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April 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 2

ISSN 1755-9715

Foreign Language Less Foreign for the Big and Small: An (Extended) Exercise in Cross-generational Functional-bilingual Education

Grzegorz Śpiewak, Ph.D, is an EFL methodology adviser, teacher trainer, and author. Former academic lecturer (Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw, and The New School for Social Research, New York). Currently Head ELT Consultant for Macmillan Education Poland and Central & Eastern Europe. Co-founder of DOS-ELTea, an independent teacher development centre. Nominated for British Council Local Innovation Award 2016 for DOS-ELTea Teacher Trainer Academy programme. Email: 


From the Author

This is a substantially revised, modified and updated version of Śpiewak (2020a, forthcoming). I would like to thank the publishers of the volume for their kind permission to use this material.



In this introductory section I aim to unpack the admittedly rather dense and lengthy title of this piece, and in so doing specify the two groups of target beneficiaries, and spell out the theoretical underpinnings of the project to be described in some detail in subsequent sections.


Why both the small and the big?

My main target beneficiaries (i.e. “the small”) are Very Young Learners (“VYLs” from now on): children aged 2.5 – 6 years of age, the period which roughly corresponds to the kindergarten/ pre-school phase. I believe – following Otwinowska (2015) among many others – that pre-school years are a fundamental, formative period for one’s education, particularly – though not exclusively – when it comes to foreign language learning (For reasons that I hope will become apparent below, I gloss over the familiar differentiation between “learning” and “acquisition”). Incidentally – and most significantly for the sake of this contribution – the pre-school phase happens to be the period when a very young (foreign) language learner is surrounded by several types of significant others:  adult daily care providers, including parents, grandparents, au pairs, homeroom teachers, and subject teachers – I shall refer to them collectively as “the big” – the other main group of potential beneficiaries of an educational strategy to be presented below.


Why functional bilingualism?

If a proverbial passer-by were to be approached and asked to define a bilingual person, s/he would almost certainly – albeit no doubt unknowingly – follow Bloomfield’s classic definition of bilingual competence, as “native-like control of two languages” (Bloomfield 1933:56). This contrasts rather sharply with the current, 21st-century perception of bilinguals as “those who use two or more languages in their everyday lives” (Grosjean 2010:22). Below I shall argue at length that this modern conceptualisation better reflects not only the demographics of bi-/multilingualism across the globe (cf. Graddol 2006, Paradowski 2017), but also – and more importantly – offers a much-needed vantage point for what we should be aiming at in modern foreign language education. The latter, I believe, should commence as early as possible, certainly including VYLs, though crucially not restricting our focus to the little ones, for reasons to be presented presently. In particular, the dynamic, functional, and interactional parameters of foreign language learning success, evident in Grosjean (2010), could – and in my view truly should – be seen as the defining features of a highly effective pedagogical strategy for 21st-century language learners, big and small. Such a strategy – which I have dubbed “domestication of a foreign language” (the coinage originally introduced in Śpiewak 2010) – could overcome some of the familiar shortcomings of the ruling Communicative Language Teaching approach (cf. Andrewes 2005), by creating an environment conducive to fostering genuine, context-anchored L1-L2 interactions in and outside the (language) classroom.


Why cross-generational?

My argument throughout this piece will be that for domestication to ever take root in an otherwise monolingual environment (such as a Polish kindergarten or home), one would need to go beyond the classic learning-teaching paradigm, involving only the (young) learner and his/her language tutor. To put it more radically still, we can no longer afford to concern ourselves with educational policies and activities whose sole target is the kindergartener and whose exclusive agent is the English teacher. It is my firm conviction that mainstream debates in the field of early language acquisition/learning have profoundly neglected the needs, concerns and the potentially highly beneficial role of adult care providers, with whom a child interacts on a daily basis, whether as part of organised schooling or at home.

This great – and largely untapped – potential of all significant adult others, including especially kindergarten curriculum teachers and parents (as well as grandparents, babysitters, and any other regular care-providers), can only be fully exploited if we take on their perceived deficits and persuade them that these stem, in large part, from several lingering, harmful misconceptions regarding foreign language learning goals, the status of language norm, and the (in)significance of (certain kinds of) language errors in real-life (as opposed to simulated) communication, particularly when related to a global lingua franca, such as English (cf. Śpiewak 2012, Śpiewak 2019). In other words, all the relevant groups of adults (“the Big”) crucially need to be empowered if they are ever to genuinely get engaged in what may amount to no less than a truly cross-generational strategy, fostering modern, functionally bilingual competence.

In what follows I shall argue at length that it is only through engaging all these significant adults that we can create an environment conducive to fostering meaningful, routine L1-L2 interactions, involving VYLs, in a range of naturally re-occurring everyday contexts. Doing so on a systematic basis will amount to planting seeds of kernel functional-bilingual competence in the little ones, but also – as a sort of unexpected but highly desirable educational bonus – will gradually (re-)activate interactional L2 competence in the adults. The prefix “re-“ has been chosen advisedly, to amplify the fact that the great majority of today’s adults will have been exposed to at least one foreign language as an obligatory part of their school education. Sadly, and somewhat embarrassingly for the teaching community, this does not seem to have resulted in any significant degree of speaking confidence in a significant proportion of these adult learners, leading not only to a sense of learning failure but also – and much more significantly – to the myth that foreign language learning success is a matter of a special talent (cf. an elusive “ear for languages”). Most unfortunately of all, this sort of “I-can’t” attitude is transmitted to the next generation, infecting the little ones. The strategy of cross-generational empowerment aims to alter all that, by persuading all the adults that bi-/multilingualism is, as Paradowski aptly puts it, “a natural potential available to every normally developing human being [and that] monolingual speakers are but the consequence of environmental factors that have failed to provide the opportunity to acquire another language” (2017: 224, emphasis added). 

For the cross-generational empowerment strategy to be made operational, it is necessary to reconsider current foreign language teaching syllabi for VYLs, making the content and sequence reflect as much as possible a range of genuine communicative needs of contemporary VYLs.  Sloganizing somewhat, planting the seeds of emergent, functional bilingual competence in VYLs requires a syllabus conceived of in radically functional terms, with its success criteria re-defined as well. The latter makes contact with the thinking in Hutterli (2012: 34), who proposes that, according to the functional criteria, “[a]n individual may be considered to be competent in a language as soon as he or she can use the language successfully in a given situation” (emphasis added) – a radical departure from the traditional, accuracy- and precision-oriented conception.

Radical as the above postulate might sound, there does exist a considerable body of applied linguistic thinking and research that could serve as a solid basis for such a project. Of particular significance are: conceptualising learner’s – as well as (native) user’s – language competence as a “phrasebook with grammatical notes” (Pawley & Syder 1983), the "Needs-Only approach” (Wray 2008) – the idea that language chunks need not be analysed if the learner can grasp their meaning as a whole, and above all the “Message Approach” (Woolard 2013), in view of which beginner learners critically need to start from unanalysed, communicatively attractive sequences in L2). Acquiring a certain number and range of such meaningful, ready-to-use L2 messages is, in Woolard’s view, a most effective confidence booster for a foreign language learner, particularly at initial stages of the learning process; he emphasises the highly positive impact of such a booster by suggesting that such a message-enabled learner could be described as a “fluent beginner”. Over the past decade, I have talked and written extensively for years on virtually all of the issues outlined above, cf. Śpiewak & Jannasz 2010, Śpiewak 2011a, Śpiewak 2011b, Śpiewak 2012, Śpiewak 2013, Śpiewak 2014, and most recently Śpiewak 2018a, Śpiewak 2018b, and Śpiewak 2019.

Could all of the above be turned into a workable – and working – methodology, and applied with measurable success to learners big and small? This is what I turn to in the following subsection. Among others, I will argue that Woolard’s coinage, despite its apparent internal contradiction, will gain a lot of currency when applied to emergent bilingual, interactional competence of VYLs and their care-givers.


Foreign language less foreign – at home and in the kindergarten

In order to substantiate the claims made above, I shall sketch out a history of what I consider to be quite a unique educational project, which I had the honour to help conceive and pilot-test across Poland over the past four years. The project in question is called “DoDOTOK”, and its stated objective is to provide the pedagogical solutions and tools needed to create conditions conducive to fostering modern, functionally-driven bilingual education for Polish kindergartens and homes.

Methodologically, the approach taken in DoDoTOK inherits fairly directly from an earlier, award-winning project, “deDOMO – English for Parents” (Śpiewak 2010, Szeżyńska 2010), including in particular its chief idea of domesticating foreign language development, which I outlined briefly in section 1 above. It should be noted at this point that – in retrospect – the coinage “English for Parents” has been devised quite aptly, albeit somewhat subversively, to amplify a potential, inter-generational impact of fundamental educational importance. The chief target beneficiaries were, arguably, not parents as such, but rather their offspring (otherwise “for Adults” would have been a lot more appropriate formulation). Accordingly, the parents who have taken part in this project were cast in a role parallel to their socially sanctioned daily activities as primary care providers, crucially extended to include engaging their child(ren) in spontaneous, punctual, functionally bilingual interactions in a range of recurrent, everyday situations, naturally arising from their care-giving. It is these domestic contexts that arguably constitute an ideal environment for stress-free, gradual, step-by-step appropriation of selected utterances and lexical items in L2 and thus making a foreign language gradually less and less foreign – the process that I have dubbed domestication, to distinguish it on the one hand from biologically determined L1 acquisition (or bilingual linguistic development in mixed language families), and from mainstream, organised language learning in a (pre-)school context, on the other. Needless to add, for any such process to get initiated, let alone be sustained over time, a parent – in the large majority of cases lacking philological background – would need to be appropriately empowered (in the sense sketched out in section 1 above) and equipped with appropriate supporting tools, which is precisely what the publications designed within the deDOMO project set out to accomplish.


Creating an L2-friendly environment beyond the home

The highly positive feedback received since the inception of the deDOMO approach (including a series of prestigious awards, including “Creativity and Innovation” (2009) and European Language label (2012)), led us to consider adapting the original idea, to extend its scope of application beyond the home and embrace the other main domain of daily activity for 2.5 – 6 year-olds, i.e. the kindergarten. What we wanted to address is a most discouraging arithmetic of early language education, with the great majority of pre-schoolers receiving a pitiful two 30-minute sessions per week with a professional English tutor. Worse still, it is not infrequent to encounter public pre-school institutions, in Poland at least, that offer even less: as little as two 15-minute English sessions per week for most or all of the kindergarten years. It is worth noting that the total amount of L2 exposure is less than impressive even in otherwise prestigious, private pre-school institutions. Many of those which describe themselves as “bilingual kindergartens” provide a 30-minute session with a qualified English instructor up to 5 times a week – this, albeit markedly more intensive than public pre-school programmes, still amounts to no more than 2.5 hours of weekly exposure, submersed in several hundred hours of the child functioning exclusively in the mother tongue – which, to put it bluntly, is a vast amount of time spent essentially forgetting whatever might have been learnt. Any benefits of such punctual, sporadic L2 instruction must – and do – inevitably wear off, leading to parental frustration and, worse, to occasional but loud attacks on the very idea of an early L2 start.

It should be emphasized that the above quantitative analysis should in no way be seen as any sort of criticism of the efforts undertaken by professional foreign language instructors.  On the contrary, the figures are provided here to expose the genuinely unfavourable conditions that these instructors face, coupled with no prospect for any substantial change in the foreseeable future, owing to well-known funding strictures. This is all the more frustrating as there is growing awareness – in mainstream pedagogical literature – of key conditions that would foster truly effective foreign language learning, in its earliest stages and beyond, but are notoriously difficult to provide, particularly in the public (pre-)school system. Rokita-Jaśkow (2015), referring to the 1988 EU study on primary and pre-school foreign language education, lists the following as crucial:

  1. the overall amount of L2 exposure
  2. continuity over an extended period
  3. intensity and frequency.

This is precisely where the cross-generational empowerment strategy may well offer a genuine alternative (to be described in some detail below). 


Towards empowering all significant adults

The main idea underlying the DoDoTOK project, as the reader will have inferred by now, is to capitalise on the existing resources that have remained largely ignored or at least underexploited to-date. Those are thousands of homeroom/ curriculum pre-school teachers, who – by virtue of their role and resultant relationship with VYLs – mirror a great majority of everyday, naturally recurring patterns of interaction that we identified in the home and exploited with considerable success in the deDOMO project. Overambitious and even farfetched as the idea might initially seem, it actually resonates rather well with the Directive No. 356, of 14 February 2017, issued by the Polish Ministry of Education. Most coincidentally, its authors call for:

  1. integrating foreign language education into the rest of pre-school curricular activities;
  2. creating conditions conducive to the child being exposed to L2 in a range of everyday situations;
  3. taking advantage of contexts arising naturally from daily interactions between kindergarteners and their teacher to apply and recycle any L2 words and phrases introduced earlier on. 

The fragments that I have highlighted in (i) - (iii) are clearly reminiscent of the desirable environment, fostering genuine L2 development, envisioned in Paradowski 2017 as well as the functionally flavoured definition of a bilingual person in Grosjean 2010 and Hutterli 2012. Crucially, though the curriculum/homeroom teacher is not explicitly mentioned in point (i), it is hard to envisage this sort of integration without him or her being involved – and this is what we have managed to operationalise in the DoDoTOK programme, building on the experience and tools developed originally within the deDOMO project. The parallels between parents and kindergarten curriculum teachers are all too obvious – including the fact that the latter are just as much in need of empowerment. Given their professional roles and the resultant accountability, such empowerment needs to involve an on-going, structured support, linguistic, pedagogical and to a certain extent psychological. It can only be provided if an appropriate, supportive relationship is developed between a given curriculum teacher and her programme adviser – just what we are aiming at in the DoDoTOK programme. Our strategy is two-tiered:

  1. regular (ideally: monthly), individual consultations for each curriculum teacher taking part in the Programme, with a dedicated Programme consultant, carried out via a communicator app or phone;
  2. on-site local support from a kindergarten English tutor – properly briefed and trained by a Programme consultant.


Researching kindergarten language

It should be clear by now that if points (ii) and (iii) in the ministerial directive above are to be turned into a workable methodology, they presuppose a systematic, extensive kindergarten discourse analysis. Such an analysis was indeed carried out by the DoDoTOK project team early on, focusing on:

  • identifying recurrent linguistic exponents, accompanying a range of routine, daily interactions in the mother tongue;
  • distinguishing between the language produced by adult care providers and the language produced by the little ones in response.

In course of this analysis it transpired that – out of the great multitude of such daily, routine kindergarten situations – there is a subset of contexts that are of particular value for our purposes as they are carried out with the help of a relatively small number of highly frequent interactional ready-mades, typically formulaic in nature. They cluster around the following discourse patterns:

  1. teachers giving instructions – and children reacting nonverbally;
  2. teachers giving instructions  – and children reacting verbally;
  3. children asking questions to the teacher and/or other children;
  4. children / teachers answering questions;
  5. children asking the teacher for various forms of assistance.

Conveniently, these high-value kindergarten contexts largely correlate with domestic ones: eating, getting dressed, using the bathroom, playing on the carpet, searching for things, tidying up, and so on. All we needed to do at this point was to provide L2 equivalents of these ready-mades. To illustrate, let us look at the following selection of utterances:

  1. (Can you) help (me) (, please)?
  2. (Where are) (my) shoes?
  3.  (Let’s go) upstairs.
  4. (Can I have) (some) more?

Predictably, they are all relatively simple lexically as well as syntactically. As such, they quite accessible and, very conveniently for our project purposes, lend themselves to relatively easy portioning into manageable (monthly) modules, such as EATING IN ENGLISH, GETTING DRESSED IN ENGLISH, PLAYING ON THE CARPET IN ENGLISH, and so on.  As a result, our adult beneficiaries – curriculum teachers and parents alike – are relatively relieved when presented with samples of our learning/ teaching materials. The latter is no small feat as it lowers any initial affective filters and instils the much needed “I CAN” attitude, which, as the reader will admit, is a crucial aspect of empowerment: persuading the relevant adults that their current level of English competence (typically higher than they are willing to concede) will definitely be sufficient to introduce and recycle such utterances with their VYLs, particularly if they are also provided with a full set of L1-l2 translations as well as model pronunciation of each of the target utterances (via a dedicated online platform).

Returning to the L2 exponents, exemplified in (1) – (4) above, the bracketing aims to highlight the fact that a given language function can be initially expressed at a very basic level indeed, and this is what we suggest to our curriculum teachers, when they are dealing with really small children, starting at 2.5/ 3 years of age. Over the next three years that they are going to spend in kindergarten, they will be gradually introduced to more and more complex ways of expressing the same communicative function. The latter is a straightforward – and most fortunate – consequence of the fact that over these three years they will find themselves in essentially identical social/ communicative contexts, which in turn offers the sort of environment for natural language recycling that a professional language tutor can only dream of. As a result, we have hereby created just the conditions that Gatbolton & Segalowitz (1988) list as necessary and sufficient for “creative automatization” – their novel coinage, aimed to encapsulate pedagogical conditions that will promote fluency within a communicative framework. According to the two authors, learners should be engaged in activities that are:

  • genuinely communicative
  • psychologically authentic
  • inherently repetitive
  • focused
  • formulaic. 

It might be worth noting that the formulaic nature of the great majority of the ready-mades selected for use within the DoDoTOK programme lends independent validity to Woolard’s “Message Approach” and his notion of “fluent beginner” (cf. the end of section 1), with one crucial proviso: the more well-defined the target use domain is, the easier it will be to build user/ learner confidence, the more robust the process of automatization (in Gatbonton & Segalowitz’s sense) and the greater the sense of situation-specific communicative success (as defined in Hutterli 2012). This is precisely what we have been observing over the three years of pilot-testing the DoDoTOK programme, having focused exclusively on one such domain: kindergarten/ domestic discourse, with the little ones and their adult care-givers as interlocutors. Just as Woolard (2013) argues, the prerequisite for setting the process in motion is to provide the big and the small with a manageable number of such ready-made messages (i.e. highly useful, frequent, interactional language chunks), and then recycling them systematically until they become confident (“fluent”) with them, before being offered another set to play with and thus gradually domesticate. The careful reader will have noted yet another fortunate coincidence here: in this approach, the recycling need not be artificially induced at all, as it is entirely context-driven – yet another advantage of this sort of L2-friendly environment over a standard, punctual language learning paradigm. 


Some facts and figures, and possible implications

The DodoTOK approach and programme tools have so far been pilot-tested with a total of:

  • 38 kindergartens, public and private
  • 148 curriculum teachers
  • c. 2500 kindergarteners
  • c. 5000 parents.

Of these 38 kindergarten institutions, one has just completed the full, 3-year programme cycle, an additional five were invited to pilot the programme in 2017/18, and a further thirty two joined in during the year 2018/19. The above are arguably quite encouraging, particularly as regards the growth trajectory in user numbers. This said, the programme is still in relatively early phase and we are yet to carry out a full-scale quantitative analysis of its impact (scheduled for August 2020). As for qualitative feedback, we have been collecting it very systematically, as an integral part of the on-going, monthly expert support, described above.

To sum up, virtually all intellectual tools seem to be in place, as well as at least two relatively well-developed educational projects, aimed at utilizing these tools and turning them into a workable and working programme, and thus promoting emergent functionally bilingual competence in VYLs and their care providers, in organized as well as informal (domestic) settings. The solutions presented above crucially rely on implementing a comprehensive, cross-generational empowerment strategy and thus communicating to the relevant adults that their – typically partial – L2 competence should in no way be seen as a handicap but rather, and crucially, as a natural linguistic capital to be built upon and shared with the next generation. If ultimately successful, such an approach will arguably maximize L2 learning potential of Very Young Learners. In my view, we should – and indeed can – go well beyond what is standardly achievable within the traditional learning-teaching paradigm. Given appropriate strategies and tools, we can genuinely foster VYLs’ early communicative abilities in L2 by helping them acquire a certain number of communicatively valid, meaningful phrases and utterances, and thus ensuring that for the current generation of very young learners – and all successive ones – a foreign language will be a lot less foreign.



Andrewes, Simon. 2005. The CLT Police: Questioning the Communicative Approach.”  Modern English Teacher  14(2): 5–11

Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: Holt, Rinehat and Winston

Gatbolton, Elizabeth and Norbert Segalowitz. 1988. Creative Automatization: Principles for Promoting Fluency Within a Communicative Framework.” TESOL Quarterly 22/3: 473-492

Graddol, David. 2006. English Next. London: British Council

Grosjean, François. 2010. Bilingual. Life and Reality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press

Hutterly, Sandra, ed. 2012. Coordination of Language Teaching in Switzerland. Current Status – Developments – Future Prospects. Biel: Ediprim

Otwinowska-Kasztelanic, Agnieszka. 2015. „Na drodze ku wielojęzyczności – rozwijanie słownictwa uczniów na podstawie języka angielskiego.”Języki Obce w Szkole 02: 4-10

Paradowski, Michał. 2017. M/Other Tongues in Language, Acquisition, Instruction, and Use. Warsaw: Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw

Pawley, Andrew and Frances Hodgetts Syder.1983. “Two puzzles for linguistic theory: Nativelike selection and nativelike fluency.” In Language and Communication, ed. Jack J. C. Richards and Richard R. W. Schmidt, 191-225. London, New York: Longman

Rokita-Jaśkow, Joanna. 2015. „Spór o metodę, czyli jak najlepiej uczyć dzieci języków obcych.” Języki Obce w Szkole 01: 31-35

Szeżyńska, Agnieszka. 2010. Angielski dla Rodziców Przedszkolaka. Warszawa: deDOMO Education

Śpiewak, Grzegorz. 2010. Angielski dla Rodziców. Przewodnik Metodyczny. Warszawa: deDOMO Education

Śpiewak, Grzegorz and Marek Jannasz. 2010. “Language domesticated. Does foreign language learning have to hurt?” The Teacher 85: 18-21  

Śpiewak, Grzegorz. 2011a. “Language domesticated. Motivation made local.” The Teacher 89: 35-39

Śpiewak, Grzegorz. 2011b. “Language domesticated. Whose language is it, anyway …?!” The Teacher 94: 21-25

 Śpiewak, Grzegorz. 2012. „Pochwała powolności, czyli język obcy udomowiony.” Języki Obce w Szkole 4: 26-31

Śpiewak, Grzegorz. 2013. „Mój przyjaciel błąd. Język obcy udomowiony.” Języki Obce w Szkole 3: 86-91

Śpiewak, Grzegorz. 2014. „Język na wynos, czyli dwujęzyczność dla początkujących.” Języki Obce w Szkole 2: 83-90

Śpiewak, Grzegorz. 2018a. „Dwujęzyczność dla małych i DUŻYCH: dlaczego, gdzie i jak?” The Teacher 159: 55-60

Śpiewak, Grzegorz. 2018b. „Dwujęzyczność dla początkujących? Jezyk na wynos w domu i w przedszkolu.” The Teacher 160: 30-36

Śpiewak, Grzegorz. 2019. „Pięć głównych mitów na temat dwujęzyczności.” The Teacher 166: 24-28

Śpiewak, Grzegorz. Forthcoming. "Foreign Language (Much) Less Foreign in the Kindergarten and Beyond: From (Some) Theory to (Quite a Bit of) Practice." In: Between Cultures, Between Languages. Essays in Honour of Professor Aniela Korzeniowska. Ed. by Izabela Szymańska and Agnieszka Piskorska. Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Naukowe Semper. 2020.

Woolard, George. 2013. Messaging: Beyond a Lexical Approach. London: The Round 

Wray, Alison. 2008. Formulaic Language: Pushing the boundaries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


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