The government suggest that children should start learning languages at the age of five, and suddenly in true British fashion we are throwing up our hands in horror. We are criticising the government for suggesting such a ridiculous idea. We are throwing up every obstacle we can think of, dismissing as irrelevant the fact that other countries teach their children English from a young age, and focusing firmly on the negative.
One of the poorest excuses for not learning a language I have heard in the last 24 hours is: “It’s different for us. We’re an island so we are more cut off from the rest of Europe.” Maybe you forgot, but we are connected to mainland Europe by train lines now. It’s quicker for someone in London to get to a non-English speaking city, than for someone in Frankfurt to get to a non-German speaking city.
“What’s the point in teaching our children a foreign language when they haven’t got a wide English vocabulary yet, and they are still struggling with the complexities of our own grammar?” The point is that at this age language skills come more easily to them. When they are still mispronouncing some words in their own language they are not afraid to have a go at pronouncing foreign words.
In the last couple of years I have taught a variety of languages to Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 children. They have sung French songs in a presentation for new parents, German ones in school assemblies, and Latin carols in Christmas plays. In fact last Christmas one 5 year old girl I had been teaching was so confident that she sang a solo in Latin!
I’ve told them stories in a number of different languages, and they have taken great delight in joining in with repeated phrases. They have learnt not to get hung up about understanding every single word as long as they understand the important parts.
These children have been praised for their abilities and they now see having knowledge of a foreign language as something to be proud of, not something to be scared of.
Nobody is suggesting that we suddenly expose a five year old to the difficulties of German cases, so let’s do something really radical. Let’s put all our language prejudices aside and examine the positive side of teaching languages to children at a younger age.
One of the main frustrations in learning a new language is not being able to express yourself in that language as easily as you can in your own, and this is what causes a lot of learners to lose heart and give up. The older you are when you begin to learn a second language, the greater the chasm between your ability in your own language and in the one you are learning. By beginning to give children the tools they need to learn a second language, we are closing that gap. At this young age children are happy to be learning just words and short phrases, so there is no need for teachers to worry that they don’t have enough knowledge.
Starting teaching languages at 5 lays foundations for more in-depth language learning in KS2. The children already have 2 years of vocabulary behind them so by the time they start to learn some grammar they have enough words at their disposal to build useful sentences with.
What about the fact that they struggle with grammar in their own language? People are assuming that teaching grammar in MFL lessons, and grammar in literacy lessons have to be mutually exclusive, but this does not have to be the case. Grammar is grammar in any language. Nouns are still nouns, verbs are still verbs, and (in European languages) sentences still have to begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop. A sentence in any language needs a verb to make it make sense, and adding a connective will make it more interesting. Instead of being scared of teaching languages to primary school children we should embrace it as a means to reinforce their learning in English. It can even be used as an aid to expanding their English vocabulary. For example: “French only has one word for small – how many can you think of in English? Let’s use a thesaurus to find some more.”
Why then stop at reinforcing English? I have taught children to tell the time in French the week after they did it in their maths lesson, thus consolidating what they have learnt. The children were happy to do it again because it was in a different language, and those children who had struggled to tell the time when it was taught in English had a second chance to pick it up.
We already have several generations who are terrified by the thought of speaking another language. Don’t we owe it to our children to let them be the ones to whom it is second nature?