`Young is best'? Not necessarily, says Beate Poole, who argues that the patchy pattern of provision reflects confusions over objectives. The enthusiasm with which many primary teachers embark on teaching a foreign language is certainly very impressive.
But enthusiasm alone cannot guarantee success. Nor can it supply the answers to a number of fundamental questions which traditionally have been ignored by policy-makers, teachers, parents and industrialists alike. If a repeat of the costly mistakes of the past is to be avoided, it is crucial that these questions should be addressed before any new scheme is implemented on a wider scale.
First and foremost there is the question of an optimum age for foreign language learning. The commonly held belief that "young is best" does not stand up to close scrutiny. While younger learners might acquire a second language more easily in naturalistic settings and while they might have some affective advantages over adults such as a greater ability to emphasise, evidence suggests that older learners are far more efficient in the formal classroom context.
Higher levels of conceptual development, the ability to think analytically and abstractly, to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning all allow older learners to make faster progress within the constraints of the formal classroom. While little is known of how the learning of a foreign language might aid the development of first language skills, what appears certain is that sound levels of literacy skills in the mother tongue are a prerequisite for successful second language learning. Total amount of time spent learning is obviously important; time spent early, however, is not necessarily time spent best.
In support of this belief that "young is best" reference is often made to bilingual education and immersion programmes. In such programmes, however, the second language is normally highly valued and a prerequisite for education and full citizenship. Levels of motivation are very high and, what is more, teaching and learning usually take place under almost ideal conditions far from the realities of the average British primary classroom.
Any attempts to support an early start in the UK on the basis of comparisons with other European countries must be considered ill-founded. The position of English as the lingua franca of the world encourages an early start in continental Europe. It also simplifies the question of teacher training and supply, continuity of provision between primary and secondary phase as well as resourcing. The position in the UK is quite different.
Leaving aside special circumstances, there is as yet little research-based evidence that could substantiate any claims towards any long-term benefits of an early start. Evaluation of any long-term benefits has, of course, always been problematic. Lack of continuity and progression between primary and secondary phases, lack of age and stage specific methodologies, the lack of a properly trained teaching force but, above all, the absence of a clear rationale as well as aims and objectives have rendered any objective assessment almost impossible. At least for the moment, potential benefits appear to be psychological rather than linguistic and do not seem to go beyond "more favourable attitudes".
Attitudes, however, as a learner variable are subject to change in the classroom where factors such as aptitude, motivation, peer pressure and teacher personality are crucial. In any case, attitudes seem to be more closely linked to the degree of success in learning rather than to any starting age as such. Children who experience difficulty in learning a language quickly develop negative attitudes towards the language itself, its speakers and cultural contexts.
The patchy pattern of provision reflects much confusion over aims and objectives, ranging from the development of communicative competence to the development of linguistic and cultural awareness. The functional aim of practical communication in one specific language, as reflected in some schemes, seems highly questionable within the UK context where future language needs have traditionally been difficult to predict. Furthermore, functional aims and focus on a particular language restrict choices for children from an early age rather than widen opportunities and could further entrench French as the main or only foreign language taught.
The development of linguistic and cultural awareness, on the other hand, is often more effectively done through exposure to several languages and cultures, thus avoiding possible stereotyping through the back door. Few people would disagree that the fundamental task at primary school is to further children's cognitive and linguistic development. Whatever the starting age, there comes a stage in a child's development where language teaching has to move beyond the "play stage" of labelling objects, singing songs, playing games, rehearsing poems and beyond the rote learning and production of prefabricated chunks of language.
I would like to argue that a teacher's main task is to make children think and teach them how to learn. Much of current practice seems to have the opposite effect. Children are expected to "pick up" and "absorb" language which is then supposedly analysed at secondary school.
Sound foreign language teaching at primary school will require considerable professional skills, whatever the pattern of provision. However, discussions about teacher training schemes, choice of language or languages and methodologies remain futile in a context which lacks clear aims and objectives. Until there is a consensus on what an early start can and should achieve we should tread warily.
I believe that a policy which enriches children's language experience and which helps them to develop a more sensitive cultural awareness is essential. Learning a particular language, however, is probably better suited to older pupils who are the more efficient learners in the formal classroom context. For younger children, a programme that provides a sound basis for future language learning at secondary level seems a far more suitable aim.
I have posed a number of questions in the hope that a systematic attempt to face up to them will help us to avoid falling into unnecessary traps, expose children to random experiences, create more problems than we solve, disillusion a vast number of children before they even reach secondary school.
Beate Poole is a PGCE tutor in modern languages at the Institute of Education, University of London. She writes here in a personal capacity