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Learn to learn before trying to walk the talk;Research focus

You can start too young in teaching languages, finds Beate Poole

ACCEPTED wisdom has it that the younger the child when starting to learn a foreign language the better. As most children acquire a second language easily in natural environments, it is assumed that this will be so in a school setting.

But case studies I have carried out in two very different primary schools, one in a disadvantaged area, the other in the "leafy suburbs", challenge this view.

Lesson observations over two years, involving around 200 children aged 8-10, showed that they generally did not find learning a foreign language - French - easy. Few progressed beyond the stage of repetition or could manipulate language to any degree. Prerequisites for foreign language learning, such as the ability to listen, take notice and stay on-task, were simply absent in a significant number of children.

Fifty pupils also completed a questionnaire and I interviewed a further 28. These children made comments such as "It's hard", "I get confused", "I don't understand anything" or "I keep forgetting things".

They were not as enthusiastic or uninhibited about foreign language learning as is commonly assumed; some were unsure and some found the whole experience simply frustrating or irrelevant.

In fact, when five secondary school intake classes were asked about their primary school foreign language experience, a remarkable number of negative comments were made, such as "it's boring" or "done it for a year and it's rubbish". These comments challenge the oft-stated view that early exposure to a foreign language does no harm.

My analysis of the Scottish Modern Languages in Primary Schools projects leads to the conclusion that younger is not necessarily better in the long run, either. Performance at Standard grade (age 16) has not been raised through starting early.

There is therefore, as yet, no evidence that those who start at eight achieve higher proficiency than those who start at 10 or 11. Larger numbers of children sitting the Standard grade exam are likely to be the result of a "languages for all" policy rather than an early start. The number of students taking a foreign language post-16 has been in steady decline both in Scotland and in England, but in Scotland this has been the case despite starting early.

Claims that an early start makes a difference either linguistically or psychologically thus lack empirical support and are ill-informed.

When pupils learn a foreign language, variables such as cognitive and conceptual development, first language skills, the ability to listen and focus, attention spans, attitudes, responsible classroom behaviour and - not least - parental support and encouragement all play an important role.

While some of these "qualities" come with maturity, others are the result of experience or background. The concept of an "optimum age" for language learning is thus largely irrelevant in the context of learning a foreign language at school.

If we were to catch children young, it follows that we would have to use different baits - for the girl who thought French was unimportant as she does not live in France and would prefer to learn bits of several languages; for the girl who did well in French but did not want to continue learning because she thought French sounded weird; for the boy who found French dull, boring and difficult and would rather learn Italian because he likes the way they pronounce the words, and for the boy who frequently goes to France and would like to do a lot of reading, writing and homework.

We should not confuse the aims with the means. Communicative competence in a particular language might well be the ultimate aim but the principal task for the primary school is to lay the cognitive and affective foundations in harmony with children's needs. If profitless experiences are to be avoided and if all children are to benefit and not just a "lucky elite", learning how to learn rather than learning a particular language as such would seem to be the way forward. Trying to make children run before they can walk is a futile exercise.

"Is younger better? A critical examination of the beliefs about learning a foreign language at primary school", by Dr Beate Poole, Institute of Education, University of London

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