Time to make space for a languages curriculum

5th July 2013 at 01:00

Insufficient funding, no guidance on which languages to teach and a lack of clarity on teacher training are just three of the reported problems. There is no shortage of challenges facing the 1+2 language initiative in Scottish primary schools.

Throw in the vexed implementation of Curriculum for Excellence and securing the success of 1+2 - whereby all children should start a second language in Primary 1 and a third no later than in Primary 5 - starts to look like a tall order.

But it is clear that prioritising languages from as early as possible in the lives of Scottish children is crucial. In 2011, a survey of language provision in secondaries by Scotland's national centre for languages, SCILT, showed that languages uptake in S4 had dropped in a third of schools and remained static in more than half, compared with 2007.

Yet never has the learning of languages been so important. The world of work that these young people will enter is increasingly globalised. In the jobs market, they will be up against others from across the world, many of whom will have proficiency in several languages in addition to their mother tongue and English.

Despite the qualifications and skills that many young Scots will no doubt bring to the table, their inability to compete with their polyglot counterparts from overseas will put them at an immediate disadvantage.

But this is not simply an argument about employability; it is also an educational one. Experts including Professor Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, argue that bilingual children are better able to focus on tasks, ignore distractions and understand earlier than others that people can hold different points of view.

A comprehensive languages strategy cannot be put in place overnight, or achieved without political commitment. At the same time, unrealistic expectations could prove detrimental. And things are tight. The National Parent Forum of Scotland has called the funding allocated to the initiative a "drop in the ocean". Others also believe the funding will be nowhere near enough.

In addition, teachers are going to need appropriate training and continuing professional development. Similarly, the coordination of primary and secondary provision is another problem that has yet to be resolved.

But a start has to be made. The opportunity that 1+2 presents to make languages integral to the curriculum cannot be missed. We may have to start small on account of financial constraints, but even with limited ambitions the medium-term consequences could be profound: more school-leavers with better language skills would boost linguistic know-how exponentially across the teaching profession and the wider workforce.

The 1+2 initiative is an opportunity that Scotland cannot afford to miss if its education system is to be truly world class.


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