A CD-Rom game finds the familiar in the foreign for hesitant primary pupils. Harvey McGavin explains.
A scheme aimed at demystifying language learning by stressing similarities between English and foreign vocabularies has been successfully trialled at three primary schools. Staff at St Mary's University College, Twickenham, where the program was devised, are now preparing more multimedia teaching packages for use in classrooms.
The college, in partnership with a training centre in Ghent, devised an interactive detective story designed to "take the phobia out of language learning".
The Nine Keys of Ghent is based on a Flemish folk tale from the 11th century. Junior sleuths have to visit various landmarks in the city, learning about its history as they go, and collect the keys by clicking on the correct Dutch translation from a list of associated words. The CD-Rom also lets children hear the pronunciation of the words and then learn by their mistakes. Choosing the wrong word simply allows you learn a new word and continue with the game.
At Rosary Primary School in Heston, West London, 10-year-olds Chris and Stephen are glued to the screen, mouse in hand. Before they started finding out about Ghent, the only thing they knew about Belgium was that kick-boxing film star Jean Claude Van Damme came from there. Now they know the Dutch for church, bell, market, rhinoceros and even the male equivalent of a mermaid - "meerman". "I thought a foreign language would be really difficult, but it's not," says Stephen.
Their form teacher Matthew Read, who helped to develop the program during teacher training at St Mary's University College, is equally enthusiastic: "The kids love it. They rush through their work so that they can be first to have a go. Because it's a game they don't realise they are learning.
"We start by looking at the roots of language and its history - how languages have come to be amalgams of each other through invasion and trade and that these cognates are in everyday use. Concentrating on the similarities makes them more comfortable and willing to give it a go."
The package has wider cross-curricular applications. A wall in the corner of the classroom is plastered with pictures and maps of Belgium and snippets of information. A spoken English commentary on the CD-Rom helps children who struggle with their reading.
St Mary's University College has now secured funding from the EU Lingua programme for a further three years, and is putting the finishing touches to another video and CD-Rom introduction: this time in Italian and produced in collaboration with the University of Padua. Future projects may include Portuguese and Danish.
"We were quite amazed at the way they were picking up Dutch words," says Michael Murnane, director of media production.
Even so, he says, the point is not so much to teach a language as to give some early confidence-building encounters with another idiom.
Accentuating lookalike words is intended to make a different language more accessible. Instead of making "false friends" the children are spotting family resemblances.
The only note of caution from their preliminary findings is that it may leave children with the impression that learning a language is easier than it really is. Although it is still too early to see the effects on later learning, Michael Murnane thinks the first signs are encouraging: "The whole idea is to get their interest going and it seems to be working really well. Lingua tends to look more favourably on minority languages, or 'lesser taught' languages as they like to call them."
After some editing in response to feedback from the pilot scheme, the teaching materials will be available to schools by Christmas.
* Details from the Media Production Unit at St Mary's University College, Strawberry Hill, Twickenham TW1 4SX.