When should we begin to teach languages? Julie Morrice visits a nursery that has made an early start
The posters on the walls are the kind you see in any French classroom - Les Saisons, Les Chiffres de 1 a 20 - but the rest of the equipment would be unfamiliar to the usual students and teachers of Standard grade or Higher French.
There is a house corner (labelled "chez moi"), a playdough table, a water-play area, and there are more picture books than textbooks on the shelves. Moreover, chairs, tables, everything is very small; or just right if you happen to be a French student aged three or four.
Nursery Times in Paisley, a private nursery for babies, toddlers and pre-school children, has been teaching "immersion" French since the middle of September. It has all of five children taking part so far, and proprietor Miriam McMillan is well aware that they are taking a step in the dark, yet she has had nothing but support from parents and educationists.
Many of her charges' parents are professional couples with high aspirations for their young children. "They take their role as educator very seriously, and think the class is a wonderful opportunity. Everyone says, 'It's such a good idea. Why has no one done it before?'" The idea for immersion teaching came to Miriam McMillan when she was lying by the swimming pool on holiday.
A little boy, around seven years old, caught her eye. He was speaking a language she couldn't place, and broke into a different language when he spoke to his mother. Eventually he came over. "Do you speak English?" asked McMillan. "Of course," he replied, as if everyone spoke Polish, Italian and English as he did. "I realised that to him it is the norm to speak more than one language. And all my friends are always saying they wish they could speak another language properly. And the way business is going we should be giving our children more of a headstart in languages."
McMillan is smart-suited and articulate. She might be running any kind of successful small business. But she is clearly fired up by this new project, and for the first year is subsidising the cost to parents. Basing her plans on a bi-lingual teaching system used in the Saint Lambert school in Canada, she employed a native speaker of French, Catherine Addie, to work alongside Marjory Bradley,a primary teacher, fluent in French, who was already working in the nursery to give informal French lessons to the pre-school children. The special French classroom was fitted out, and off they went.
For three hours each morning, the children leave the pre-school room for the French classroom. "They just love it," says McMillan. "They feel very special." Worries about how the children would react, and whether they would find the new linguistic environment upsetting were put at rest as the children happily explored their new environment. It was decided that speaking nothing but French at first was unrealistic, so Bradley will break into English to give instructions or explain something, while Addie remains stubbornly in her mother tongue throughout. "The children think she can't speak English, or understand it," says McMillan. "They ask Marjory to translate what they want to say to her."
After only three days of immersion French, no one would expect the children to be coming out with a stream of foreign words, but they are happily playing lotto in French with Addie, and accept that playing in the house corner involves making un sandwich au jambon and cutting up une banane.
"They don't realise they're learning," says Bradley. "They are mimics, and they obviously quite like the sound of the words. Also there is repetition. Every time someone wants to go to the loo they hear 'On va faire pi-pi'. All these things happen every day."
Bradley and Addie are very much feeling their way in these first few weeks. They are wondering whether to read stories to the children in French, or to use English with the odd French word put in. They don't know when or how the children will begin to use French themselves. They wonder whether to open a part-time class, perhaps three mornings a week, for parents who cannot manage five, or whether the five sessions are necessary to get the language going. In many ways they are being led by the children themselves, and were delighted when one of the little girls was overheard in the house corner sorting things out, and saying "comme ca et comme ca".
"If the children aren't enjoying it, we might as well close the door," says McMillan, and certainly the children seem totally at home in the bright, cheerful room. Play and chat goes on, much the same as in any nursery. At the playdough table, great rollings and cuttings are under way. "Qu'est-ce que c'est?" asks Addie. "Un biscuit en forme d'une etoile." "No," says one of the little boys. "They're my dinner."