Children should be encouraged to study slang, regional dialects and even text messages in order to prepare them for learning foreign languages, according to a languages expert.
Waldemar Martyniuk, executive director of the European Centre for Modern Languages of the Council of Europe, said that developing a "sense of adventure" about one's native language was essential for being open to learning new ones.
"Teachers should start with the English that pupils are bringing into their school, looking at their dialects and how they are different from those used at school and how they are interesting," Dr Martyniuk said. "Texting is a great starting point for looking at language creativity, or you could look at little differences in speech between one village and another. Or look at how international your own language is, how it has adapted over time."
Dr Martyniuk, who is also assistant professor of applied linguistics at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, said that revealing the variety of language types used in school shows students they are already "plurilingual". "What you get by using this approach is opening up their minds for languages," he said.
A 2012 report from European education group Eurydice revealed that students across Europe are generally between 6 and 9 when they start learning a foreign language. But in English-speaking countries the picture is often different.
The government in England has now pledged to introduce compulsory languages from 7 rather than the current age of 11.
A 2010 report from the Center for Applied Linguistics in the US said there was "a serious disconnect between the national call to educate world citizens with high-level language skills" and the state of language instruction in American public schools. And a 2011 report from the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority described the state of languages provision in the country as "fragile at all phases of schooling".
Dr Martyniuk, whose organisation promotes reform in language teaching across Europe, says it is important for children to know the grammar of English but not for the purposes of formal testing.
"They need to learn about what it can do for them, how it can make them powerful, not to prepare for a test," he said. "If you can explain how useful it is, then the user will understand. But if you tell them, `You have to know because that's the knowledge the school has there for you,' then the learner will say, `I'll do it for you, but I don't see the point.'"
He explained that it is vital not to deny children "the right to be creative with language", adding: "Allowing them to experiment, make mistakes, reflect on why they did something is important. This playful discovery with their first language is taken across when learning another language."
Charmian Kenner, an expert in language acquisition in bilingual children from Goldsmiths, University of London, stressed that teachers already talk with children about how the English language works, as part of literacy learning. But she added: "Whole-class discussions about different dialects would prepare children well for further language learning."
Linda Parker, director of the UK's Association for Language Learning, said: "You need to build children's language confidence and sensitivity through their own and other languages."
Dr Martyniuk's comments come after the first cohort of 10- to 11-year-olds in England have just completed a controversial spelling, punctuation and grammar test introduced by education secretary Michael Gove. The test was last month described as "really flawed" by experts on teaching English grammar.
Debra Myhill, professor of education at the University of Exeter, told TES the test did not ask students to use grammar in context, meaning they would not be able to apply rules generally.
Photo credit: Getty