MFL - Found in translation

Immersion is helpful but so is relating a language to your own

We were on a trip around Castilla y Leon, a bunch of lucky linguists united by a love of Spain. But suddenly I found myself in a war zone. "I cannot agree with you," declared the lead teacher of one local academy, confronting a younger member of our team. "There is no place for English in the Spanish classroom." At best, using English was setting up our pupils for failure; at worst, it was akin to abandoning them in a linguistic minefield. English was out and total immersion was the only true way.

Our hitherto harmonious group was riven by disagreement. "Translation is pointless," proclaimed the monolinguist faction. "Conducting a conversation in Spanish has nothing to do with translating into and out of English." This was in refutation of anticipated government reforms advocating a return not only to the classical disciplines of dictation and translation but also to the even more retrograde reading of literary texts. Although I am a champion of Content and Language Integrated Learning and other immersion methodologies, I thought guiltily of how much I enjoy the forbidden pleasures of two-way translation and discussions in English about the way languages work.

I found myself missing the company of 10-year-olds, for I am equally happy to play the game of being Spanish or to don the white coat of laboratory analyst, inspecting linguistic molecules under the microscope. Children instinctively appreciate that the value of other languages is not reducible to tourism. They may not be ready to book an en suite hotel room for two but they are queuing up for philosophical investigation: why do people talk about "having" rather than "being" a certain age? Why are the most common verbs also the most irregular? Where does grammatical gender come from? We translate from English into English as a matter of course, shifting from the casual "What's up?" of the playground to the more decorous "How are you?" of the classroom; from "Me interesa la historia" to the multiple variations of "History interests me", "I'm interested in history" and "I find history interesting".

Not all students of languages will buy homes in other countries or take jobs with international companies, but all will become more flexible thinkers and more skilled interpreters of meaning. Creating a Spanish avatar is both fun and instructive but it need not entail the denial of your English-speaking heritage. Learning a language isn't only about "eitheror" - it's also about "and".

Dr Heather Martin is head of modern languages and curriculum coordinator at St Faith's Independent Prep School in Cambridge.


Each slide in runaway's presentation introduces a different game to help children learn another language. bit.lyMFLGames

Be inspired by Priscilla Katie's list of 10 reasons to teach languages in primary schools - and perhaps add your own. bit.ly10ReasonsMFL.

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