Why the gift of language must be given early

28th January 2011 at 00:00

Since arriving in Poland at the start of this academic year, I have noticed one clear thing: most Polish people can speak English. Wherever you go - shops, restaurants, banks, cinemas or cafes - you will find an eager Pole bursting to use their English on you. Some, of course, are not content with mastering just English and can speak even more languages. The desire to learn a language is everywhere, and the Poles respect the fact that being able to speak, read and write in English is becoming a prerequisite in their education.

This enthusiasm reminded me of an article I read a couple of years ago in a report from Estyn, which stated "a deep concern about the declining numbers studying modern foreign languages" in our secondary schools in Wales.

The Poles begin learning languages, especially English, in their equivalent of our primary schools.

Surely it is too late to start addressing the problem when pupils reach secondary school. The younger a child starts learning a language, the better, and if it is done properly, they won't even see it as learning. Young children just seem to soak it all up.

This has been highlighted clearly in the international school that I am teaching in at the moment, where children from Korea, France, Germany, the UK, Holland, Japan, China and Poland study different languages from the age of four.

For example, there is a nine-year-old girl in my class who already speaks Spanish, German, English and Polish fluently. Of course, I realise that this is a product of her circumstances and the opportunities that life has dealt her, but it is proof of what a child's brain can do.

And yes, I know that this is a private international school, but Polish children in the state system are also being exposed to the English language from the same age.

Teaching in an international school is what has really opened my eyes to the potential of what a child can achieve when it comes to learning languages.

This experience of seeing children pick up a language when they have daily exposure to it in the classroom has finally made clear to me what it is that the Welsh Assembly government is trying to do when it comes to children learning Welsh in our primary schools.

Not being a native Welsh speaker, I always found teaching the subject quite difficult when I was working in Wales. Nevertheless, I was positive and gave it a go, and eventually enjoyed using incidental Welsh throughout the day. However, I never really thought of the bigger picture or about how helping a child learn a language is such a precious gift.

In Wales we have a fantastic opportunity to let our children become bilingual in English and Welsh before they get to secondary school. But I don't believe we should stop at two languages.

If we could somehow change our perception of languages, not just in Wales but in the whole of the UK, our children would benefit no end. But how can we shrug off this attitude of "Why should I learn a language when everyone speaks English"?

For me it is clear. You have to do it when the children are in primary school, and not just in the summer term of Year 6 before they go to secondary school the following September. Let's start using and learning languages in the foundation stage. Why not scrap weekly history and geography lessons from a young age and introduce regular weekly language lessons?

Why should we let the rest of Europe crack on and become polyglots while most of us in Britain hide behind the theory that we don't need to speak another language when everyone else is learning ours?

One way of fixing this could be to train modern foreign language teachers in secondary schools so that they can visit the cluster primary schools in their area and teach languages from the foundation stage. And the same could be done as far as Welsh language lessons are concerned, with less confident primary teachers able to observe the lessons regularly, or participate in team teaching with the Welsh language expert from the secondary school.

This combination of working in Wales and then teaching in an international setting has turned out to be an eye opener for me. The Welsh language has to be part and parcel of a child's education and we must not just pay lip service to it. Two years ago, the Welsh Assembly government proposed a "bilingual revolution" in Wales. I say, make a whole language revolution in our primary education and give our children the opportunities they deserve.

Rob Jefferies is a teacher at the BISC English-language school in Wroclaw, Poland.

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