When should pupils move beyond the monolingual?

25th January 2008 at 00:00
We all know how the English are often perceived by fellow Europeans - big beer-bellied yobs chanting national tunes, with faces painted like a St George's flag.

The image is not helped by the English being notoriously monoglot. "While in England, those who are proficient in overseas languages are admired," said Lord Dearing in his review of languages published last year. "This is at least in part a reflection of our relatively low level of language skills."

The Government has now said that all primary schools will teach a foreign language from the age of seven by 2010. But in Europe, language learning is being gradually introduced even earlier.

In the Netherlands, for example, it now begins at five; in Belgium, primary pupils start learning a foreign language from their first year and are prescribed activities in foreign languages from the age of three onwards. But still a starting age of seven or eight is more common in Europe.

Catherine Cheater, a former adviser at the languages organisation Cilt, now produces the Catherine Cheater Scheme of Work, used by almost two-thirds of primary schools.

She said: "Age three is the best age by far for pupils to start learning foreign languages by far. However, it is a case of being pragmatic. The reason that pupils start at the age of seven is to remain in keeping with the national strategy."

But where the Government fears to tread, you can always count on the power of television. As one early years teacher on The TES website wrote: "French has been chosen for us by our school - but our children know a lot of Spanish from the series Dora the Explorer."

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