Frre Jacques won't cut it

5th September 2014 at 01:00

The sun was strong, the beer was cold and the hotel pool was sparkly and inviting. You don't get to do much in the way of poolside lounging when you're accompanied by one child who wants you to dramatise episodes of Peppa Pig and another who is hell-bent on crawling like greased lightning towards the deep end, but Mr Brighouse had corralled them with the aid of a couple of rubber rings.

The pool wasn't crowded. In the shallow end, two German children aged about 8 and 10 had befriended an English girl. Realising that their new pal wasn't able to follow their ball game, they switched to confident English. "How is their English so good?" I thought, only to hear the same question asked by the girl's parents. "They learn it at school, of course," replied the German parents.

My mind turned to the language ability of children at my primary school. Our website may proudly advertise the teaching of French but we're still a long way off fluent poolside discussions.

We started well, though. Having never taught foreign languages in school before, we enlisted a specially designated teacher who went from class to class with a Tricolore-covered folder and a jaunty DVD of cheerful French children telling us how old they are and chatting about their pets. But, on her departure, with the realisation that no other staff had language expertise past GCSE or O-level, the subject was left in the hands of the class teachers (minus the DVD) and the teaching became patchy at best, non-existent at worst.

But, from this month, teaching foreign languages is compulsory at key stage 2. Singing Frre Jacques once a fortnight will no longer cut the Dijon mustard as we strive to push children across the barricade of linguistic comprehension.

Primary schools are rising to the challenge in a variety of ways. Some are signing up native speakers or trained language teachers to skilfully impart vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation. We are writing "French" on the timetable in big letters, then scrabbling around for websites that do the pronunciation in the hope that the kids don't end up sounding like the cast of 'Allo 'Allo!

Like many of my colleagues, I feel a fraud when it comes to teaching languages, especially as more than a third of my class can chatter freely in another tongue. Despite possessing good GCSE grades in three languages, I remain unable to do much more than order a large beer in any of them (but if you need to arrange to meet a group of Germans at 9am by the castle, I'm your woman).

I'm hugely in favour of teaching languages to primary-aged children, but the delivery method could use a little tweaking: being taught French by someone who still stumbles over ordering dinner is unlikely to give them the best start.

In the meantime, une grande bire, s'il vous plat.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands

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