Why young children should learn the lingo

Languages help to give children the skills and confidence they need in the globalised world, says Therese Comfort

Therese Comfort

The past decade or so has seen an expansion in early language learning across the world, driven in particular by the global demand for English. The advantage these language learners have in engaging with another culture from an early age should not be underestimated.

We should not assume that English speakers do not need to learn other languages because others are learning ours. Children today need the skills, understanding and confidence to live and work in a highly globalised world. It is important to consider how learning a language contributes to a young person's intellectual development and to take into account the ways in which second language learning supports literacy in the first language. Learning a second language brings with it many opportunities to learn about language in general.

With the announcement of reforms to the national curriculum, it is clear that ministers are determined that England should compare favourably with the best-performing school systems across the world. Lessons from Abroad: international review of primary languages is an international study commissioned by the CfBT Education Trust that provides an evidence base of the policy and practice of language learning in primary curricula across the world. The study includes examples from Europe, Asia and the US, and demonstrates different ways of tackling a number of key issues that we share with other education systems.

Comparisons across continents

Having recently learned that languages are to be compulsory from the age of 7, this review offers interesting insights into the ways in which other countries introduce and develop language learning in primary.

The two most common models of compulsory language learning in primary education are: to introduce the new language at the beginning of compulsory education usually at the age of 6; or to start after just two years, commonly at the age of 8.

There is insufficient research, however, for the study to reach any firm conclusions about whether 3, 6 or 8 is the best age to start at. What does emerge from the study is that, by starting early, pupils are given more time for language learning. What is also clear is that young children learn languages differently from older learners, as well as having some advantages over those who start later. A clear message from our study is that an early start is not a guarantee of success - the amount and the quality of teaching are important and a whole chapter in the study looks at the quality of the teaching force.

The amount of time spent on language learning varies depending on the goals and expectations of foreign language education. Luxembourg, for example, aims for pupils to become trilingual in Letzebuergesch, German and French, and therefore devotes 25 per cent of curriculum time to languages. In non-English-speaking countries, English is seen as essential to prepare children to engage successfully in international environments. In Singapore, pupils have a particularly intensive experience during their first two years of school, with 35 per cent of curriculum time devoted to learning English. English-speaking countries dedicate the least amount of time to foreign language learning. The average amount of time for language learning in English primary schools is currently less than 5 per cent.

One way to find extra time in the school day for languages is by making links across the curriculum and this approach is being adopted by quite a few schools in England. Our report gives a snapshot of how schools across the world have recognised that the content for language learning often overlaps with content being studied in other areas of the curriculum.

Many countries make links with the humanities and social sciences that are often described in primary curricula as "learning about the world". St Paul's CofE Primary in Brighton is in the early stages of providing a bilingual education. Pupils from nursery to Year 6 have weekly Spanish lessons. For two focus classes (Year 1 and Year 3), Spanish is brought into art, music and PE.

Using approaches like this, teachers can tackle the challenge of finding time for languages. Such work will be crucial if our primary schools are to avoid "curriculum overload" under the new system.

Therese Comfort is languages education lead for primary at the CfBT Education Trust


Tinsley, T. and Comfort, T. Lessons from Abroad: international review of primary languages (2012). CfBT Education Trust. bit.lyMk0doS

The challenge

English-speaking countries face a particular challenge to achieve continuity while at the same time offering a diverse range of languages and choice to pupils.

The state of Victoria in Australia has gone some way towards addressing the conundrum. The language curriculum in primary and secondary schools covers two separate but linked dimensions: communicating in a language other than English and intercultural knowledge and language awareness.

While the ideal model is thought to be the study of one language from primary school through to the end of secondary, some pupils change languages in the transition from primary to secondary. Both alternatives are catered for and carefully thought through. The Victoria approach aims to provide continuity for the learner and coherence for the teacher.

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Therese Comfort

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