Learning new languages is now a primary concern

26th April 2013 at 01:00
The Languages Working Group should listen to those who urge caution if it is to avoid repeating mistakes

In 2012, the Languages Working Group issued its report on the future of languages, Language Learning in Scotland: a 1+2 approach. While the government's wish to improve language skills is welcome, there is a danger that this report fails to address some key issues.

"There are problems in introducing foreign languages to younger learners which we ignore at our peril," wrote Amanda Barton in the Language Learning Journal (2009). And Lore Gallastegi has previously stated in a 2004 study that "this rediscovering of ideas in modern languages in the primary school and redrafting or rewording of policies is an ongoing problem" (Teaching and learning Spanish in primary and early secondary schools in West Central Scotland). The 2012 report has not learned the lessons of the past or fully considered the research evidence.

What are we trying to achieve? Primary languages can mean many things. It may be linguistic competence in the same language throughout a long period of schooling. It may be an encounter with various languages. It may be language awareness, to learn about languages. It may be cultural awareness. It may be like the Gaelic-medium education (GME) programme in which children learn through the Gaelic language.

It is vital that we have clear objectives. The 2012 report makes much of "Scotland's economic interest", "trading links", "countries whose economies will have a stronger role" and therefore one might expect the linguistic competence model, so that our children reach a high standard in the same language by the time they leave school. However, it also highlights "Scotland as a diverse, complex, multicultural and multilingual nation", so one might expect the encounter model in, for example, Urdu or Polish.

The report states that "learning an additional language also facilitates a deeper understanding of the possibilities of language and communication", so maybe language awareness. And there are references to the advantages of GME, so perhaps we wish to replicate that across the country.

Unfortunately, having read the report on numerous occasions, we are still unclear about what the objectives are. Given that so much is made of economic needs, one might conclude that we want children to learn their second language from age 5 to 15. If so, that raises the next question of which language or languages should they learn? The working group decided against a "hierarchy of languages", and although the main European languages are seen as important it also mentions Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Russian, Gaelic, Polish, Punjabi, Urdu and British Sign Language. It leaves it to local authorities and schools to determine which additional languages to offer.

The report recognises the problems of transition from primary to secondary to date. Yet it refers to clear progression from P1 through to S1, particularly in the second language. If the choice of language is left to schools, or even local authorities, there remains the obvious problem of continuity within clusters and across borders. This ignores the evidence from the existing P6P7 project, where there are significant problems.

Dan Tierney's research looks at the problem of mismatch of languages between primary and secondary. Transition arrangements are not always good; sometimes the secondary knows little about the primary experience and adopts a fresh start. So children may have covered a significant amount of content in one language only to find their secondary teacher going over the same ground.

The major Burstall report on teaching French in primary schools (1974) found that students actually became demotivated in secondary because they were going over what they had already covered in primary. Maybe alarm bells should be ringing, but instead the "solution" advocated by the working group is a P1 start, on the grounds that younger is better.

In advocating a P1 start, the group claims that "there is a considerable body of evidence which indicates that young children learn languages more easily than older learners." But the research evidence is split on this; there is no consensus on whether younger is better. As with a student's essay, we turned to the references in the report to see what the evidence is.

There is no mention of Beate Poole's 1999 thesis on learning a foreign language in primary school, Is Younger Better?, nor any of David Singleton's Language Acquisition: the age factor. In fact, there appear to be no references to those urging caution.

Sometimes, reference is made to how easily young bilingual children learn another language, but the situation of a four-year-old Polish child growing up in Scotland is completely different from that child learning Chinese in P1. Without the evidence that a P1 start will achieve our objectives, it seems foolhardy to ask primary teachers to take on this new challenge at this stage.

Historically, primary languages in an English-speaking country have not proved easy to implement. A lot of hard work and significant funding have been invested in recent initiatives. It can be done. Strategies can be put in place to make this work. However, to date, sufficient account has clearly not been taken of the research evidence and experience, and there is a grave danger of the mistakes of the past being repeated.

It is crucial that more serious consideration is given to the issues raised above - and in particular to what it is we really want to achieve when teaching languages in schools and how that can be implemented and sustained. There are still lessons to be learned.

Dan Tierney is a reader in language education at the University of Strathclyde. Lore Gallastegi is a lecturer in education and faculty coordinator for education and language studies at the Open University in Scotland.

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