Fill the language gap

1st January 1999 at 00:00
For the past 13 years I have been working in the European School in Luxembourg. These are not private international schools, but a system of nine schools governed by the same statute and one board of governors, ancillary to the European Commission and part funded by the Commission and by the member states of the European Union.

Teachers in the European School system are selected and appointed by the education ministries of their respective countries. In the case of Scotland - ever the exception in these situations until we have our own independent parliament - teachers are seconded by their local authority to the Department for Education and Employment in London.

The guiding principle of the European School's statute is that children of different EU nationalities will be educated together, but in classes taught by teachers from their own national system and speaking their own mother tongue.

The schools take teachers from nursery to the leaving certificate the European Baccalaureate, in other words from four years of age to 18.

In the primary school children begin learning a second language, choosing from English, French or German. The second language is taught to them by native speakers of the language. In secondary school some subjects on the curriculum are taught to children in the second language they did in primary school and they can study third and fourth languages. It is hardly surprising that the European Schools produce numbers of good linguists, comfortable in a multilingual ambience and well adapted to the concept of "Europe".

Teaching a second language to younger children in primary schools across the European Union has increased rapidly over the past 10 years and it is a field largely unexplored, except in European Schools.

There is a massive amount of research on teaching languages to young, immigrant children, especially teaching English to youngsters who have gone with their families to the US and Australia.

These studies, however, deal with expediting the acquisition of English in children who have moved into an anglophone community. Here the problem is how to order, channel and reinforce the huge array of the English language to which the child in these circumstances is exposed. This is an entirely different situation to inculcating a measure of another language in children who are only exposed to that language for 45 minutes each weekday.

The springs of motivation in the two situations cannot be compared: the immigrant child has an almost biological need to learn the language; the child in a primary school in a EU country outside Britain or Ireland has nothing like this most powerful of stimulants to aid them.

The problem is how to create, foster and maintain interest in language skills for which the child has no immediate need. The solution has to be fun. The teacher has to have a huge fund of games, songs, rhymes, raps and chants with enough child appeal to distract the youngsters from the fact that they are doing things in this other, funny, and not immediately necessary, language.

The activities must also be sufficiently structured and incremental so that the children's ability to participate and respond grows. It should be obvious that the teacher who has the necessary linguistic depth, scope and flexibility to generate and manipulate this kind of material to suit the needs of the children is, ideally, someone who comes out of the English speaking culture themselves.

It has long been the fashion among commercial language schools who cater mostly for business people that they learned the language best from a native speaker. I think this is a very moot point, certainly within a European cultural context.

A good linguist, not necessarily a native speaker, could just as effectively tell a business client what he needs to say, and the business client is personally motivated for job reasons. With young, preliterate, children, the native speaker is virtually essential.

Most primary schools in Europe which have embarked on teaching a second language to pupils have chosen English, a fact which has caused no small disturbance among secondary teachers of modern languages other than English.

Like too many educational developments, second language teaching in primary schools, has been heralded with a large amount of political posturing followed by some less than wholehearted commitment.

For many schools who have been shunted into such programmes whether they liked it or not, it meant that they received videotapes of Muzzy, the BBC's English course for children, and left to get on with it. The videotapes need to be supported with extension activities. If there was no one on the staff inclined or capable of doing this, then the English lesson becomes a minor and ineffective daily routine.

Elsewhere, usually dependent on individual teachers, language learning has been more effective. Unsurprisingly this is most true in the Netherlands and Nordic countries, although I've often suspected that people from these cultures are born with a supplementary language gene which the rest of us lack.

I recently watched 10-year-old children in a Swedish school stage A Christmas Carol, complete with Christmas carols in English. The language wasn't perfect but it was staggeringly good for children of this age and stage and they did it with pride and enthusiasm.

The teacher spoke English with a Manchester accent and was clearly steeped deeply in things English. She was an enthusiast and had the means to communicate her enthusiasm.

Since English is the second language of choice in primary schools all over the EU, there will be, in time, opportunities for primary trained, anglophone teachers in these schools.

At the moment, in some countries, there can be problems in having qualifications accepted, but this is bound to disappear in time. For those with an interest in Europe and the urge to move, this could provide a perfect opportunity to do so while fully maintaining professional status and integrity. Plan your future in the Tyrol or the Algarve now!

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