Reflections light the way on language
These two publications are for the non-specialist teacher of a foreign language in primary school. Young Pathfinder 4 describes the aims of early language learning as comparing languages and cultures and developing cultural awareness and communicative competence. But most of the activities focus on building up a stock of phrases in French or German.
Many activities lack a sound pedagogical basis and much of what is suggested for 10-year-olds is no more challenging than what is proposed for six-year-olds. Examples of how to develop children's cultural understanding are conspicuous by their absence, perhaps because they would be incompatible with the call to "keep talking" in the target language.
Young Pathfinder 4 also makes some unproven claims, for example, that the ideal starting age for a second language is five, even though research shows little benefit in starting before children have reached a sound basis in their first language skills, especially in the classroom context, where teaching and learning time is limited. There is also, as yet, little evidence to support the claim that use of the target language will inevitably lead to higher levels of attainment, particularly among young children.
Young Pathfinder 4 suggests teachers use a puppet to overcome initial shyness among children and that total physical response should be used to compensate for a lack of confidence. However, an early start usually means young children are more enthusiastic and less inhibited than older learners.
This publication fails to provide the clear rationale necessary for early language learning.
Reflections on modern languages in primary education containing three case studies from England and three from Scotland, is much more informative. It covers a range of issues, from the benefits of teaching and learning in mixed-age classes - such as the development of co-operation skills - to some of the learning strategies applied by young children - such as translating, guessing and avoidance.
The Scottish case studies, based on a much broader experience than the English, inevitably demonstrate a greater awareness of some of the more complex issues around early language learning. They highlight, for example, many pupils' inability to retain language structures and to manipulate the foreign language with any degree of accuracy. They also indicate that any initial gains such as improved listening skills are not necessarily long-lasting.
One has to agree with the editors, however, that "much more research needs to be undertaken before worthwhile generalisations can be made". In this respect, it is highly desirable that any reflections on practice should be placed within a theoretical framework if they are to have any real value.
A first step in the right direction might be an acceptance of the fact that many aspects of foreign language learning, such as language patterns, spelling, reading and writing in the target language, as well as learning strategies will have to be taught rather than "caught".
Beate Poole is a lecturer at the University of London Institute of Education