Early years, emotional development and language: a guest blog by Julia Collar
Good morning & buenos días! This week we have another very special guest blog for you. It’s written by Julia Collar, who runs a theatre production company specialising in multi-sensory work around mental health and emotional development. Julia’s background, work and relationship with languages are fascinating and inspiring, so please read on to find out more about her.
We’d like to know more about who you are, your education and professional background…
After emerging from academia, I went into the public sector and worked as an anti-bullying case worker for children and young people for four years. I ended up as the national coordinator for the Anti-Bullying Alliance; this included running Anti-Bullying Week in the UK, advising the government on anti-bullying policy, and facilitating a group of over 80 leading children’s charities towards a consensus on effective ways for preventing and responding to bullying. I worked extensively with children and young people with complex trauma resulting from their experiences. And I particularly developed an interest in working with young people excluded from mainstream education for their behaviour. This led to a role heading up a large youth development programme across two counties for the YMCA.
I live in Bedfordshire with my partner Anna and in 2012 I became pregnant with our now four year-old twins. In the same year, and as a result of internal restructuring within the YMCA and a very difficult pregnancy, I left the organisation to become a freelance youth development consultant. I worked with a range of schools, specialist provision, and national and local charities to deliver training, evaluation, and project work.
With the arrival of my twins, and following a difficult birth experience that left me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, my focus shifted towards the experiences of early years children. Early intervention is key to safeguarding children’s wellbeing.
Tell us more about Collar & Cuffs Co…
The majority of my current work explores aspects of mental health and emotional development. I use theatre as a way to help children and their grown-ups to better understand their brains, bodies, wants and needs. My present production is ‘Little Meerkat’s Big Panic’, which explores the neuroscience of anxiety and calm. I have a seaside adventure called ‘Crabby’ in development, which is about anger; and ‘You, the Loo, and Nappy-Nappy Noos’, which is about potty/toilet training and tackling some of the anxieties children have around toilets both at home and away.
Tell us about your relationship with language: which languages do you and your family speak?
Our mother tongue is English, but we use a wide range of different languages at home to communicate, though our level of fluency varies quite dramatically across them all.
I learned French from the age of 9, culminating in an A Level. I remember that the set questions in the exam really did not reflect the way we had been taught in class; my Sixth Form French teacher was very ‘old school’ and classic, and the sentence structure of the questions was more contemporary and conversational. My spoken French always far exceeded my written ability.
I have also studied Spanish and German, though less than a year of both, and attended a Welsh university where everything was bi-lingual.
My degree in Religious Studies also encompassed a lot of research into translations of classic and ancient languages such as Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and even Egyptian hieroglyphs. And this, coupled with the other languages I’ve learned, means I have quite an interest in etymology, or the origins of words, as well as a good ability to read texts in other languages.
Through my work, I have developed a good working vocabulary of Makaton signing. This is a system of sign language that is used to accompany speech rather than to replace it, and is predominantly used by people with learning disabilities or communication difficulties other than hearing impairment.
My twin boys, now aged four, have been learning Spanish through their preschool for just over a year. Spanish sessions are integrated into the weekly programme at the boys’ preschool, which hosts a range of sessions each week by external providers, including drama, rugby, and also Spanish. They are also competent in Makaton
Please can you explain the advantages you have observed, or believe will arise, in your children’s development as a result of teaching them another language from a young age?
For both my sons learning another language has certainly piqued their curiosity about communication, and especially comparing vocabulary between different languages. They will often come home from preschool with new words in Spanish and will then ask me to tell them what the same word is in French, sometimes German, and I will then try and provide it (if I know it) in any other languages. I think they most often ask for French because they can best hear the similarities with Spanish, and they also seem to enjoy the subtle differences too.
They’re very good at reciting numbers in Spanish, French and German, and we chant French verb conjugations when we walk too. This is a technique one of my first French teachers taught me, and while at the moment the boys don’t really understand what they’re doing it’s still a very useful foundation for later on.
One of my sons had a severe hearing impairment from the time he was 6 months old, which was helped with hearing aids and finally surgery for grommets. Although his hearing is now within normal ranges, he has some residual speech clarity issues. For him, learning Spanish has been helpful as it has encouraged him to articulate and move his mouth and tongue in new ways. As well as to listen much more closely to the speech sounds his teacher makes; having learned to speak with limited hearing has meant that he has not acquired speech sounds correctly and, lacking self-awareness of the difference in the clarity and sounds of his speech compared to other people due to his stage of development, he can find it difficult to accept correction or to listen and hear when we model for him the correct pronunciation of words in his mother-tongue. Learning Spanish has slowed down his auditory processing. He has to pay attention to all the sounds in the sequence to form a word or a sentence in another language in order to get it right, and we are beginning to see him applying this when learning new vocabulary or phrases in English too.
We’ve also noticed that both boys will often use Spanish phrases if they’re asked to say whether they like or don’t like something, much to the confusion of some of their relatives! “Muy mal” is probably their favourite phrase of all. I find it really fascinating that saying something is very bad in Spanish feels stronger or fuller to them than the same words in English. Or is that they’re using words in another language to try and distance themselves a little bit, or even to distance us grown-ups, so as not to hurt any feelings?
What, if any, disadvantages have you experienced in relation to early language learning, and how have you overcome them?
The boys learn the sounds of Spanish more than they learn actual vocabulary. And, like very young children often do, they will try and make sense of sounds in the best way they know how, supported by their limited life experience. It’s a bit like ‘mondegreens’ or misheard lyrics in songs where people are convinced they’ve heard Jimi Hendrix sing ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ instead of ‘Excuse me while I kiss the sky’. The boys will ‘make sense’ of word sounds by running them together or breaking them in the wrong place, which means they often end up speaking gibberish more than they do Spanish! For example, when they first started out they would often just shout ‘Kettle!’ randomly at home and burst into giggles. When I explored with them why they were fixed on that word they said they thought it was funny that the English word for kettle meant something you use to make coffee, whereas in Spanish it meant asking someone if they were okay (“qué tal?”)!
When I’ve been really stuck at working out what they’re trying to say, I get them to speak into the Google microphone search and add the words Spanish translation to their phonetic take on a phrase or word, and usually we find the right answer; it’s helped to build my Spanish vocabulary quite nicely along the way!
What tips or advice have you got for other families who want to introduce a second language to their children?
It’s worth remembering that for children under 5, the areas of the brain responsible for auditory processing and the ability to recall information are in their very earliest stages of development. This may mean, as with my twins, that children do not always understand every word or phrase they are taught. Some words will be processed by the brain with meanings attached, particularly nouns that are easy to put in pictures or point to, but more complex and abstract words and phrases that young children have not yet completely understood on a conceptual level in their first language may literally become a bit lost in translation when exploring a second!
Traditional starting points for learning a language may include days of the week or month, telling the time, describing your feelings, and other concepts that very young children are usually only just starting to understand. With this in mind, try to choose vocabulary or situations that are relevant to early years experiences and layer second language learning around these: animals, colours, parts of the body, sharing toys, etc.
Also, don’t shy away from bare necessities: learning phrases and vocabulary about going to the bathroom are not only endlessly fascinating to little people, but are essential knowledge wherever you go!
¡Gracias & thank you Julia!
We have followed Julia on social media for some time now and she never fails to amaze us with her wonderful approach to a variety of early years situations and difficulties. Addressing emotional development and mental health from such a young age is fundamental, and sets the stage for many kids to be able to work on and overcome their problems in the future. We also love the fact that her twins are exploring another language and sharing their experience with the whole family. If you’d like more information on Julia and what she does, please visit or write to: