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Parlez-vous Punjabi?

Philippa White reports on a primary project to turn pupils into polyglots

Not many primary pupils can speak French, German, Latin, Japanese, Spanish and Punjabi.

But researchers hope these polyglot pupils will leap ahead when they settle down to learn one language at secondary school.

A three-year project teaches 365 primary children a term each of six languages during Years 5 and 6. They then have their progress monitored during Year 7 at secondary school.

The aim, according to project director Peter Downes, is to see whether language awareness at an early age can accelerate the learning of a specific language later on.

"We are testing the hypothesis that it's better for children in primary school to learn about languages than to learn one specific language for a number of years," said Mr Downes, retired head of Hinchingbrooke school, Huntingdon and a former president of the Association for Language Learning.

The pound;150,000 project, which started last Christmas, involves 15 classes in nine schools from Cambridgeshire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire.

It is funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, directed by the Secondary Heads Association, and will be evaluated by Manchester University in 2007.

Pupils will learn basic phrases in all languages, but will also look at more general concepts such as word gender, how you learn a language, and the ways different languages use word order or represent sounds.

Mr Downes said that the advantage of language awareness over a specific language is that it benefits pupils starting any language at secondary school.

It can also be taught by non-specialists - ordinary primary teachers are learning the foreign languages as they teach their pupils.

Frances Smith of Westfield junior in St Ives, Cambridgeshire, has taught French and German to her 38 Year 5 pupils this year, despite having nothing more than a C in GCSE French.

"I feel that if I'd had this knowledge before I went to secondary school it would have made a massive difference to me," she said. "When they talked about masculine and feminine I thought, 'What on earth are they going on about?'. It was assumed knowledge."

A separate, government-funded pathfinder project is also looking at language learning in primary schools.

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