An article from University of Oslo

Children do not automatically learn a second language

It is a myth that children develop a second language just by attending kindergarten. Preschool teachers must actively facilitate the learning process.

Denne artikkelen er over ti år gammel og kan inneholde utdatert informasjon.

University of Oslo

The University of Oslo is Norway's leading institution of research and higher education.

An increasing number of minority children are learning Norwegian as a second language in kindergarten.

In 2003, 5.9 percent of all children in Norwegian kindergartens were minority language-speaking, according to Statistics Norway, In 2012, this number had risen to 12 percent.

Politically, kindergarten is considered as a key language-learning arena, and facilitating language development is regarded as one of its most important tasks.

There has been a widespread belief that second language is achieved automatically through kindergarten attendance, simply by playing with other children, but a recent doctoral dissertation by Gunhild Tomter Alstad at Hedmark University College and University of Oslo has shown that this is not the case.

"Second language development requires hard work on the part of both the preschool teachers and the children. Good learning situations can be created by preschool teachers in many ways, but require academic knowledge and an awareness of methodology," Alstad says.

Many paths to the goal

In her doctoral research, Alstad has examined the kindergarten as a language arena, and used interviews and video-based observation to explore how preschool teachers work to teach children a new language. In particular, Alstad has studied what preschool teachers themselves consider to be good language-learning situations and activities.

Her work throws light on the complexity and diversity of facilitating second language development in kindergarten and the language learning potential in early childhood education settings.

"The preschool teachers can tailor their work with language to fit the individual needs of the children in their care, explains Alstad.

In 2012, 71 percent of all children speaking a minority language in the age group 1–5 years in Norway had a place at kindergarten. Of the total number of 3-5-year-old minority language speakers, 90 percent attended kindergarten.

Statistics Norway

Sometimes children are taught in small groups or individually – for example, by sitting at a table, showing the child an object while saying the word for it. 

Other times, language work is integrated into everyday activities, such as role-play.

"This is a language-learning setting that demands far more advanced language, because roles are assigned and played out only through language, for instance through statements such as ‘now I’m going to be the teacher’," says Alstad.

Combining learning and play

There is a need to work systematically with language, but not necessarily in the form of teacher-led, planned activities.

"Being able to improvise and seize language-learning opportunities during the kindergarten day is also important," says Alstad.

Children do not develop a second language by starting with simple words and constructions before advancing to more complex elements. They need to develop both the simple and the more demanding language simultaneously. And since play and learning are interconnected, it is beneficial to integrate language learning into all kindergarten activities and to involve all the children.

Bilingualism is important

Alstad’s study examines the practices of three preschool teachers. All three teachers aim to facilitate both first and second language development. Only one of them has access to a bilingual assistant on a permanent basis.

"Bilingualism is important in all three kindergartens, and is viewed as a resource. The kindergarten with a bilingual assistant works to foster the mother-tongue skills of the individual child. When children are proficient in their mother tongue, the potential for second-language development is strengthened."

Tests do not tell the whole story

Alstad is sceptical about the ever-increasing practice of measuring children’s skills.

"Perhaps tests can show us that a child knows a lot of words. But are we actually measuring what is most important? And does this mapping reveal the complexity of language development in multilingual children?" asks Alstad.

"Working with second languages and multilingualism is not neutral; it is associated with different views on what language and multilingualism can and should be. Discussion is needed about our conceptions of values in relation to work with second languages and multilingualism in education."


Read the Norwegian version of this article at

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