Marooned by our Crusoe mentality

Vicky Tuck

Acquiring fluency in a language is one of life's thrills, but Ed Balls's decision to pump money into modern language teaching for primary school pupils is doomed without a shift in public perceptions.

His announcement brings us full circle in an area that has suffered more than its fair share of bandwagons. In the 1960s the Nuffield Foundation sponsored an experimental French language programme in primary schools, but its protagonists failed to secure the widespread introduction of primary school French.

What could Ed Balls learn from that? First, that good language learning is dependent on confident and imaginative teaching by accomplished linguists.

Second, that children who are still mastering the rudiments of their mother tongue find it hard to learn a foreign language. This will be even more of an issue now given the multicultural nature of many primary schools and the need to ensure a sound grasp of English first.

Finally, the Nuffield Foundation initiative coincided with the trend away from the traditional grammar and syntax approach and towards functional, phrase book learning which, while it has its merits, produced a generation of students clueless about how a language works.

So, what are the principles driving this "start them young" policy? The belief that the younger brain is more receptive, or that primary-age children are less self-conscious than their teenage counterparts? But for language learning at primary level to succeed, children need frequent, intense exposure to the foreign language.

Ed Balls's announcement was followed by the news that it will be possible to achieve a foreign language GCSE without having to demonstrate that you can read or write it. This new qualification will be an insulting waste of everyone's time and should be withdrawn immediately.

There is a danger that what happened before will happen again: pupils will arrive at secondary school with varying levels of language competence, ranging from knowing a few songs and ice cream flavours to the occasional child who has a secure grounding. Pity the poor teacher who has to cater for such as disparate group.

The success of modern language learning lies beyond the influence of the Department for Children, Schools and Families. It is dependent on motivation. Children need to believe that something they perceive as difficult is worth doing.

If language learning is to flourish in the UK, the insular attitude that "everyone speaks English, so what's the point?" still needs to be tackled.

Vicky Tuck, President of the Girls' Schools Association and principal of Cheltenham Ladies' College.

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