Baby talk is not good enough, we want to 'parler'

No more da-da and ma-ma for toddlers in parts of Scotland. It is `maman et papa'. Jackie Cosh attends a French lesson for mothers and their babies

"Ecoutez et chantez!" the teacher says. Her pupils sit down mesmerised, but don't say a word. Then again, this is not a group of attentive teenagers, but a room full of babies, the eldest barely 18 months.

Mums and babies are at Larbert Library for the first Lingobaby session. Set up by modern languages teacher Fiona Moffatt, Lingobaby introduces children as young as six months to French, in the hope that it will boost the take-up by pupils of languages in secondary schools.

As a mum, Fiona was keen to introduce her son Ruairi (nine months) to the language. "I searched locally, then nationally, and was amazed that there were no language sessions for his age".

Putting her years as a teacher of French and German to good use, she set up Lingobaby, which introduces young children to French through games, songs and toys. Classes are run for six to 18 month-olds, with another for two to four year-olds. The session begins with Fiona singing a welcome song in French. Little faces fill with delight as their attention is gained. She then introduces a soft ball, passing it around the group as she asks each child: "Comment tu t'appelles?" Mothers respond for their child, and so their participation begins.

Three simple phrases are used each week. "The hope is that parents will feel comfortable enough using these at home with their child," says Fiona. "Over the 10-week-course, a fair amount of French will be used."

Louise O'Hare is mum to Connell (seven months). She signed up for the classes following a holiday in France. "I noticed that Connell showed an interest when he heard the language. I thought that if we were going to be holidaying in France regularly, it would be good for us to learn the basics."

The sessions are designed to be fun. A tres timide puppet learns not to be shy, and a magic bag produces animal puppets. A whiteboard with basic French words encourages the mums. Bilingual toys are available and during the free play part of the session, Fiona sits with small groups and reads French storybooks.

Nicola Stott is mum to 16-month-old Megan Macdonald. "I lived in Greece for a few years and saw the benefits of having another language. Lingobaby is done in a playful way. I don't expect Megan to be able to speak it immediately, but I want her to understand that there is more than one language in the world.

"At this age, their attention span isn't great. We go to baby signing classes and you think they aren't picking things up, but they are."

Repetition is integral to Lingo-baby. Fiona uses key words such as bonjour several times. "Different themes are covered, beginning with introductions - hello, goodbye and so on. Then we will cover colours, animals, clothes and parts of the body," she says.

"The toddlers will cover time - bedtime, storytime and bathtime. Towards the end of the course, we will cover emotions - happy, sad, and for the toddlers, also excited, tired. Their learning will have been stretched by the end."

Concerns have been raised over the low number of students continuing with languages. Candidates at Standard grade have fallen 16 per cent since the former Scottish Executive introduced the entitlement in 2001. Numerous pieces of research support the belief that foreign languages should be introduced early, ideally before the age of five.

With this in mind, Fiona approached the Scottish Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research at the University of Stirling, and asked for their support. "The communication from them was hugely positive," she says. "They have advertised the course on their website and, once I am up and running. they have asked me to produce a report on the differences and similarities of facilitating language at such an early age compared to teenagers."

Lingobaby sessions are to begin in Queen's Park, Glasgow, with others in the pipeline. A monthly storytime session is running in Borders Bookshop in Glasgow. It may have been the mum in Fiona that came up with the idea, but it is the teacher in her that developed it and publicised it to the extent that both classes in Larbert have waiting lists.

"Long-term," she says, "I'd like to see myself being part of the foreign language experience for young people in Scotland."

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