Future linguists start here

10th July 1998 at 01:00
I had always considered myself a failure at languages. At school I could get nowhere without a dictionary and I was forever looking up irregular verbs.

But when my eldest daughter Natasha was eight, she picked up a leaflet about Esperanto and suggested we learn it together.

So we sent off for a free introductory postal course. We finished the course in a term, but carried on by reading books and writing to foreign penfriends in Esperanto.

I found it much easier than languages at school. It can be learned in a tenth of the time it takes to learn a national language; and because its grammar is much more straightforward, it helped me understand the structure of other languages.

It helped Natasha too. Now 24, she speaks Spanish, German, French, Italian, and Welsh. Her sister Eva is 12 and is very good at French. And I know it's all through Esperanto.

Six years ago I started an after-school club for six to 11-year-olds in Esperanto at our primary school, The Croft in Painswick, Gloucestershire. At first I didn't know how to go about teaching it, but I knew Esperanto had to be approached in a different way from other languages because it is a language designed for learning. I needed material for infants - so I made my own worksheets with big writing and lots of colouring and drawing. I also use a lot of games and songs with action.

Whenever there's an Esperanto word that doesn't sound anything like English, I tell the children where it comes from. I will always tell them the language the root has come from. I'm not just teaching Esperanto - I'm introducing them to further languages.

Children take to Esperanto easily. Giving them language skills is possible in just an hour-and-a-half a week of after-school club, so that when they get to secondary school they are thirsty for languages.

But the language does have an image problem; I find it difficult to convince parents in the first place. Some people think it's just for a bunch of nutters and that it's not a real language. But I have noticed that all my past pupils, who have been in the club for three or four years, have joined accelerated foreign language programmes in their secondary schools.

I have become convinced that it is the only way to provide our children with linguistic skills at the right age - it's as important as basic maths before you start learning algebra or geometry - and that if Esperanto were taught in all British primary schools as part of the curriculum, we would soon have a nation of linguists.

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