Harnessing the glee of ‘covfefe’.

Schools need to devote time if they start languages early

Humans love to take glee in language – its sounds, curious spellings and quirks. And from this seemingly inborn playfulness, we have created everything from silly puns in Christmas cracker jokes to the most highbrow poetry.

The universality of this was illustrated recently when the Twitter social media site melted into amusement when Donald Trump used the curious word ‘covfefe’ in a tweet.

Did it have a secret meaning or was it just one glorious typo? (We think he meant to write the word ‘coverage’.)

Whatever he was trying to say, it kept the wits of Twitter busy, spawning cartoons, made-up definitions and spoof accounts. Google Translate rather unhelpfully insisted it was a Samoan word that meant ‘covfefe’. Cue endless online chuckles.

This joy at language – or in this case accidentally invented language – is evident in children, who love to hear silly words repeated again and again. Try ‘covfefe’ on your two-year-old a few times and you will see what I mean.

It is generally understood that it is best to tap into children’s interest and sensitivity to sounds and language as early as possible if you want to teach them a second tongue.

“We aim to highlight the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of English language teaching, linguistics and international education ”

But German research that we feature suggests that efforts to harness this in the early years of school could be in vain. Children who started younger did not do as well as children who started later in their school careers. One of the reasons pupils did not make the desired progress early on is because they did not spend enough time learning the language, it suggested.

This raises the possibility that schools could be wasting their time crowbarring languages into a crowded curriculum from the earliest possible moment, and that a more nuanced and evidence-based approach is required.

One thing is clear, as ever: more research is needed to help governments finesse their policies and come up with efficient approaches that help children to progress.

Also this month, we have introduced two new columns – ‘Teacher’s Pet’ and ‘Naughty Corner’. Here, we aim to highlight the good, the bad and the ugly in the world of English language teaching, linguistics and international education.
The Canton of Zurich scoops the swots’ spot this month for voting to keep teaching two languages in primary, a move that officials hope will mean Swiss national languages continue to be taught alongside English.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May feels the cold draft of the Naughty Corner for continuing to insist that international students should be included in overall immigration figures.

We look forward to hearing your submissions for next month – from the sublime to the ridiculous. Contact us by email or on Twitter with the hashtags #ELGnaughty or #ELGpet.

Just don’t accidentally write ‘covfefe’.

Irena Barker, editor