Learning to crawl;Modern languages

19th June 1998 at 01:00
Reva Klein finds a nursery class where a multilingual caterpillar is helping pupils take their first steps in German

A dozen three-year-old nursery children sit around a teacher, helping her "read" The Hungry Caterpillar. She points to the picture of the apple, then the ice cream, cheese, sausage, watermelon and strawberry, and they respond in happy unison "Apfel, Eis, KAse, ein Stuckwurst, Wassermelone, Erdbeere". The teacher points to the grapes and asks: "Ist das ein Orange?" "Nein," they say, "das ist Trauben."

These tiny children are not in Munich or Mannheim but in Manchester - Trafford to be precise, in the nursery class of Bollin Primary School. Since September, they have been learning German for a quarter-of-an-hour every week with Sonja Schanz of the Goethe Institute.

The rest of the week their teacher, Dorothy Winwood, scatters short blasts of German activities throughout each day. "I'm an idiot when it comes to German," she professes happily. But that's not entirely true.

Ms Schanz works with her and the primary teachers for two hours a week after school, equipping them with the nuts and bolts of the language they need to perform simple tasks. She might ask the children their names in German when she does the register or get them to sing little songs such as Kopf, Schulter, Knie under Zeh ("Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" to you and me).

The Goethe Institute's language programme has astutely borrowed standard nursery classroom methodologies - play, songs and rhymes - to teach the children basic German. They learn in German what they would be learning in their English. So, for instance, numbers are incorporated into simple counting songs.

And there are rituals. When the children leave the story room, each one says "ich heise" and adds his or her name. And when they're given their dinners, they say "danke". The important thing, says Sonja Schanz, "is to do it regularly, a little bit every day".

But the idea of teaching pre-schoolers basic German goes beyond vocabulary. Dr Georgia Herlt, the Goethe's education officer, explains: "Our approach is to combine learning the language with learning a bit about the culture of Germany. So as well as vocabulary, they're getting some cultural awareness through songs and stories."

The institute launched its nursery project in 1995, in 12 private nurseries in south Manchester. Today, Bollin Primary has the only nursery in Trafford education authority involved in the programme, and has it running up to Year 3.

But the Goethe Institute runs the programme in other primary schools in Trafford as well as in Manchester and Sheffield. The schools targeted by the institute are those that feed into the secondaries that offer German.

But why introduce it so early? Georgia Herlt cites research from Canada, where total language immersion studies show that the younger the child and the more consistent the teaching, the better the results in terms of comprehension, pronunciation and retention. Detractors of early language teaching, who point to the 1960s National Foundation for Educational Research study, are, she says, mistaken. "The primary language programme's problem then was its lack of continuity, it had no concept of integrating primary methodologies into language teaching."

As part of the institute's support, it has produced teaching materials for nursery teachers, aimed at those who don't speak German but are game to teach the language. Demands for the materials - a book, pronunciation tapes and a video - come from all over the United Kingdom. There is no fee for teacher training and the teaching pack costs a mere pound;15.

The Goethe Institute is keen to get German accepted as part of the growing trend towards primary language teaching. French has been traditional at this level, and certainly more primary teachers have basic French under their belt than German.

If German is to be taken seriously, says Dr Herlt, it has to be brought in early. "At secondary level, prejudices and stereotypes against Germany and the Germans are apparent. But this age group has no prejudices." In fact, the children delight in knowing something the teacher doesn't. The biggest hurdle, she says, is finding teachers with the the will to carve out 10 minutes every day.

And what do the children say? Alex, four, says: "I like all the food you do, and 'guten Tag'". Oliver, the same age, says, "I say words to my mummy that she doesn't know. It's fun."

The Goethe Institute Manchester can be contacted at: Churchgate House, 56 Oxford St, Manchester M1 6EUTel: 0161 237 1077

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