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If we really want young linguists, let's do it right

What does it take to make the teaching of modern languages in primary schools meaningful? It takes real political will, enthusiasm and determination on the ground - and, unfortunately, quite a lot of money.

If the Government is serious about young children in England learning languages, they need only look across the border to Wales to see what is involved. Welsh as a second language has always been taught in the principality's primaries, but by and large, the aim was to build awareness, rather than teach more formal language skills.

A consistent approach only came with the national curriculum in 1989, which made Welsh compulsory either as a first or second language for all children from age five. It was chaotic at first. Thousands of teachers needed to be trained, and there were few resources. Books for teaching older beginners hardly existed.

Even a few years ago, inspectors said Welsh as a second language (WSL) was one of the less well-taught subjects. But it has come a long way, and there are many schools where it is thriving (see below).

Ann Samuel, Welsh advisory teacher in Cardiff LEA, says that a decade on, the benefits are really showing. Infant teachers now need little extra support, and gradual improvements in the juniors have meant that the authority's most recent Estyn (Welsh inspectorate) report showed 62 per cent of WSL lessons to be very good.

But many teachers still need, and get, a lot of support. Cardiff alone has a team of eight advisers for WSL, each working with 15 schools, giving advice, team teaching, doing model lessons. Professional development includes intensive two week courses to learn the language and pedagogy.

By contrast, the English initiative late last year, calling for all junior-age children to have the chance to learn a language, lacks conviction. They are in danger of repeating the mistakes made in the 1970s, when a report from the National Foundation for Educational Research was said to have "killed off" primary French. In fact, its author Clare Burstall was not trying to "kill off" French at all, but to point out a crucial problem with it.

She showed that, though children entered secondary school with a huge range of accomplishments, from none to good conversational skills, any knowledge was ignored by secondary schools who simply started from scratch. The result was that primary French made no difference to later O-level results.

With its plans for optional modern languages, starting only in key stage 2, with no enforceable standards, the Government risks recreating the problems of the 1970s.

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