There’s a joke in the language teaching world that goes like this: a mother mouse is walking along with her baby mouse when suddenly a huge hungry cat jumps out in front of them. The mother mouse says “WOOF WOOF WOOF WOOF!” and the cat, greatly surprised, runs off. The mother mouse turns to her baby mouse and says, “See? See why it’s important to learn a foreign language?”

Joking apart, while learning to speak languages has clearly become increasingly important in recent years, the current Covid-driven digital transformation has made it more urgent than ever. For while our physical worlds have reduced drastically in size, global online communication has become key to our survival.

The message from experts is that it is never too late to start learning another language. This may be true up to a point but the downside is that, as adults, we are unlikely to have the same chance as a child to spend the requisite 10,000 hours it reportedly takes to master another language and we also become more inhibited.

As language is best imparted as a by-product, the easiest time to begin is as infants, when our brains are like sponges. Imitation is second nature to children who like to play and experiment with communication. How many of us, growing up, have gone to the trouble of inventing our own secret language or talked with foreign accents for fun?

According to ESL author Jane Cadwallader, whose books include The Magic Island and Jungle Fun, “The approach can be very natural if you begin in pre-school. It should revolve around play and shouldn’t be threatening in any way. It’s just a case of them getting used to comprehensible input.”

Jane adds that the use of a puppet is particularly effective, with the children giving it instructions, helping or using it in guessing games. “Later on, if they’ve got this base, they’ll learn vocabulary much quicker. It’s not that they totally understand everything at this stage, but they do absorb it.”

Painless language-learning starts early at King’s with games, songs and stories so that, by the time the students are in Secondary, they have become confident English speakers. “There are so many milestones,” says King’s EYFS coordinator, Janice Kelly. “At first, it’s just one word of English but by the end of the year they can use the past tense.”

According to Paul McNally, an English teacher in the Secondary department of King’s College Madrid (Soto), “The infant staff do a great job of making English seem fun and natural to the little ones from the day they arrive. They take this home and, with online platforms and fun reading books, even homework seems like an enjoyable activity in English, rather than something in competition with their mother tongue.”

But while an early start might be the most obvious, it should be pointed out that when induction English was introduced to King’s to prepare non-English speaking Primary and Secondary children to join the mainstream, many of the students went on to do exceptionally well in the school and were often among the ones on stage at prize-givings, according to former Induction teacher, Izabella Hearn.

Whether the start is early or late, King’s students have an spectacular track record in English. In fact, one of King’s most arresting statistics involves a pupil from an entirely Spanish-speaking background, Miranda Imperial, getting the best English A Level result in the world in 2015, beating candidates both within and without the UK. Miranda was taught by Paul McNally who suggested she could write better than the Gothic novelist Bram Stoker, who she was trying to emulate. “I must have been English in another life,” says Miranda who went on to study Human, Social and Political Science at Cambridge University.

This incredible accomplishment came on the back of another by half-Spanish, half-English student, Carla Lane, who got the best English A-Level result outside the UK in 2014. Carla went on to study Politics and International Relations at Bath University with a view to working in Human Rights.

According to Paul, the level of English among the non-native students has improved quite dramatically over the years due to TV series being available in original version and advances in communications and technology. As French and Spanish teacher at King’s College Murcia, María Tavera Alonso says, “I always recommend watching the news, series, or films; listening to music, and reading in the target language. These methods are probably what helped me the most as a language learner.”

But while a second language – not to mention a third and a fourth – can only be an advantage, it is essential too that the mother tongue remains the anchor as absolute bilingualism is neither easy nor necessarily desirable. As Maria says, “It is very difficult to achieve total bilingualism without it interfering with the mother tongue, but an excellent command of a second language is likely to be achieved if we teach it from a very early age.”

This “anchoring” is addressed at King’s by the presence of Spanish-speaking assistants as well as Spanish-speaking support staff so that the youngest students don’t lose sight of their language base. “The students all see English as a natural, enjoyable part of their lives from as far back as they can recall,” says Paul. “But the school makes sure to celebrate the children’s own cultures, too, and encourages them to be proud of their backgrounds and native languages.”