When Awa Mbengue entered an English competition in her homeland of Senegal, West Africa, she had little idea it would open up a new world. The top three candidates from the French-speaking country had the opportunity to go to England.
That was two years ago. Now Awa, 23, who had graduated from Dakar University with a masters in English before entering the contest, is a French language assistant at Monksdown primary in Liverpool.
For her, French is now a "treat". The children love her games and the songs she uses to help them learn the language. She teaches reception children to identify stuffed animals and sing about them. By Year 2, pupils have moved away from one-word answers and are using sentences with adjectives. By Year 5, they can relate short animal stories in French with a confidence and inflexion that would shame many GCSE pupils.
Almost all the children at Monksdown are white and from working-class backgrounds, with more than 85 per cent on free school meals. Few of them had met a black person, let alone one in a teaching role, before Awa joined. Yet they readily took to her. "I feel very close to them," she says. "They are always smiling, so I do not feel intimidated, and I am always encouraged because they enjoy learning French."
In the build-up to becoming European Capital of Culture 2008, Liverpool city council is investing heavily in primary language learning. Of 19 local authorities piloting the introduction of languages to seven to 11-year-olds nationally, Liverpool's work is the most extensive. French, Spanish or German will be offered in all its 160 primary schools in Years 5 and 6 this year; 10 schools, including Monksdown, are teaching modern languages from nursery upwards for at least three lessons a week.
From being a difficult school on the notorious Boot Estate, Monksdown has been transformed into a Centre for Excellence in Modern Languages. A recent Ofsted report said the school's French lessons had "a clear effect on the motivation and desire to learn across the whole range of age and ability".
The key, according to Liz Kelly of Liverpool City Council, is the quality of the language assistants. The city employs 22 to take French, German and Spanish; it provides them with training (one day a fortnight) and mentoring by language advisory teachers, who write the schemes of work and provide ideas for resources.
"The input of someone from another country and culture is particularly valuable at primary level," Ms Kelly says. "It's not just the personal qualities they bring. It's also because they arrive with a clean slate, as they've not learnt to teach before."
Many of the assistants enjoy their time in primary so much that they want to stay. And once they have been trained they are valuable, so Liverpool is trying to create a career structure for them. The idea is that they will take on more responsibility and eventually take classes on their own.
At Monksdown, the class teacher is always present when the assistant is teaching, helping with behaviour management and often joining in the songs.
All the teachers are learning French, with a view to teaching the language in some classes. Parents, too, have become involved: many attend French classes after school so they can help their children with homework.
Monksdown head Tony Davis believes that teaching French in the early years has benefits right across the curriculum, including numeracy, as a lot of mental number work is repeated in the language. Often, the French lesson is used to revisit work in other subjects, reinforcing learning. "Primary languages is the way forward," he says. "I feel sure all the primaries are going to go down this road."
Mr Davis notes that at primary level there is no gap in language attainment between girls and boys, while in secondaries there is a huge difference.
The earlier children are introduced to a second language, the easier it may be to maintain a balance of achievement between the sexes when they reach secondary school.
Vicky Carlin, the advisory primary languages teacher who supervises the French assistants, says: "Primary languages is changing the culture of secondary modern language teaching." Secondary language departments realise that primary languages are not just "watered down" secondary, but represent a whole new approach.
Awa Mbengue has experienced the great difference between primary and secondary children's motivation in learning languages. Before working at Monksdown she was a language assistant in a Leicester secondary.
"The pupils did not like French at all," she says. "They have got it into their heads that learning a language is difficult." In contrast, primary pupils "absorb everything so easily".
Another contrast is between Awa's teaching style (highly active, with songs, toys and games) and the chalk-and-talk methods she experienced when she was a primary pupil herself. Now her dream is to open her own primary in her home country, using what she has learned in England. "I have fallen in love with this way of teaching," she says."It helps the little ones to feel free to express themselves. Even the most timid children participate."