'Starting a language at 11 is too late - the enthusiasm has gone'

10th July 1998 at 01:00
The children from Shelley High School who went on the exchange to Hungary this year were astonished at the Hungarians' sense of urgency and enthusiasm in learning languages. And it made them feel uncomfortable.

"I felt ashamed being English because we never really try to learn a foreign language," admits Simone Giles. "We're missing out. We expect foreigners to adapt to our language because it's international and then we can communicate without any effort on our part. It made me embarrassed."

Younger brothers and sisters in their host families were speaking English, enthusiastically trying out the pronounciation of difficult words with the visitors.

"Five-year-old Hungarian children spoke more English than we could speak Hungarian," says Gina Battye. "With them there's a really urgent 'must know it' feeling about foreign languages. In England you only start learning languages at 11. Then it's not given that much importance and it's far too late - the enthusiasm has gone."

Becky Taylor lists what everyone agrees are appropriate comparisons. "You learn to ride a bike when you're young because it's easy to pick it up, " she says. "Parents are meant to start their children skiing when they're young. You go through all the falling down and standing back up and you're not bothered, you're more keen to try. But when you get to our age, people think - well, I've gotten along fine as I am so far, why should I bother?"

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