Primary school says si to taking on three languages

4th November 2011 at 00:00
French, Gaelic and Spanish are all being snapped up, thanks to Golden Clubs and trips abroad. Jackie Cosh reports

This year's Higher results saw a 4 per cent drop in the number of students sitting French, German and Italian, and the SNP has pledged to work towards the European Council's target of all children learning two foreign languages from an early age. But pupils at Whitelees Primary in Cumbernauld are devouring not just one language but three.

Children speaking confidently in Spanish, answering basic questions and showing a clear understanding of the basics, then switching over to Gaelic where they sing a Gaelic song and talk about what some of the words mean - perhaps one day soon this will be the norm in Scottish schools. For now it is natural for these P4 children.

French, Spanish and Gaelic are all taught in the school through a mixture of lessons and school clubs: a Spanish-speaking dad helped the P3 children with their Spanish project; a selection of Golden Clubs has replaced Golden Time; and trips to France have provided the children with the motivation to learn.

Headteacher Ann Kay is a firm believer that what the children learn must be relevant to their lives.

"We try to make what they are learning real for them," she says. "A lot of our children go to Spain on holiday, so as part of the project we did a comparative study of what life is like in each country. The project gave them an opportunity to remember words they have learnt while on holiday and to learn new words. We always ensure that topics are related to real life."

After the children learned numbers up to 10, they began adding and subtracting in Spanish.

"I think children learning to work with numbers in a different language and learning how to spell in a different language deepens their understanding of both numbers and spelling. They learn how sounds are made up and become more confident with numbers," says Mrs Kay.

All the children in the infant department are exposed to some Spanish. The P2s linked Spanish into their Katie Morag topic.

"Because Katie Morag lives on an island, we tied this in with their Spanish holidays," recalls depute head Mairi Oliver. "We had a travel agent with booking forms and looked at sailing times of ferries."

Eight-year-old Ross McCormack has been to Spain on holiday a few times. "I didn't speak any Spanish when I was in Spain but now I think I will next time. I can say Ola," he says.

Ross is also part of the Gaelic choir, and with the rest of his classmates he is happy to provide a rendition of "`S ann an ile".

Mrs Oliver's parents were from Islay and Harris, and she has been keen to teach the pupils some of what she learned as a child.

"We have introduced Gaelic in assembly," she says, "with the Gaelic choir singing songs and even little things such as using the phrase `cead mile failte' (a hundred thousand welcomes). When the P4s were doing their Edinburgh topic, I taught them some Gaelic. We have Gaelic Golden Club for the P1-3s and we find that they are beginning to use some phrases in the canteen such as `tapadh leibh' (thank you)."

Rather than having Golden Time on a Friday afternoon, the school has Golden Clubs from 2-3pm where they can learn a new skill. French, Gaelic and Spanish are all on the agenda and each club only lasts four to six weeks to allow all children to get a taster.

Mrs Kay is happy with how the children have taken to the various languages. "We take the P7 children to Paris every year and this gives them motivation to learn French. They assume nobody in Paris will speak English," she says.

"Spanish captures their imagination immediately. Many have heard it already on holiday. And Gaelic has some good songs for infants and little children."

With a bit of Spanish and Gaelic under their belts, next year the children will begin to learn French. They will be the first children in the school to start French lessons having already tackled two other languages.

The plan is for the three languages to continue in the school, with children given the option of the Golden Time language clubs so that it is their choice to join and learn the extra ones. The teachers are positive about the teaching of two or more languages becoming standard.

"I find it enjoyable and I think the children enjoy the experience of learning a new language," says Mrs Oliver. "We have things set up so that it is done in a fun, non-threatening environment.


At the Barcelona European Summit in 2002, the European Council stated at least two languages should be taught from a very early age.

In most European countries learning two languages is mandatory in secondary school. In Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg, Sweden, Estonia and Latvia, it is compulsory in primary schools.

In certain types of school in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, Austria and Liechtenstein, pupils at secondary level have to learn three or more languages.

Schools in Malta have to offer seven foreign languages at lower-secondary level, from which pupils must pick one. At upper-secondary they choose three from five languages.

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