The chatterbox that speaks their language

The 40 new children joining the morning nursery class at Killermont Primary in Bearsden, East Dunbartonshire, can quickly learn the daily routine from a computer program in any of 12 languages.

Nursery teacher Karen Shepherd used pound;1,600 funding gained through a National Grid for Learning Innovations Award last year to devise a program aimed at pre-school children for whom English is a second language.

At Killermont Primary, about 14 per cent of children speak languages such as Urdu, Bengali, Gujerati, Cantonese, Japanese or German at home. For many, nursery is the first time they have spent a whole morning or afternoon away from their parents and their own language.

Mrs Shepherd's program, which uses Clicker 4 software, is very simple: children try the computer during their nursery sessions. The main focus of each frame is a photograph of pupils and staff working together at different times during the nursery session. These digital photographs were taken and selected by last year's nursery children. Captions explain the daily routines: "We share the toys and take turns."

The central photo is surrounded by icons showing little people, each with the name of a language. A click on an icon lets the children listen to the same sentence in German, Punjabi, Dutch or any of nine other languages. "We value and actively encourage all languages," says Mrs Shepherd.

The recordings were a co-operative effort by school staff, parents and, for the English recording, the children. Nursery nurse Harjinder Kaur recorded the Punjabi, her own home language. Language assistants from Boclair Academy contributed French and German and the other languages were recorded by parents.

The choice of appropriate vocabulary prompted discussion about language register and cultural differences, says Mrs Shepherd. One husband and wife team enjoyed reflecting on the differences and had lively debates about the best language to use.

The language banks will grow as children of different linguistic backgrounds pass through the nursery. For example, the family who contributed the Japanese recording have now returned to Japan, leaving their donation. The program is also ready for the first Welsh or Gaelic speakers in the nursery - school staff were enlisted to make these recordings - and Mrs Shepherd plans to add new languages, such as Spanish and Korean.

She says the key to the program's success last year was the children's involvement in its production. They enjoyed taking photographs with the JamC@m, a yellow, "virtually bouncy", child-friendly digital camera bought with award funds, and were enthusiastic about making the program's English recordings. Like the parents, they insisted on adapting the scripts. So, "If you don't know what to do, ask a member of staff" became "See if you don't know what you're doing, ask some staffs." The real motivation for the children lay in seeing their own photographs on screen.

This year's children will soon be working on their own version.

The program has also proved popular for children with special educational needs. Pupils with speech and language difficulties are drawn to exploring the sounds.

For children with very little English, familiar photographs of classmates and staff are an important first attraction. Harjinder Kaur says the Punjabi speakers are delighted to hear their own nursery nurse speaking on the computer. "It's also a bonus for Urdu-speaking children, because there are a lot of similarities between the two languages."

The new three- and four-year olds are keen to explore the program. Amid the noisy bustle of the class they listen hard to each recording. "He's saying more than her," says one child, comparing the Cantonese and French clips. "I want the one in the yellow dress to say something." The lady's Italian is quickly followed by clips of Malay and Gujerati.

Some of the smaller children have trouble moving the computer mouse but are nevertheless determined to click on as many icons as possible. Their time at the computer is restricted by a large egg-timer which they must turn over as soon as they start.

When the children are asked if they know where people speak the different languages, they are more interested in boasting that their mums speak Urdu or French and their dads have computers.

They are not expected to read the picture captions, which are in English, and while each icon has the language name written on it, the words are quite difficult to read. It is more important for the children to explore the different sounds, says Mrs Shepherd. "Some will recognise their own language and perhaps also their mum's or Harjinder's voice.

"It gives all children the opportunity to experience and accept the language of others."

Eleanor Caldwell Karen Shepherd talks on A Multilingual Introduction to the Nursery at 10am, September 25; and 1.15pm, September 26

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