Voila! Primaries lead national culture shift

Three-year study says pupils' positive languages experiences could help transform traditional cynicism towards learning a foreign tongue

Helen Ward

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Primary children are at the forefront of a culture shift in favour of language learning, a three-year study has shown.

The major academic investigation concluded that the Government's long- standing policy of compulsory language teaching in primary schools may be helping to change a widespread national cynicism towards learning foreign languages such as French, German or Spanish.

The study, run by Southampton, Canterbury Christ Church and the Open universities, set out to discover how the quality of language learning and teaching in primary schools has changed over the past three years.

Researchers carried out in-depth case studies in 40 primary schools and a literature review. They found that all children in Year 3 enjoyed learning languages and only 2 per cent didn't by Year 6.

One child told researchers: "If you go on holiday to another country you need to know how to speak, and if you speak the language that you use. in your normal country, it's an insult to them.

"You're basically saying, `Oh, I can't be bothered to learn your language, I'm just going to speak English.'"

Carrie Cable, of the Open University, who led the project, said: "The children we spoke to were immediately enthusiastic about language learning and saw it as valuable both from the point of view of learning a language and the possibilities it opens for them. They wanted to be able to communicate with other people in the language they spoke.

"It is encouraging that children are positive about language learning. You see it in European countries, where children have a real purpose for learning English, but to see that positive attitude in England is significant and very important.

"One of the key things we need to do in England is change the whole attitude towards languages and move away from the attitude that people should speak English.

"We have got ourselves into this position in this country where people think we can't learn languages. These primary children are saying, `Yes, we can.'"

Languages are due to become compulsory in Year 3 of primary schools in 2011. There will be a four-year roll out, so that by 2014 they will be compulsory throughout key stage 2.

The current drive towards introducing primary languages was announced in 2002.

Since then, the number of schools offering languages to some key stage 2 year groups has grown from 44 per cent in 2004 to 92 per cent in 2008.

Historically, two of the biggest barriers have been staffing and time. The report found most schools now offered a discrete timetabled lesson of 30 to 40 minutes a week, but many struggled to provide the hour suggested in the current curriculum guidance.

Staffing has shifted towards trained class teachers rather than specialists. But this raises issues, said the report, for initial teacher training.

The report stated: "In order to sustain languages teaching, funding for continuing professional development will be needed for a considerable time and the place of languages in initial teacher training will need further consideration."

Fluent thoughts

What Year 6 pupils said about learning a language:

- "It isn't just about learning a new language - it also teaches us about geography and history."

- "In German they push us really hard, but it's not pressure. it's exciting."

- "Half my family is Indian, and I think learning French and lots of other languages sort of brings you more into life. you know what's going on in the world, how people live."

- "We had to write a letter to Santa in French and it was quite fun."

- "I'm fascinated that our own language came from so many other languages - Greek, Latin, French."

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Helen Ward

Helen Ward

Helen Ward is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @teshelen

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