A bridge into Europe;Opinion

26th February 1999 at 00:00
Scotland should take the chance to play a pivotal role in harmonising language teaching, says Tom O'Hagan

THE MAJORITY of primary schools in Europe that teach a second language have opted for English and the number is increasing constantly. This offers challenges and opportunities to those who belong to English-speaking communities within the EU.

In the longer term, as English becomes familiar to more and more of our European partners, it will be more and more difficult to find ways of motivating English-speaking children to learn other languages. One of the approaches to this problem must be to seek the widest possible range of contacts with children and schools in other countries and, using the formidable powers of modern communication technology, engage in joint ventures which are not language-based. Consciousness of the different cultural perspectives of others is a powerful stimulant to learning the language of that culture.

In the immediate future we in the EU's anglophone community have a serious responsibility to our mother tongue. English might have been adopted as the foreign language of choice by many primary schools in the EU but this is not to say that it is being taught well or effectively.

Alain, head of a primary school of around 300 children in a department in the Limousin with a reputation for being to the fore in innovation, was obliged to put English on the curriculum due to pressure from his local inspector.

"I liked the idea of introducing the children to another language," he says, "but we were given no preparation or no in-service." There was a great wave of enthusiasm when the course began but this quickly dissipated.

"To make matters worse," he says, "at the end of the year we were given assessment papers to map progress. That really killed it off for everyone. If children of this age are to feel motivated by the language, it must be a lot of fun and have no grades attached to it."

It is, of course, the most difficult aspect of teaching younger children to make things enjoyable, maintain interest and make progress. Teachers always have to dig deep into their own personal resources and how much harder this is when you are trying to do it in another language.

It bears repeating: teaching languages to younger children is less a matter of language skills than the ability to deploy a wide range of child-oriented activities (songs, games, stories, craft) in which the language is implicit but unobtrusive. The moment you start labouring the language aspects, you lose your audience. You can't present a bunch of six-year-olds, who can barely read in their own language, with a list of foreign nouns to memorise for the next lesson.

Primary teachers in Europe have the skills to communicate with young pupils but, in the case of teaching English, their own skills in the language are not likely to be immediately adaptable to the purpose, and the kind of materials and knowledge they need will not be easy to locate in Calabria or the Creuse. It cries out for in-service. Those working in education in the English-speaking parts of the EU have a responsibility and an interest here.

We surely have a responsibility to see that English, where it is being taught, is being given a good chance of taking off. We should have an interest because successful providers in this area will have a high profile in Europe and will have displayed excellent European credentials which will be repaid with interest in a great number of ways. I am firmly convinced that Scotland - or at least some Scottish institutions - have a wonderful opportunity here.

This is not a plea to develop a course that runs during the holidays for a few interested teachers. These should be courses in term time for groups of teachers - 10, 20 at a time - released for the specific purpose of acquiring practical knowledge about teaching English effectively to children in primary schools. The EU is big enough and the demand would be strong enough - jointly financed by the European Commission - to support 20-30 courses a year.

As well as organising the courses themselves the institution would be on call to help those who were back working in their schools with problems and aspects of planning with which they might want assistance. Communication by e-mail and fax would make such contact simple.

The institution and its staff would inevitably be at the centre of a network of primary schools throughout Europe. This could make available the kind of contacts Scottish children require to give them the motivation to learn another language.

There are, I know, a small number of people who have a lot of experience of teaching English to primary children in non-English-speaking communities in Europe, and it is they who can devise suitable courses.

This is a financial proposal inasmuch as I feel sure that it would comfortably pay its way. I would be strongly against such a venture being developed by a private provider because part of the message to be given to participating teachers from other countries is that they have engaged with the Scottish education system, and that they could explore this further. A private institution would be too isolated.

Surely, in all of Scotland, there are institutions or local authorities who would like to explore this important and developing area in greater detail?

Tom O'Hagan teaches at the European School in Luxembourg.

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