Language unlocks secrets

A mother-tongue scheme is boosting communication skills in a Lancashire school. Dorothy Lepkowska reports.

When a group of girls stands huddled together in the playground it usually means one thing - they are chatting about the latest fashions or Britney's new video.

But not this particular group. Emily Dewe, aged 10, is reciting words from a list written out phonetically, as her three friends prompt and correct her.

Mehreen Arif, Amelia Iqbal and Maryam Talib, also 10, are teaching Emily to speak Punjabi so that she does not feel left out when they talk among themselves.

"We can share secrets without other people knowing, and when we talk together Emily can understand," says Mehreen.

It is a scene that has become the norm at Woodnook primary, in Accrington, Lancashire. The 270-pupil school, where 40 per cent of pupils are from Pakistani backgrounds, is one of 10 in the authority trying out the Government's English as an additional language initiative, aimed at tackling differences of attainment between minority groups. The scheme allows pupils to use their native languages in lessons.

At Woodnook, every child has a "talk partner", a classmate who speaks the same mother tongue, to whom they can turn for help if they have problems understanding. They can discuss problems and concepts before reverting to English when addressing the teacher or the rest of the class.

For younger children, stories are translated and retold in other languages.

Infant classes are supported by bilingual assistants.

As children get older they may need less support, but the option of being able to use their mother tongue remains.

The initiative is also helping children whose first language is English.

Like Emily, other pupils are picking up foreign words and phrases from their classmates and there is a belief across the school that languages matter.

Jean Rushton, deputy head, says: "Levels of self-esteem have risen because children can feel proud of their heritage, and that other languages are highly valued. We have told them that being able to speak other languages is an impressive talent."

Lancashire is one of 21 authorities taking part in the pilot, receiving Pounds 84,900 in funding.

Azra Butt, the authority's consultant for the scheme, says: "We acknowledge that English remains the main language of learning and communication, but this is about unlocking potential."

Gary McKeon, head of Deepdale primary, in Preston, which is also involved in the scheme, found that second and third-generation Gujarati-speaking children were no longer using their mother tongue correctly because the use of the language had become diluted over time. The school is now planning after-school lessons for them.

"These children have skills they must not lose," he said. "It has been particularly successful in lessons where children need to discuss their work among themselves. Many feel more comfortable grasping a concept in their own language and then translating that into English."

At Walter Street primary, in Nelson, pupils staged a bilingual Eid festival performance to celebrate the end of Ramadan. Muslim songs and naats, or prayers, were translated into English.

Shakoofeh Shah, aged 10, says: "Pupils are becoming more confident and saying they enjoy coming to school more. Even the English children are picking up Punjabi words and learning quickly."

Her mother, Nassim Shah, says: "I cannot imagine any other country where children would be allowed to use their mother tongues in school. We are lucky."

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