In tune with a German prince

29th July 2005 at 01:00
Dorothy Lepkowska reports on an early-years foreign-language scheme.

They may not know what vain means in English, but in German the sound of the word eitel triggers an instant response.

Thirty little hands are immediately raised to their faces, mimicking the wicked stepmother putting on her make-up.

At Rockcliffe primary school, in Cumbria, fairy tales and nursery rhymes are being used to introduce children as young as five to modern foreign languages.

Youngsters pick up the "music" of other languages through listening and identifying words. The idea is to move away from the traditional "My name is..." and "I live in..." introduction to language learning.

The scheme, which won the European Union's European Award for languages, is being used by Helen Kent, a German teacher at Trinity specialist language college, in Carlisle. Mrs Kent co-ordinates a team of teachers who visit nine feeder primaries several times a week to instil an interest in languages among young children.

This approach works particularly well in German, she says, because its syntax is so different.

"Once children become familiar with the natural flow of a language it is not so daunting to them when they move on to aspects such as sentence structure," Mrs Kent said. "We do this by introducing characters from stories and the settings they are based in, such as castles or forests.

Many of these themes recur, so through repetition children learn words and we also introduce actions."

In the story of the Frog Prince - Der Froschkonig - for example, there is a sentence about the frog poking his head out of the water.

"When children hear certain words they stretch their necks to imitate the frog, and it doesn't occur to them that the verb is at the end," she said.

"Although they won't know the English translation of every word, they seem to realise the whole sentence contains the meaning. Sentences and not individual words convey the melody of the language."

Mrs Kent hopes that children will continue with German through to key stage 4 and beyond. A study from the University of Brighton last year found that students were shunning German at GCSE and A-level because they found it difficult.

Jill Hooper, head of Rockcliffe, said she had never seen foreign languages taught in such an inspiring way. "It has been quite a revelation to see how the children have responded," she said.

"In particular, children with special needs seem to thrive on this method."


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