Joining the culture club

9th January 2015 at 00:00

My five-year-old daughter and I speak a fair bit of Spanish in the house. On one occasion she couldn't find exactly the right words to let me know that she was hot, so she just said, "Mama, hace calor [it's hot]," and wiped her hand over her brow in drama-queen style.

The amateur dramatics were exactly the gesture I use for temperature and weather when I am teaching. I was so pleased that instead of not saying anything, my daughter had worked out that she could convey the same message in a different way.

I was also pleased when she was asked recently to make a list of celebrations we shared as a family as part of her homework - we go big on festivals chez vous. Not only did she list the usual things like birthdays, but also the Spanish traditions that we commemorate.

A big part of language-learning training for primary teachers is a good cultural base. It makes me laugh when people say, "What do you suggest I take out of the curriculum to do this cultural stuff?" This "cultural stuff" is the curriculum.

As we look at the brilliant opportunity that the 1+2 languages policy affords us, wouldn't it be great if by 2020 all our children could tell us that learning another language is "just what we do"? If we had the mindset that the ability to understand and communicate in another language is part and parcel for all learners as soon as they get into education?

Language acquisition from early primary requires staff who are trained in language and linguistic methodology. It also means using opportunities every day to practise language, not words. It would be very easy for us to make a list of words and teach them in isolation, out of context and without a chance to use them. We don't do that with babies and toddlers as they learn their mother tongue so why would we do that to teach someone else's?

We need to live the language, embrace the culture, listen to the music, tell the stories, look at the art and, of course, eat the food.

In short, we need to surround our young people with a language-learning experience and surround teachers with good quality CPD.

The CPD for my team and staff includes an action plan that is full of tried-and-tested ways of embedding language that enhance literacy rather than detract from it. Ways that ensure learners can look at similarities and differences between their own country and others. Ways that ensure that rich interdisciplinary learning can enhance the linguistic journey.

And if that doesn't work, just come to mi casa. You'll meet a five-year-old who will tell you that's exactly what we do.

Gillian Campbell-Thow is faculty head of modern languages and English as an additional language at All Saints Secondary School in Glasgow. She was Scotland's 2014 Teacher of the Year

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