me, Helen McEwan, a UK qualified Speech and Language Therapist and experienced English language teacher.
Every session is structured around a subject, which forms part of a five week theme, for example, ‘On the Farm’. We always have at least one story, one song, one nursery rhyme per subject, e.g., ‘cows’, and plenty of games and craft activities to keep the children actively interested. There is also a story and a couple of songs on the general theme which we come back to every time to reinforce the learning of the theme and to allow the children (and parents) to familiarise themselves with the English songs and stories.
There are currently three levels – “Baby Babblers” for babies up to 12 months old, “Toddler Talkers” for one to two year olds, and “Chatterbox Children” for two to three year olds.
My idea of exposing very young children to a language they do not normally speak at home is based on the theories of language development in general. There are still many mysteries surrounding language acquisition (and even more so around the thorny issue of bilingualism), but it is believed that a child learns the fundamentals of his/her own language by age three. So, in order to maximise the chances of a child learning an additional language as naturally and easily as possible, it is best to start early.
In addition, there is clear evidence that learning the sounds of language is done in the first year of life, much research quoting just the first six months as the time limit on acquiring the speech sounds specific to your language. So, if you noticed your baby being able to trill or click and make sounds more akin to more ‘exotic’ languages in its early months, this is because your baby was born with the ability to make all speech sounds, but quickly hones into the sounds s/he hears in her environment and continues to practise only those in the babble phase, around six–nine months. Therefore, if you want to pronounce another language well – especially if it sounds very different to your own, (French vs. English!), ideally you need to be exposed to the sounds of that language in the first six months of life, or certainly no later than the first year in order to reproduce them accurately later on!
For this reason, I choose stories which use repetition, rhyme, have a strong rhythm, are not very ‘wordy’, but have captivating story lines as well as bold, striking artwork to capture the child’s imagination, even if s/he doesn’t know any English yet. For any form of learning, familiarisation of the subject matter is essential. Repetition is therefore a valuable learning tool, and so we come back to the stories and songs and rhymes during one session, during a theme, and also during the course of the year, but from different angles. ‘Noah’s Ark’ can be used in a session on rain, as well as animals, boats, or counting for example. In any case, children love returning to their favourite books, toys, programmes over and over again.
The same principle applies to the songs we sing. They are carefully chosen for their ease of learning, and because they are fun, and tuneful and worth singing. Learning through song is almost primeval. Often it is easier to learn a phrase with music or with a strong rhythm – do you remember doing this when revising for an exam, or learning a new language? – as you are allowing your brain more chances of storing the data and hence more opportunities of retrieving it via various routes – the linguistic and the musical. Singing is an almost instinctive response to childcare. Many cultures use music for child rearing, and children respond instinctively to the human voice, particularly their mother’s. In this way singing constitutes a fundamental form of early interaction between parent and child.
I set up abc anglais because of my own experience of coming to Grenoble six months pregnant with my first child. Although I have worked with children, including newborns and premature babies, I had no idea what to expect with my own baby, particularly in a very new and foreign environment. And I was very disappointed to discover that actually there is very little available for parents and babies in particular. It was a very isolating and disorientating experience. Thank goodness for Open House and the Baby and Toddler Groups there, which I quickly became involved with (and I encourage all similar families to). Running the groups there and doing prototype abc sessions at my daughter’s garderie gave me the idea to combine my professional skills with offering something that I feel is lacking in Grenoble – a service for our youngest of citizens. In the UK, I worked in nurseries and clinics for the under fives, and ran parent-child interaction groups which encourage positive communication. I draw on this experience and other principles of my profession in designing and running the abc sessions.
So, abc anglais is as much an opportunity for parents to have some quality play time with their young children, as it is an opportunity for the children to become exposed to English at the optimum time for language learning. It is also an opportunity for parents to practise their English, and enjoy being in an English-speaking environment. abc anglais is as much for parents as for children, and this is a fundamental basic principle. And it’s open to everyone, not just Anglophones. Families from USA, Asia, as well as many different European countries, and French families are currently attending.
Sessions are held in two locations in Grenoble – at Les Petits Bilingues, place de Metz, on Mondays and Tuesdays, and at the new English café – Bookworm, rue St. Laurent, on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. The new block starts the week of 9 November. It will run for five weeks, with a special Christmas session in the week of 14 December. Come and join us, it’s lots of fun!