Prime time for languages

The Labour party's declared intention of introducing modern languages into all UK primary schools is to be warmly welcomed as a sensible and long overdue step towards remedying a serious omission from the national curriculum.

George Varnava is undoubtedly right in stating that the introduction of languages into primary schools is inevitable - and we cannot afford to wait. ("Time we spoke their language", TES, December 29 1995). But a future Labour government will also have to answer Beate Poole's pertinent questions (TES Letters, December 15): How do we know how young children learn languages? Until very recently there has been virtually no UK research into primary language learning.

The starting age is not crucial; the earlier the better, as long as it is well done. Many schools in the UK have successfully introduced a foreign language to four, five and six-year-olds, but the earlier you start, the more complex the strategies the school will need to ensure progression and continuity over several years.

In view of the current lack of linguistic confidence and expertise among most primary teachers, it is unrealistic to expect a sea change overnight. Our first national target should, in my view, be an entitlement to at least one foreign language for all children from age eight, with an option for schools who wish to start earlier, if they have the staff expertise.

We should teach as wide a variety of languages as we can, both European and community languages. We need above all to break with the traditional British equation that a foreign language equals French.

The amount of curriculum time headteachers allocate to language learning will be crucial to the success of any new programme. Schools will need to consider how they can weave regular daily exposure to the foreign language into the rest of the curriculum if pupils are to make real progress. Most European primary schools commonly allocate two to three hours a week to language learning.

Most crucial of all will be the quality and length of the substantial programme of teacher retraining that will be necessary.

This is where Tony Blair and David Blunkett will really have to do their maths homework. In the past five years there have been some highly successful local education authority-funded retraining initiatives, notably in Kent, Richmond, Surrey and Sussex, but it is to the Government-funded Scottish programme that we must look for a realistic, minimum model of the training that teachers will need.

We will also have to compensate somehow for the progressive and deplorable dismantling of primary languages options in both English and Northern Irish initial teacher- training colleges over the past 10 years: of the 20 colleges who offered languages options to their BEd students in the 1980s, only three or four remain.

Simultaneously, the Teacher Training Agency will need to ensure that all would-be primary teachers have a minimum basic proficiency in a foreign language. Primary teachers of foreign languages do not need to be university graduates, but they do need to have a solid grounding in the sound system and the syntax of the language and to be trained in appropriate methodology for the age group they will be teaching.

Let us not beat about the bush. If we are to start educating our children to be real Europeans of the 21st century, open-minded young people with the ability and confidence to survive and communicate in a multi-lingual world, then we have to show vision in planning now for the primary curriculum of the next decade and training teachers.

We need to make early foreign language learning a priority if we are to bring up the next generation to hold their own in Europe and elsewhere in the world where "the ability to operate internationally in the customer's language" is indeed an absolute requirement for the employees of the next century. When are we going to start investing in our children's future?


Chairman, Primary Languages Network, Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research 26 Partridge Way Guildford Surrey

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