Continentals start young

The European experience of learning English as a second language, although essentially different to our own, could provide some pointers towards good practice. In Austria, modern language teaching became part of the national primary school curriculum in 1983, having been taught in Viennese schools since 1962. From the ages of 8 to 10, children learn a foreign language (usually English) in twice-weekly sessions of 25 minutes. The lessons are enjoyable, and pressure free - there is no homework and no tests.

For Franz Schimek, a schools inspector from Vienna, the benefits are obvious. Children become more confident, more tolerant of other cultures, more communicative and equipped with skills they can transfer to later language learning.

The city's board of education has recently set up two more primary pilot projects. One, the Lollipop Project, was introducing children as young as six to everyday English words during the normal school day. The other, a bilingual GermanEnglish primary school, gives instruction in both languages.

In France, widespread consultation with parents and teachers resulted in 1994's New Contract for Schools, whereby 9 and 10-year-olds receive short daily lessons in a foreign language. Two-thirds of schools opted for English, a fifth for German and the rest study Spanish or Italian.

The classes are based around five-minute videotaped modules acted out by native speakers. "But teachers are able to use other materials as well, " said James Brossard, a school inspector from D'Orleans, Tours. "It's not the material that does everything, it's the teacher."

The French system relies on "volunteer" teachers, some with up to 35 years' experience, to go back to school to learn new techniques. A specific environment, or "language corner", is set up in the classroom and each short session is like a mini-immersion course.

"First they get to discover what a foreign language is then how it works. It's a mixture of funny sounds and suddenly it's meaning, it's communication!"

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