Saturday, March 24, 2007

Primary MFL

A few summers ago I stood in the queue at a Belgian Tourist Information Office listening in awe, the callow youth behind the counter effortlessly switched between Flemish, French, German, Dutch and English. He wasn’t unusual and when we got to Holland everyone seemed to speak English.

You can always tell the English abroad, they speak VERY LOUDLY, use a mixture of English and ‘foreign’ words and gesticulate.

The proposal to make foreign language teaching part of the primary curriculum is to be welcomed. My only doubt is whether this will be another “initiative” that withers on the vine due to lack of funding and inadequate training – who is going to teach it?

Foreign language teaching in primary schools began to appear during the 1960s. However, a paper from the National Foundation for Educational Research in 1974 delivered a crucial set back. It claimed that achievement in foreign languages in secondary schools bore no relation to learning at primary level. When the National Curriculum was introduced in 1988 there was no provision for foreign languages.

The advantages of teaching languages to primary children are now undisputed -

· They are more flexible in their use of language and are not as frightened of making mistakes as older children, they are willing to experiment with the sounds and pronunciation.
· They may be more motivated to learn a language, where the emphasis is not so much on the written language and there is a greater ‘fun’ element.
· The longer children learn a language the greater chance they have of absorbing vocabulary and pronunciation.
· Primary teachers can embed the language into the curriculum and can use commands and instructions in another language.
· Children have an entitlement to learn other languages and to experience other cultures.
· There is a strong socio-economic advantage for people who are fluent in another language.

Successful teaching strategies have involved use of games and songs. Lessons are also based on speaking and only introduce writing when children are secure in their oral understanding.

During the ‘Dark Ages’ for Primary MFL in the 1980s Kent was almost unique in developing a county-wide scheme of excellence in language teaching, they pioneered extensive use of audio-visual resources to assist teachers; regular courses to train teachers; integrating foreign languages into the rest of the curriculum; embedding foreign languages in the daily life of the school, and use of specialist teachers and assistants to supplement the work of classroom teachers.

In Scotland primary teachers were trained to deliver effective language teaching based on a 27-day course. The advantage of using primary teachers rather than specialists was their expertise in primary pedagogy, their relationships and knowledge of their pupils and their ability to integrate and imbed languages in to the life of the school.

In 2004 changes to Key Stage 3 teaching allowed secondary schools to offer one instead of two foreign languages and children could stop taking lessons at 14. As a result from 2004 when 80% of children took a GCSE it has now fallen to only half. There’s also a clear class divide, only 25% of pupils on Free School Meals took a GCSE in foreign languages compared to 80% in independent schools. Schools have concentrated on French and Spanish so other languages like German have lost out.

At ‘A’ Level there are only 30,000 studying and just 3% of degrees are in foreign languages. Therefore there are a small number of potential teachers. Most European countries teach a baccalaureate type of exam where entrance to University is dependent on knowledge of foreign languages.

Teaching languages in all primary schools will help the transfer to secondary schools where most lessons start from scratch, which bores to death those children who have a good grasp of a particular language.

The government proposals will only work if teachers are given enough training and have the confidence to teach a foreign language. Last year I went to a training day in Lancashire. First up was a secondary specialist with an all-singing, all-dancing lesson and she had a perfect French accent. Faced with that you often feel, ‘I am not worthy. I couldn’t do that.’ Later on I went to a workshop by primary teachers, they were really nervous, they’d only been teaching French for a few months, the resources were a bit 'Blue Peterish' (Here’s something I prepared earlier) and their accents were part Coronation Street. However, they’d all supported each other and weren’t frightened of making mistakes. I left the workshop feeling; ‘I could have a go at that’.

When you visit Europe the cultural impact of English is everywhere – in music, films and television. That is the most problematic issue – how do we get a cultural shift in attitudes where children respect other cultures and want to learn another language? How not to do it? See ‘The Sun’ and ‘The Daily Mail’.


Ever since I finished school I didn’t think I would want to have anymore lessons ever again, however recently I have wanted to learn a foreign language, maybe become fluent in one and basic in a couple of others. I did a bit of research and found there were loads of different packages available I went with one that claims you teach yourself French and I was impressed it was a computer program that helped with pronunciation and speaks back to you so you can hear it too.
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