French made familiar
This patchy picture is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, according to Peter Satchwell, chair of the Primary Languages Network, which campaigns for a national framework for foreign language teaching in primary schools. Any national initiative would cost a huge amount of money.
"To provide at least one foreign language teacher for every primary school in England you would need a massive teacher training programme and there simply isn't the political will," Mr Satchwell says.
"There's quite a lot of enthusiasm in the state and private sector but in areas where there's no deliberate education authority policy, some teachers are simply doing things off their own bat without the right support, which is terribly sad."
In theory, the earlier children start learning a foreign language, the better, Mr Satchwell believes. "But it must be done right. If languages are taught in a boring, old-fashioned way, children can be put off for life," he says.
Susan Hay, managing director of Nurseryworks, a chain of six, private nurseries in London, was mindful of this when she decided to introduce French in two of her nurseries.
Once a week Annie Hemingway, a native French speaker, spends an hour with children at Nurseryworks, Broadgate branch, near Liverpool Street station, and at the company's Floral Place, Islington, nursery.
Using hand puppets, games, songs and lots of repetition, Mrs Hemingway teaches the children simple words, expressions, colours and numbers.
She also moves among them while they carry out their normal activities, commenting on what they are doing and repeating everyday words in French such as crayon, tractor, paint and bricks.
Mrs Hemingway is not keen on the word "teach" and insists she does not give formal lessons. Rather, her role is to familiarise children with the French language in a natural way, so that when they start learning at school, it will come more easily.
"At this age children are very uninhibited. They don't mind standing up and saying thingsin French and they pick the sounds up so much more quickly than older children," she says.
"Of course, they won't remember everything I tell them, but they will retain a little. And the most important thing is they will know there's something other than English; there are other ways of communicating in the world."
Mrs Hemingway's softly-softly approach is in tune with the philosophy of Nurseryworks, which caters for around 400 children age from birth to five years.
"We wanted to do French for some time before we found Annie, but felt that traditional methods of teaching were inconsistent with our child-centred curriculum approach," Susan Hay says.
"We were looking for someone who would be with the children and talk to them in French about whatever they were interested in as opposed to someone who would say in a schoolish way: 'It's Tuesday morning, so now we're going to have a French lesson.' "
Mrs Hay found Annie - who also runs private, after-school French classes for infant and junior children in Crouch End, north London - via a parent.
Ideally, Mrs Hay would like her to visit the other nurseries. "It's a question of how far we can stretch her and her time," she says.
"The children love her," says Jacky Roberts, co-ordinator of Broadgate Nursery. "It was important to get the right person and she fits in very well."
There is no doubt the children enjoy Mrs Hemingway's sessions. There is a flurry of excitement when she arrives and a group of eight three to five- years-olds is quickly assembled in a quiet corner of the airy, open-plan nursery.
Any of the youngsters can join in, but the older ones are more actively encouraged to participate.
The children start by saying what they had for breakfast in French. Then they play a variety of games. Mrs Hemingway points to three different-coloured circles, says the name of the colour in French, then asks the children to find something rouge, bleu, or jaune.
Some of the children get the colours wrong and are corrected. But they do not mind. After all, it is just a game and there is no test at the end.
The children also learn French songs with actions, ask each other their names in French using hand puppets, and, crouching on the floor in a circle, count to five before blasting off loudly like a rocket (this one is particularly popular).
Beate Poole, lecturer in languages education at the Institute of Education, London, disapproves of teaching a foreign language so early. All the evidence suggests, she says, that the only advantage is you can mould children's speech tracts so they are likely to develop better pronunciation.
"The downside is that children must continue learning the same language for ten to fifteen years to maintain their advantage, and may become bored.
"It's much better to start at the post-literacy stage when children are about eight, and to teach a bit of French, Spanish and Italian. You can't predict what languages pupils in this country will need so it makes sense to prepare them so they can learn whatever they will need later more efficiently," she says.
Susan Brunner, 42, whose daughter Isabelle, four, has just left Broadgate nursery, disagrees profoundly. She is full of praise for Mrs Hemingway's lessons. Marketing director of the London-based Communicaid Group, which provides language and cultural training for businesses, she says: "We do programmes for big companies, and the difference it makes if someone has learned a language early is phenomenal," she says.
"It doesn't matter how old the person is or if they've completely forgotten the language they learned at school; they are much more ready to learn another than someone who's never done a language at all or who started late."
Mrs Brunner is looking forward to the day when her second daughter Annabel, now two, who attends Broadgate Nursery, will start French. "It's important for children to be aware of the world and other cultures and I desperately want mine to speak another language and to be able to work abroad," she says.
"When we go on holiday to France, Isabelle comes out with all sorts of French words and expressions. She's got no fear at all. And the great thing is, if your children are taught by a native French speaker like Annie,they acquire the most wonderful accent."