Dearing's language makes sense

16th March 2007 at 00:00
Official reports sometimes deal in generalities and half-formed theories.

Not so Lord Dearing. His thoughts on modern foreign languages are detailed and practical. He argues that the way languages are taught is as important as the content of the curriculum.

At present, Ofsted says the subject is one of the worst taught in the curriculum. So let's try immersion of the sort used in commercial schemes; let's engage children with competitive games played in the target language; let's try conducting geography or RE lessons in French, as at Tile Hill Wood school in Coventry (see pages 12-13). Let's also offer lessons which pupils can relate to: how to flirt in Spanish is likely to have more appeal than how to ask the way to the art gallery.

For primary schools, Lord Dearing's proposals are radical and imaginative.

Compulsory foreign languages from the age of seven is his response to primary teachers' enthusiasm for this new discipline. Many have enjoyed teaching French and Spanish as they take advantage of a less prescriptive curriculum and the return to topic work. In some schools, the old objection that there is no time for foreign languages in a timetable dominated by literacy and numeracy is falling away.

Some unanswered questions remain. How much are the 70 per cent of primaries that offer some languages actually doing? A lesson a week for all older pupils or just for some? An occasional rendering of "Fr re Jacques"? And why are the 30 per cent of schools that don't offer languages failing to do so? They may simply be waiting for a government pronouncement or they may be small schools that are daunted by the practicalities.

Ministers need to find out what is going on so that schools in difficulties can receive support. It makes perfect sense to start language teaching in junior schools before pupils have acquired their adolescent self-consciousness. Our European neighbours already know this. There is a good case for starting at five. But it must be done well. Our failure to teach young people languages leaves them at a huge disadvantage as they try to make their way in the world.

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