'Primary aims won't take a decade'

16th June 2000 at 01:00
There is no need to wait 10 years for the Nuffield proposals on early language learning to be fulfilled, says Lid King

One of the most far-reaching proposals of the Nuffield Inquiry is the call for major investment in primary language learning - a 10-year "national action programme for languages". The key elements of this are the designation of up to 1,000 international primary schools and a target for all pupils to be able to learn a new language from the age of seven.

The proposals have been featured in the press and some of the media response has been positive, but there has also been a backlash. Even before the report was properly launched, we were being reminded of the unsuccessful attempt in the 1960s to introduce languages into primary schools in England - the so-called French From Eight experiment, also coincidentally supported by the Nuffield Foundation.

What are the real prospects for languages in the primary school? Is it true, as some will have it, that there is no discernible advantage to an early start? Or do we need a dramatic initiative such as that suggested by the inquiry if we are to keep up with our neighbours and trade rivals?

The first thing to be said is that there is no longer anything unusual about young language learners. Most European countries, including Scotland, begin before 11, and the trend is towards ever earlier starts. It is hard to prove that this in itself will lead to greater language proficiency in later life. Very often, the early learners simply begin languages again in secondary school, soon to be caught up by their fellow pupils. This has often been used as an argument against early language learning. In fact, it is more convincing as an argument in favour of a coherent languages education throughout compulsory schooling.

The problem with current provision in most of the United Kingdom is that it is patchy - possibly only 25-30 per cent of primary schools do something - and there is little or no continuity in the secondary sector. That is the waste.

What research in Scotland and elsewhere does show is that proficiency in a foreign language needs time. Already the time provision in UK schools lags behind most of Europe - an earlier start can help to overcome this deficit. There are also certain key abilities - listening, pronunciation - that are best developed in younger learners. This underlies Prime Minister Tony Blair's statement "with languages, the earlier you start the easier they are".

This is why even before the Nuffield Inquiry, many enthusiasts for example the National Primary Languages Network, were arguing for an earlier start to language learning. It is also why many parents are in favour of primary language learning.

In 1999, partly in response o this groundswell, the schools' minister at the time, Charles Clarke, committed the Government to investing in early language learning. He announced a project, managed by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT) and involving national agencies, publishers and schools, that would support existing provision of early language learning and provide a basis for future developments.

The Department for Education and Employment early language learning initiative has established a national advisory centre (NACELL). Over two years it aims to develop high quality materials, disseminate models of good practice, build up a teacher support network and co-ordinate training possibilities. It will report in 2001 and make proposals.

These are early days and the project is only half complete, but already some interesting possibilities are emerging. One obstacle to more coherent provision of primary languages - often seen as the main one - is that of teacher supply. NACELL is suggesting some possible answers.

With support from the Teacher Training Authority, models are being developed for both initial and in-service training involving collaboration with European partners facing similar challenges. From September 2001, there will be 100 initial training places provided as part of this scheme. A modest start, but a start nonetheless.

Another challenge faced by primary schools is an overloaded curriculum and the pressures created by the priorities of literacy and numeracy. How can foreign languages fit into this shrinking space?

One of the most fruitful approaches could be to root foreign language learning in the existing realities of the primary school, so that the literacy strategy, for example, becomes not an obstacle but a support for foreign languages, and vice versa.

This would not mean importing the current 11-plus languages curriculum into primary but introducing an entirely new programme based on the strengths of young pupils and good practice of their teachers.

By supporting the listening and imitative abilities of younger children, the programme would develop the skills and attitudes of successful language learners. By building on what primary teachers already know and do, it would provide a manageable solution to their training needs.

Given continued public support there is every possibility that this apparently modest initiative could quietly revolutionise the primary curriculum in rather less time than the 10- year target set by Nuffield.

Lid King is director of CILT.For details of the early language learning initiative contact NACELL at CILT, 20 Bedfordbury, London WC2N 4LB. Tel: 020 7379 5101.Fax: 020 7379 5082.E-mail: library @cilt.org.uk Website: www.cilt.org.uk

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