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Learn a language at your own cost

GERMANY: Teachers told they must attend and pay for English courses in their spare time. Yojana Sharma reports from Berlin

Teachers have been told they must attend courses in English lasting up to 18 months, in their spare time and often at their own expense, as part of a drive to teach all eight-year-olds a foreign language from next year.

Ministers of Germany's 16 states agreed late last year to introduce a foreign language from Year 3 by 2006. The southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg will begin teaching a first foreign language from age six. Previously, language learning began at age 10 or 11.

Most states will add an extra two hours to the primary timetable and hire additional teachers. However, rather than employing specialist language staff, Germany intends to follow the Dutch model - also successfully copied in Austria - where all primary teachers can take on the job.

State education ministers say primary teachers should be able to teach a foreign language - usually English - and should bring themselves up to speed in order to do so.

"Most primary teachers are women aged between 40 and 60 who last studied English when they did their Abitur (school-leaving exam)," said Gillian Noble of Hanover further education college, which is preparing an English course for primary teachers.

Studies show that success in early language learning depends on teachers'

qualifications. Eight out of 16 German states now offer special courses for teachers.

In Hamburg, teachers have been asked to give up their holidays for crash courses given by native English teachers. In North Rhein-Westfalia, teachers must attend year-long after-school courses. In Hanover, FE colleges run special courses, costing up to l500 (pound;305) and paid for by the teachers.

The courses will be geared towards teaching young children and improving teachers' pronunciation - considered crucial, as younger children learn language through mimicry.

Education ministers also want to move away from the popular "play-and-sing" approach to more "results-orientated" lessons which begin with vocabulary and confidence-building exercises, and include reading and writing skills by Year 3 or 4. This will enable secondary schools to build seamlessly on primary learning.

Several states including Hessen and Baden-Wuerttemberg are also considering training teachers to teach one or two curriculum subjects in English.

However, some commentators have criticised the massive emphasis on foreign languages "when so many children can barely speak German properly".

The 30-country PISA study conducted by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development last year put German teenagers in the bottom third in reading and comprehension skills.

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