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Primary objectives

At two years, most children in the United Kingdom can say "good morning". But bonjour, buenas das, buongiorno and guten tag often remain a mystery for at least the next 10, if not the rest of their lives. But it is a different story for children in Manchester, where a drive to teach modern languages from nursery school age has taken hold.

Funded by the European Commission and supported by the Italian Consulate, Instituto Cervantes, the Goethe Institute and the French Cultural Delegation - bodies that promote their countries' languages and cultures abroad - the programme kicked off in the city five years ago.

It was the brainchild of Dutchman Ger Graus, language adviser at Manchester's Education and Advisory Service, who had seen language teaching at an early age in other European countries and was determined to launch a similar scheme here.

He organised schools into clusters and offered each the option of French, Spanish, Italian or German. His plan was that children starting a language at primary school should be able to continue it when they moved on to secondary school.

Mr Graus arranged funding through the Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges. This allowed two teachers from each school to follow an intensive language course in the foreign country of their choice . Today, almost one in two of Manchester's 180 primaries teaches a foreign language. Half do French, one cluster teaches Italian, two Spanish and three German. Speaking is considered a high priority, while reading and writing are less important. Mr Graus has moved on to launch his project a few miles away in Salford.

Pam Bartlam has taken over in Manchester. She says: "The project aims to help children realise there are other languages out there, to develop tolerance and improve understanding of other cultures.

"Two years ago an education committee report noted that primary age children had better retention than older children and their pronunciation and intonation in the foreign language were much more natural."

Language teaching is flourishing in Manchester primaries, in contrast to schools in the rest of the UK, says Pat McLagan at the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research.

"Manchester does not reflect what is happening in the UK as a whole. Foreign languages are not part of the national curriculum in primary schools so when resources are limited they are an extra," she says. It is the effort and drive of Mr Graus, Ms Bartlam and the support of the cultural offices representing the foreign countries, that have combined to establish language teaching in the city.

The Italian Consulate was the first to approach the Education and Advisory Service with an offer of help. St Paul's High School and six nearby primaries agreed to work as a tight cluster teaching Italian.

Paul Duffy, headteacher of Sacred Heart Primary School, says: "We were just having a bit of fun at first so we asked the consulate to supply a teacher. They gave us an Italian teacher for years 3 and 6 while our staff would teach years 4 and 5."

But the school soon had problems arranging training for its staff in Bologna, as they had to miss school. Mr Duffy became concerned that the programme might have to stop.

"We asked the consulate for more help and were given a teacher to work entirely with the cluster. In terms of teaching languages in primary school it's like dying and going to heaven, " he says.

His is the only cluster in Manchester studying Italian. But those teaching French, Spanish and German have also received external support. The Goethe Institute, which promotes German culture, has provided training courses for teachers in Manchester and developed materials for teaching German to young pupils. The Instituto Cervantes, the Spanish equivalent, has organised training for teachers in the UK and Spain, and provided contacts in Malaga. And the French Cultural Delegation is constantly at hand to provide resources for teachers and a link with the education authority in Reims.

Ms Bartlam keeps in contact with the schools and is constantly looking for new recruits. "A head rang last week to ask for advice. I helped her set up a lunchtime language club. If this is successful, she is planning to start foreign language lessons," he says

Regular meetings at Ms Bartlam's office allow teachers to create games and worksheets. She is developing a curriculum plan for primaries, which will also allow secondaries to see what pupils have already learned.

An educational working group is also looking at how pupils and their schools can receive some recognition for their linguistic efforts. "Being interested in languages is in itself worthwhile, " she says. "But children don't necessarily go on to a high school that offers the same language they studied in primary.

"We need to look at how language achievements in primary school can be celebrated and how to co-ordinate what children have already learned with their future studies. "

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