Modern Foreign Languages - Spanish by accident

15th June 2012 at 01:00
Integrated language learning works - and it's fun, too

At St Faith's our second language is Spanish. It is part of the timetabled curriculum. But what matters most is that we aim to use it just as we use our first language: to communicate everyday things, from casual conversations to moral principles, in and out of the classroom. Children delight in the differences, but know instinctively that the important human messages are the same, whatever the words used.

Spanish by design for children aged 4-13 takes place in the modern languages classroom. Elsewhere, teachers across the subject range create space for Spanish to arise spontaneously, as if by accident.

In a more prohibitive era often recalled by parents, there was little room for independence and initiative. Error and experiment were punishable by thick red lines and pages torn ruthlessly from the heart of the exercise book. Now we want children to lead the way, and the shift of culture at St Faith's was inspired by an adventurous group of Year 4 pupils choosing to use Spanish in the DT workshop. These days they expect to learn number bonds or read Creation stories in both Spanish and English. You are as likely to hear Hola as "Hello" in the morning; likewise Hasta manana or Nos vemos el lunes at the end of the day. Spanish appears in displays and on information screens, and features in services and assemblies.

Content and language integrated learning (CLIL) is an increasingly established methodology. But I prefer to think of what we do as learning in the round, simulating the conditions of natural language acquisition, where children learn by imitating others and the pathways are laid down by proximity and shared experience. Native speakers among staff and pupils are ideal role models: our children grow up hearing Spanish spoken.

It is said that children cannot be taught but can be helped to learn. At St Faith's, each child is able to discover the Spanish within, using it to express parts of the self that other languages cannot reach. When I went to the University of Cambridge, it was months before my lecturers realised that I was not Venezuelan. (It was accident that led me from Australia to a London house shared with Venezuelan musicians, and accident that took me to such magical cities as Toledo and Granada, below, as an even younger teenager.) The language game we play now is pragmatic and empirical, driven less by theory than a pleasure principle. Learning by happy accident is fun: it's what human beings do.

Dr Heather Martin is head of modern languages and curriculum coordinator at St Faith's School, Cambridge

What else?

For some inspiring geography resources in French check out the Links into Languages project.

Help pupils understand their school environment in English and Spanish, with classroom display cards from squiggle7.

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Teachers are sharing tips for the ideal way to set up an MFL classroom. Find inspiration for improvements.

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