Languages a breeze for uninhibited young

27th October 2000 at 01:00
MOST British teenagers seem to hate learning a foreign language. In fact, they would rather tidy their bedrooms than attempt a translation.

But primary pupils do not share their inhibitions. They enjoy learning another language and are strikingly confident about using it, according a University of Liverpool study.

"This is a very significant finding given the widely-reported disaffection with modern foreign languages shown by secondary school pupils," say Keith Sharpe and Kate Johnston, who evaluated 18 regional primary foreign language schemes.

Even pupils with learning difficulties appear to thrive in language classes as they often involve relatively little reading and writing.

"They also gain from a fresh start in a new subject in which they have not already failed," the researchers say.

Children in each of the 18 schemes were receiving much the same curriculum. They were being taught to talk about themselves, ask personal questions of others, buy things in shops, learn dates and numbers and tell the time.

The schemes are part of the Good Practice Project that the Department for Education and Employment set up last September to examine different approaches to language-


They are funded by a government-supported trust, the Centre for Information on Language Teaching, and include the Sheffield multilingual city project, as well as initiatives in York, Surrey, Sandwell and Wrexham. P> Some scheme organisers are hoping that early language teaching will raise achievement at key stages 3 and 4. But others have broader aims.

"A few projects appear mainly concerned with promoting multicultural understanding and combating xenophobia - 'opening children up to the experience of the foreign', as one teacher put it," Sharpe and Johnston say.

However, the dearth of languages specialists in primary schools makes it difficult to achieve either broad or narrow educational goals.

In some schemes, primaries depend on specialists from neighbouring secondary schools or language colleges.

"Teacher training appeared to be a major issue, with primary staff feeling that they did not have the subject knowledge and secondary specialists lacking familiarity with primary methodology," the researchers say.

Sharpe and Johnston note that modern foreign languages (MFL) learning in English and Welsh primary schools is a "bottom up" phenomenon.

"As the Nuffield Languages Inquiry recognised earlier this year, we are not in a position to provide immediate, universal provision of primary MFL for all pupils.

In these circumstances, there is much to be gained by further supporting local initiatives and learning from them what can and cannot be done."

Professor Keith Sharpe is dean of the faculty of education and sport science, De Montfort University, Bedford MK40 2BZ. E-mail:

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