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P1 enters a world market

Willis Pickard reports on the wider issues surrounding language skills

The language skills observed among primary 6 and 7 pupils tie in with some of those needed in world markets, according to evidence at two conference discussions on language competence.

The Scottish Association for Language Teaching was told last weekend that children are demonstrating listening skills, a good accent, willingness to take risks, and number and dictionary skills.

A workshop at the EdinburghTESS conference on communicating in the world market heard Hugh Morison, director general of the Scotch Whisky Association, claim that "using the other guy's language is crucially important" even without full proficiency. In schools, "the idea of cultural differences" had to be got over as well.

Dick Johnstone, head of the education department at Stirling University, said that in Europe "partial competence" was increasingly valued with people able to understand another language while speaking in their own. "What we need is people who are capable of learning languages", Professor Johnstone said, not necessarily those who have fully mastered one.

Professor Johnstone, who is evaluating the Government's languages programme in schools, suggested greater concentration on comprehension "rather than on speaking, where we have been less successful with pupils".

Dan Tierney of Strathclyde University, a national development officer for primary modern languages, struck an upbeat note at the SALT conference: "We have been impressed by what is going on. As linguists we have to be pleased, and as secondary specialists we have to take account of achievements in primary schools" Most schools are now teaching a language in primary 6 as well as primary 7, Mr Tierney said. "And there are some where P1 pupils are also learning and doing marvellous things through games."

Mr Tierney, who said that in observing classes he has "done heads and shoulders, knees and toes in four languages", described the patterns of provision. Either two 30-minute periods a week or one of 60 minutes taught in some cases by the class teacher and in others by a "swap-over" teacher. He said that although listening and speaking were the main activities, reading and writing should not be ignored.

Teachers expressed concern about maintaining skills acquired at in-service courses "two or three years down the line", especially if they were no longer teaching an upper primary class. Sheila Smith, head of Fordyce primary, Aberdeenshire, said that because she was worried about losing her French she had enrolled in a vocational class. Ute Pender, of the Goethe Institute in Glasgow, said that teachers of German who had had only 27 days' instruction needed continuing support.

Sally Brown, deputy principal of Stirling University and honorary president of SALT, urged language teachers at all levels to debate the issues and develop their own aims and strategies instead of "leaving the initiative to government or the civil service".

The Government-funded study by Stirling and the Scottish Council for Research in Education into why few pupils continue with a language after secondary 4 would hopefully throw light on the problem, especially from the pupils' point of view, but Professor Brown warned that it would not produce "right answers".

"Research can reveal a great deal about (pupil) preferences, but it cannot resolve direct conflict between what educators want young people to engage in and what those young people are motivated to address, though it may proffer a few ideas about what might be tried," Professor Brown said.

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