I want my young sponges to soak up language now

1st October 2010 at 01:00

I had been looking forward to September 2010. At last primary children would get their overdue entitlement of a foreign language at key stage 2. As someone who had long believed that starting to learn a language in adolescence was too late, I hoped that all pupils would at last get the same head start in languages as children on the Continent.

Sadly, the Government has deemed such a deadline is no longer needed, so primaries can choose whether or not to provide a foreign language. This news comes alongside recent GCSE results analysis which showed that many fewer students are studying a language than previously - in 2002, 341,604 took French compared with 177,618 in 2010, and uptake of German has fallen from 130,796 to 70,619. For the first time, French is no longer in the top 10 of GCSEs taken. Much of this has been put down to the decision to make languages voluntary at 14, but it is also due to a lack of inspiration at a younger age.

It is said that children are like "sponges" and soak up language, so why not immerse them in other languages too? At least give them the chance to learn a few rhymes, phrases and songs from age seven, when they enjoy trying out new things. They are more likely to continue learning a subject at secondary if the seeds of inspiration have been sown earlier.

Children at forward-thinking schools in California are being taught Mandarin and Spanish to give them a head start in the jobs market. How can we equip children with the skills needed to compete in a globalised world when we provide so few opportunities to communicate beyond these shores?

But language acquisition is more than just a tool for the marketplace. Expressing yourself in another language improves your ability in your own tongue, and learning a second language increases understanding of other cultures and interest in other ways of life.

One of the most invigorating parts of last year was our school's international week, when we ditched the "strategies" and each class had a focus on the food, language, culture and geography of a nation taking part in the World Cup. The buzz was inspiring.

I recently watched a Rob Brydon stand-up DVD. He joked about middle-class parents forcing their children to show off their French when they return from holiday. But it shouldn't be left to pushy parents to instil an awareness of language. My school's intake is in the top 10 per cent of social deprivation indices - some of our children have never been to London, let alone overseas. It is our duty to break down barriers to language acquisition and give children a real chance by providing it as part of the curriculum.

The Government has said it will look at KS2 languages in the curriculum review. I hope it can right the wrongs of the past. Our school will continue to provide at least 30 minutes of French a week to everyone, but without compulsion many schools will prioritise other things. This is a golden opportunity for this generation and future ones. We shouldn't miss it.

John Cattermole is headteacher of Wilbury Junior School in Letchworth Garden City.

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