Never too young for languages

30th March 2007 at 01:00
"Mummy, what comes after SECHS?"

My cheeks still burn when I think of my then three-year-old daughter blurting out that foghorn enquiry in a supermarket.

I raised both my daughters bilingually (German and English) and we had been practising the numbers one to 10. Hence the lamentably loud question. But try telling that to the po-faced people at the cheese-counter - not an easy task Yet, despite such embarrassments, my quest has been a success. From running a German-speaking playgroup to "immersion-excursions" to Germany, I have somehow maintained the considerable effort needed to pass my German fluency on.

In the face of allegations I've received - which are never levelled at families raising children as Welsh speakers - the girls remain fully appreciative of this highly useful tool that they possess. They are proud of its added benefits. Their literacy aptitude is well advanced, they are more receptive to other languages and they have an insight into another culture.

Recently, I have tried locally to share my belief in early language teaching. As a qualified MFL teacher, I attempted to set up a scheme to teach German in primaries. It has had limited success so far. An over-full national curriculum does not easily accommodate novel "extras"(only two months of rehearsals for Christmas concerts).

But I refuse to be disheartened. Our family experience proves that learning a language young is crucial to proficiency. My belief is also borne out scientifically: after the age of 11, a change occurs in our voice boxes which makes it more difficult to capture and imitate another tongue. To be successful, we must start earlier. And that means all of us in Great Britain, a country lampooned abroad as a linguistically neutered nation.

In a recent EU survey, 65.9 per cent of Britons admitted that they could only speak their mother tongue. In the rest of Europe, where language learning starts at seven, the figure is a healthier 44 per cent. At GCSE nationally, only 51 per cent of pupils take a foreign language, compared with 80 per cent in 2000. We now have some serious catching up to do. And the place to start is in primaries.

This month the Westminster government acknowledged this. When I read Lord Dearing's Languages Review I wanted to kiss him. Yippee! At last, I thought, the penny has dropped that the way to halt the decline is to catch them young.

From 2010, it will be compulsory for all children in England to learn a foreign language from the age of seven. A pound;50 million investment has been promised. Hallelujah. Yes, it is a pity Lord Dearing didn't revoke the foolhardy 2004 move to make key stage 4 languages optional. But let's worry about that next.

Starting pupils young is a long overdue breakthrough and applying it must not be clouded by petty squabbles over past policy. In Wales, we must now follow or, better still, pre-empt England's lead.

CiLT Cymru already runs a highly successful, Assembly-funded pilot project in more than 20 primaries in Wales. For the past few years money has also been earmarked for primary language teaching through the Better Schools Fund.

The money is there. Further, substantial funds have been promised for 2008-9. That is good.

But with our GCSE take-up rate for languages dropping from 46 per cent in 1996 to 31 per cent in 2005 (no wonder, when languages have never been compulsory at GCSE in Wales), it is vital that we make a similar pledge to make foreign language learning compulsory in all Welsh primaries, and not just those in the scheme.

Caroline Sarll is an MFL teacher and journalist

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