How to sow the seeds of a foreign language

27th February 2004 at 00:00
With schemes underway to train primary staff in modern languages, Glynis Rumley recommends a programme for all teachers, not just specialists

The very idea of teaching another language seems extraordinary to many primary teachers. Surely that's for specialists. Some teachers cannot imagine that they might be able to do such a thing, especially if they feel unskilled and lack confidence.

Nevertheless, since September, the Teacher Training Agency and 19 pathfinder local authorities have been investigating how to introduce modern languages to primary children to fulfil the Government's goal that all primaries should offer a foreign tongue by 2012.

Not only is the workforce not ready, but the curriculum is already so crowded that teachers wonder how anything else can be crammed in.

However, this country cannot afford to let another generation pass through school without giving the majority of children a chance to have contact with other languages from a much earlier age. Children in non-English speaking countries hear English through MTV and pop culture in general.

They are not only aware that they should learn English, but feel it's "cool". What models do our children have? What is the purpose of language-learning in British state primary schools?

In Kent, we decided it was to raise awareness of the fact that the whole world does not speak English. It is to redress the imbalance in our children's perception that the world is an English-speaking place. Then there was the question of which language? French won because most of our teachers had learned it at school themselves. More practically for Kent, France can be nearer than London and we can go on day trips and meet our friends from French primaries.

We organised a massive programme of training and resources for teachers.

Our in-house video company, KETV, published a video resource pack, now issued as a CD-Rom, which gave non-specialists a model of correct French they could trust.

And trust has been at the heart of Kent's practice. The training emphasis has been on building slowly, creating a sustainable programme through developing primary teachers' strengths. The training started from where the teachers are, not where some arbitrary target-setter would like them to be.

Language relies on repetition - and what's more repetitious than the daily routines of the classroom?

Numbers are a natural part of the primary teacher's life. They can be used for a range of functions from quite complicated numeracy warm-ups to PE activities. Approaching numeracy from this perspective reveals whole avenues of possibilities.

Primary schoolchildren are learning the time so why not reinforce it in another language to show that it is universal? They are learning about measurement of distance, weight, currency etc and by looking at it from another angle their understanding is deepened.

There are obvious etymological links to be made with literacy but we should be careful. We have avoided writing for an enormous number of reasons, not least the desire to make use of the foreign language natural and normal.

Primary children who go to secondary school with these basic skills are better prepared.

There are schemes underway to train primary specialists who can act as languages co-coordinators, but all teachers need to learn to see a modern language as a normal part of their repertoire. In the long term, all initial training students should learn how to teach languages.

Meanwhile, real investment is needed to give the existing workforce the confidence to realise that it is capable of offering a limited but enriching experience to children.

This will only be done by accepting that the training must start from "where the teachers are" and that they, and the country, recognise what they already have to offer.

Glynis Rumley is project officer for primary languages in Kent

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