Primary Language Teaching: Back on the Agenda

Article excerpt

2012 was a golden year for sport in the UK and it might also prove to be the year when hope was revived for foreign language teaching in primary schools in England and Wales. The recent history of languages in state primary schools is a roller-coaster with some ups--when the last Labour Government declared in 2002 that a foreign language would be on the curriculum by 2011, and with some downs--when the Coalition Government abolished this scheme as soon as they came into power in 2010. Ten years of planning and investment in resources went down the drain and enthusiastic teachers and advisers lost heart and lost their jobs. But in the face of all odds, many schools did keep their foreign language provision and in 2012 came a reversal with the Department of Education declaring in November '... the Government has confirmed its intention to make the study of a foreign language compulsory at Key Stage 2 ... from September 2014 ...' It is important to note that Scotland has a much better record and foreign languages have been on the curriculum from Primary Six for many years and there they are now considering introducing languages in Primary One.

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How can the rest of us librarians, parents, grandparents and carers, especially non-linguists, encourage children to learn a foreign language from an early age? And why is this a good idea?

I am absolutely convinced it is a good idea but I must declare a strong interest here: I have a degree in Italian and started my career teaching Italian and French in secondary schools. I have since spent over 30 years publishing material for learning languages at home, first for adults and more recently for young children. I also have two daughters who are Italian speakers, I call them 'nearly-bilingual' and one of my favourite pastimes is learning languages: I've dabbled in Spanish, Arabic, Turkish and Mandarin Chinese and I'm now learning Welsh, my mother's native language (and definitely the most difficult so far).

So why learn a language, especially when you're very young?

* Because it's a really enjoyable experience. Challenging, yes, but also great fun. If you start when you're very young, you are open and enthusiastic about learning.

* Unlike adults or teenagers, you're not self-conscious, which is a huge advantage with learning a language. You aren't afraid to speak out loud, you like singing and you enjoy role-playing and trying new sounds and new words. I can still remember French words I learned and the 'retro' 1950s flashcards used in my primary school, like 'le clocher, the church bell-tower. Maybe not the most relevant now but I was very excited to learn it at the time.

* There are more bilingual children or multilingual children in the world than monolingual children and most young people today, especially in our big cities, have friends and neighbours who speak another language. Learning languages helps you respect, appreciate and understand others more easily, a great skill in a global world.

* Learning a language is good exercise for the brain and a young child's brain can handle different languages just like it handles all the other areas of early learning and development. How I wish I'd learnt some Welsh when I was a child!

* In April the British Chamber of Commerce issued a warning that Britain was falling behind in trade because of its lack of language skills. They wanted languages to be compulsory to AS Level and companies given tax breaks for language training. As Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser at the British Council said, 'Foreign languages are essential for our children's future. If they are going to grow up able to compete in an increasingly globalised world, they need to have a good knowledge and understanding of other cultures--and languages are an integral part of this.'

How can we help language learners?

Librarians will already know how best to enthuse their charges and many libraries I have visited do already cater for language learners but a greater prominence would definitely benefit children and teachers in the coming years. …