Learning languages: between myth and reality.

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English has always been one of the most spoken languages in the world. More than 40 countries worldwide have half of their population speaking the language of Shakespeare.

Nowadays, learning English as a second language has almost become mandatory in order to travel and work.

It is commonly thought that the earlier you start to learn a foreign language the better you are at speaking it. This is what Dr Nils Jäkel and Prof. Dr Markus Ritter at Ruhr-Universität Bochum in Germany tried to demonstrate. “Starting foreign-language lessons at an early age is often very much commended, even though hardly any research exists that would support this myth,” says Nils Jäkel. Both researchers conducted a study between 2010 and 2014 including 5,130 students from 31 secondary schools in Germany. They compared two groups of students: those who started to learn English in first grade and those who started in third grade. By the seventh grade, it was observed that third grade students were better.

A surprising result.

For Tom Doyle, English Teaching for Young Learners (ETYL) Trainer “those results are surprising but learning a new language is intense and it takes time to reach fluency. Studying earlier is better but limited by the restricted learning capacity in early age. The brain is better able to learn when you grow up”.

According to Peter Roger, Head of the Applied Linguistics Department at Macquarie University, these results can be explained based on the type of learning process followed. Learning in a classroom environment does not give that many advantages to learn languages. “Classrooms limit the exposure to the language, it is still a good idea to start early but if you want to achieve proficiency you need to be in an English environment at this age”. This opinion is shared by both researchers who also estimated that in secondary schools, 90 minutes’ lessons are not sufficient to achieve sustainable effects.

The teaching method needs to change for Annabel Mangin, English lecturer at the University of Lorraine in France. “We are aware that something needs to change in France. It is too formal and theoretical. It should be like learning the mother tongue and being in a natural environment. More autonomy should be given to the kids. Let’s let them speak and debate!”.

Unlike French or Spanish kids, Northern European children can benefit from an environment directly embedded in the English language. “Smaller populations are under more pressure in terms of languages to communicate with the other countries. Their languages are not spoken worldwide” said Peter Roger.  In the Nordic countries, inhabitants are constantly exposed to English (e.g: from a young age, they get to watch television in English). This natural exposure makes them better English speakers compared to the rest of Europe.

Learning English as a second language in an early childhood may not give the expected outcomes but it is still a great advantage for kids. It helps them to be more open-minded, to experience another culture and to gain self-confidence.

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Will healthier canteen menus help to reduce childhood obesity?

by Emilie Lauer and Lewis Godwin.

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In order to combat childhood obesity, the New South Wales government recently introduced the Healthy School Canteen Strategy, a program designed to increase the availability of healthy food and drink options in school canteens. The strategy will see the reduction and removal of foods high in saturated fats, sugars and salts. Public schools in NSW will be expected to implement this program by the end of 2019.

According to the Australian Health Tracker, 25.6% of Australian children between the ages of 5 and 11 are overweight or obese; a figure the government hopes to see reduced to 21.6% by the year 2025.

Shortly, Australian canteens will see foods such as Vegemite, burgers, chicken schnitzels, hot pies, sausage rolls making up no more than one quarter of menus. Instead, they will be replaced by humus, rice paper rolls¸ vegetable burgers and water as a main drink.

However, is the food available in canteens the real source of the problem, or are there other factors affecting obesity?

Childhood obesity depends not only on food, but also on education. Children do not have sole control of their lives, a lot of what they know about healthy eating or exercise is learnt from and affected by their parents.

According to Timothy Gill, Research Programs Director at the Borden Institute of Obesity, Nutrition, Exercise and Eating Disorders, changing the school canteen menus will help to counter childhood obesity, but alone, it will not be sufficient. School canteen menus send a strong signal to children, educating them with the notion of good food. Through the school and their children, the government will also try to engage the parents in this process.

For Gill, factors such as your area and social situation also need to be taken into consideration as those can also affect your health.

Jobs and income play a major role on the family as a whole. The amount of money a family makes impacts the foods and activities they can provide their children with.

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The above graph lists the suburbs in NSW with the highest and lowest rates of overweight and obsess children between the ages of 2 and 17 years. It also lists the median wage earn by families in those areas

By examining this data, it is apparent that suburbs of a higher median wage tend to have a lower rate of obesity. Mosman, an area with median wage of $64,631, averages around 18 obese or overweight or obese children out of every hundred. This contrasts with Lakemba – Wiley Park, which has a median wage of $34,002 and averages 32 overweight or obese children for every hundred.

From this, it is evident that money is a factor in obesity. The more money that you earn, affords you greater access to fresh, healthier foods and sporting facilities. Living close to your work also allows you more leisure time, including cooking fresh meals or exercising. By contrast, those from lower economic classes may have less control over what they eat. Travelling from work may deprive of the time to cook proper meals and result in them resorting to fast foods.

In saying this, however, Homebush Bay – Silverwater demonstrates a fairly high median income of $57,753, yet shows a high average of 41 out of 100 children who are overweight or obese. This suggest that there are other factors that need to be taken into account, such as physical activity.

Kevin Moultrie, the Founder of Transform-Us Fitness for Kids, notes that while changing canteen menus to include healthier options is a positive step towards reducing childhood obesity, it is not enough. Another crucial factor is the amount of regular exercise children are involved in.

Australian children, Moultrie notes, put too much energy in their bodies through food and drink, but do not get enough physical activity.

Children, according to NSW Health, need to engage in 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Their reports, however, found that children in grades K-2 were only getting between 86 and 99 minutes, while grades 3-6 averaged 105 minutes per week. While between 23-30% of urban schools reportedly did not provide grades K-2 with any sports at all.

While changing the eating habits of children at school may be effective, in order to find a sustainable solution to childhood obesity, Moultrie recommends an increase in sports at school as well. Schools currently offer between one and two PE lessons a week, on average. This is not enough, as children need to be exercising every day.

While government tries to improve children’s health in general, there is another factor who need to be taken in consideration: marketing. Nowadays, products are marketed through cartoons characters, movie stars or sports people in order to appeal the children, said Gill.

According to the Cancer Council and the University of Sydney, 44% of the food advertisements suggest unhealthy food.  21% of them (1 in 5) are staring fast food. Those advertisements are broadcast during the peak hours, usually between 6am to 9am and 4pm to 9pm on weekdays. During the weekend, from 6am to midday and 4pm to 9pm.

Marketing, Gill believes, has changed the family rules. Parents are no longer the only decision maker for what will be found in their basket. Advertisements push children to ask for unhealthy food. For Gill, parents are still responsible for the food they provide, but they are working against an environment that promotes the wrong type of food.  It becomes more difficult for them to say “no”.

The NSW Cancer Council is now waiting on a government action to regulate and protect children from the impact of junk food advertising. This is a point of view shared by Gill, who hopes an environment who discourage kids from asking for unhealthy food.

Would it be the next government move?