A word on primary languages

7th June 2013 at 01:00

It was ironic that in an edition where the main news article ("CfE reforms have caused workload hike, survey finds") was about the burden on primary teachers a linguistics professor should call for them to face the "challenge" of an early start in teaching languages (Interview: Antonella Sorace).

The research evidence does not support that. Ms Sorace's expertise lies in bilingualism and I would be delighted if we were able to surround P1s with, say, French spoken by fluent speakers, as happened in Walker Road Primary in Aberdeen. But that is not what the government is proposing.

We all want better language skills and it would be easy to jump on the P1 bandwagon, but those of us whose background is in language education in schools must highlight the evidence.

Not only is there much evidence that younger is not necessarily better, but there is also evidence that primaries have not yet been able to meet the challenge of languages in upper primary.

If there is money available, it may be better spent on upper primary and supporting secondary linguists, many of whom have class sizes of 30-plus and no foreign language assistants.

Ms Sorace argues that we could start small in "certain schools". But we need a sustainable and coherent programme with clear objectives, and a piecemeal approach would be the worst of both worlds.

Finally, reference is made to elsewhere in Europe. In many countries, primary teachers specialise in a language, usually English, so implementation is obviously not so difficult. Maybe the government is proposing comparable training of our teachers. That would cost a lot and it would be good to know in which of the 12 languages mentioned in the Languages Working Group report our primary teachers have to rise to the "not easy" challenge that Ms Sorace advocates.

Dr Daniel Tierney, reader, language education, University of Strathclyde.

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