The earlier the better

11th September 1998 at 01:00
There should be a national campaign to teach modern languages in pre-school, says Elizabeth McCormick

BEFORE the summer holidays I read with interest the report on Aberdeen "blazing the trail" through extending modern language teaching to primary 1 and possibly even to nursery pupils (TESS, June 5). I welcome any initiative that seeks to extend modern languages teaching, but such a programme, by its very nature, is limited in the number of children it can reach.

At best it can result in a number of centres of excellence in modern languages, but it can never hope to reach the Government's target of modern languages for all. Even the primary modern languages programme, which I was involved in piloting and delivering for several years, could not achieve that goal.

The primary programme was laudable in trying to introduce a European language to all children. Unfortunately, the level of expertise required to deliver the course meant that funds were available for only a small number of primary teachers to be trained. As teachers moved school, this resulted in some schools having more than one trained teacher while others had none. Secondary schools now receive children with varying degrees of competence (or no experience at all).

If the Government is determined to ensure that children become true Europeans then a more realistic and pragmatic approach should be adopted. First, we should acknowledge the fact that as native English speakers we are at a disadvantage. Our incentive to learn another language is not as great as our European neighbours' incentive to learn English, and never can be. Their motivation is ever present through English-language films, literature and pop music.

Second, we do not have sufficient numbers of primary teachers qualified to teach a foreign language. This is our baseline. Catching up with our European neighbours will take time and we should build confidence and competence steadily.

The earlier children are introduced to a language the better. Young children have no barriers, no prejudices and no preconceived ideas. They are enthusiastic and have a positive attitude to all learning. My personal experience has convinced me that, ideally, they should meet a foreign language in pre-school.

For the past five years I have been involved in teaching French to pre-school children. My initial involvement was through a friend who owns a nursery and held a "French theme" week. The children were eager, enthusiastic, perfect mimics and totally uninhibited. There was no embarrassment. Children at this age learn all new things with equal ease. "French" is not a concept that brings barriers: it is just more information for them to assimilate.

The success of this week led to French being taught on a "little but often" basis to all pre-school children in the nursery. An hour a week (even better if split into two half-hours or three 20-minute slots) is a good starting point for this level of teaching.

This kind of programme could be the basis of a national pre-school to primary 7 modern language curriculum, which would then articulate with the secondary school curriculum. It would be sustainable since the in-service demands would be on a totally different scale.

It is not essential that the staff who deliver this type of programme are trained modern language teachers. This point has been made recently by Georgia Herlt, the head of the language department at the Goethe Institute in Manchester, and my experience of teaching French in the nursery bears this out. It is especially true if the course is topic based rather than a formalised language programme.

I wish my colleagues in Aberdeen every success. The language immersion experiment will be an enriching experience for those children fortunate enough to be given a place. However, this can never be a model for a national programme, which is what we need if we are to have any chance of bridging the gap between ourselves and our European neighbours.

Make languages accessible to all children at an early age, not just a few.

Elizabeth McCormick has taught modern languages in Glasgow for 25 years. She has been involved for five years in teaching French to three and four-year-olds at Bishopbriggs Childcare Centre.

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