Just what is this language barrier?

19th September 2003 at 01:00
I used to think it was a myth about us and languages. Surely that old image of the Brit abroad, who'd rather gesticulate wildly at the natives and shout ever more loudly in English than attempt a word of any other language, went out when the maps stopped being pink all over.

So when it was announced that we were moving to Belgium, language was the least of my worries. Yes, the children would be at francophone schools, but they'd pick up French in a matter of weeks.

It wasn't until the first day of school, when I saw my daughter, then two-and-a-half, shouting at her teacher in English like the worst kind of 19th-century lady explorer, that I had my first little frisson of doubt.

"That is my bag! That is my bag!' she said, stabbing her finger in its direction. All that was missing was the pith helmet, and a couple of stoical bearers.

Two years and a lot of resistance later, my daughter could communicate reasonably well in French. When she wanted to. We were tearfully proud when my husband had a brush with someone else's bumper, and my daughter announced dramatically from the back seat: "mais Papa, tu as bange la voiture!".

The teacher, meanwhile, radically improved her English. With my daughter in the class, she'd had to. So the recent A-level and GCSE results, showing plummeting entries for modern languages, did not take me by surprise. And I'm not sure even the Government's commitment to language teaching for seven-year-olds by 2010 will be able to change things.

Learning a foreign language can be hard work, even when you seem to have every incentive to get on with it. My daughter had to be able to tell the teacher in French where her bag was, to get her juice and snack out, a hugely powerful motivation for a peckish child, and so she grudgingly, eventually, did.

A bored teenager taking German GCSE, with no opportunity or incentive to communicate with a real live German, is not going to make lightning progress, and so I can see only too easily how religious studies becomes a more popular GCSE option. Is our resistance to languages innate?

My daughter's experience, rather depressingly, suggested it might be. We are, after all, an island race, and though no man is an island, I started to think that maybe it was all different with small girls. Maybe my daughter was taking her own islet around with her wherever she went.

Then a language teacher friend came up with an explanation I much preferred. She insists that, by the age of two, the mother tongue is already hard-wired in the brain and any other language becomes more difficult to acquire. That is to say that the child has learnt to recognise that there is a word for table, and that word is "table". In the case of an English child, it is not "table" with a French accent, but "table" very firmly ... l'anglaise.

Apparently, when babies first learn to babble, they are babbling baby Esperanto - no matter what their nationality, they make similar noises.

After a few months, though, they start to specialise, to copy the specific sounds made by their parents. So, by the age of about two, the mouth itself has formed itself into the correct shape for pronouncing the mother tongue, and finds the sounds demanded by other languages more difficult to produce.

Since receiving this wisdom, I've done a bit of research of my own into the optimum age business. I've discovered that all the experts agree to disagree. The prime moment for learning a second language has been set at any time you like, from birth, pre-school, primary school, puberty or up to the age of 70.

Quite a few, though, agreed on the worst possible age, which seems to be, sorry Mr Blair, around seven. At this point, a child has just about got to grips with reading and writing in its native language and risks being confused by the introduction of another.Perhaps the Government should save itself a whole lot of money, and just hand out tapes of people saying coochy-coochy-coo in French at all maternity hospitals.

Alice Castle lives in Brussels and has two daughters at the European school

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