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Xenophobia means ‘a strong fear and dislike of people from other countries and cultures’. So what has xenophobia got to do with teaching English as a foreign language to children?

The short answer, in my view, is a lot, in the sense that teaching children foreign languages at a young age can potentially lay strong foundations to prevent xenophobia from ever developing.

The jury is out on the issue of whether or not there is solid evidence to support an early start to foreign language learning per se, and there is research both for and against this. Nevertheless, classroom experience strongly suggests that learning a foreign language at a young age can develop interest, curiosity, positive attitudes and respect for different peoples, countries and cultures that are likely to extend well beyond the primary years.

In my own classes over the years, particularly in contexts with children from many different backgrounds, I’ve become increasingly aware of how our role as English teachers goes hand-in-hand with broader, and ultimately more significant educational aims, to do with promoting responsible citizenship, democracy, tolerance and peace. These are big concepts. At the same time, every little thing we can do to work towards achieving them in the microcosmic world of our classrooms counts.

For young beginners in schools with a large immigrant population, English is often the only subject in which everyone has equal chance of achieving, since children do not need to know the language of the country to make progress in English in the same way as they do in other subjects. This in itself can help to reduce feelings of difference among the children and can be built on positively in other ways too. For example, through the experience of learning a foreign language, children can be helped to develop the vital skill of empathy and understanding of others. Here is an anecdote from one of my past classes that illustrates this:

Mohammed is a Moroccan boy in my class of four-year-olds. Recently arrived in Spain, he doesn’t speak either Spanish or English and he’s finding it tough. One day when he’s absent, I talk to the children (in Spanish) about how we can help Mohammed. They’re full of ideas: play with him, sit with him, share their snacks, and then one little boy pipes up ‘We can help Mohammed speak Spanish like you help us with English’. ‘How’s that?’ I ask, intrigued to hear their views. ‘By showing us pictures and speaking slowly’ comes the response. Thus it is that, through their own experience of learning a foreign language, these children are able to understand and empathise with how it might feel not to speak their own.

There are many practical things that we can do to ensure that children learn to positively value people from other countries and cultures. These include, for example, showing where everyone in the class is from on a world map with photos and flags, including personalised activities in which children have the opportunity to talk about their country, food, families etc, celebrating different festivals, telling stories or reading picture books that focus on themes of difference and empathy, taking turns to teach and learn simple phrases such as ‘hello’ / ‘goodbye’, ‘please / thank you’ in each other’s languages.

Underpinning it, of course, and the most important thing of all, is to show in everything you do and say that you positively value all the children in your classes too.