Faux pas for language learning

The planned national curriculum will bring modern foreign languages into all primary schools, but Peter Downes finds fault in the approach.

Pupils clustered around teacher looking at a bookIntroducing foreign languages into primary schools seems like a good idea. We all know that young children learn a new language quite quickly, being less inhibited than young adolescents. So the introduction of modern foreign languages into the new national curriculum from September 2014 is welcome. But many languages specialists, while welcoming the principle of modern foreign languages at primary school, have serious misgivings about the detailed proposals, which they consider to be unworkable and undesirable.

The expectation is that all pupils will make ‘substantial progress’ in one language from the age of seven. This proposal is unworkable on two main counts. First, the linguistic level that pupils should reach after four years’ study of one language is high enough to require specialist teachers. Some languages specialists do go into primary teaching and there are examples of good practice, but there are not enough qualified teachers across 18,000 schools to provide this level of expertise.

Second, the proposals talk of an ‘effective transition between primary and secondary’. The assumption is that building on four years of one language at KS2, pupils will continue with the same language at KS3. The weakness of this idea is that secondary schools take in pupils from at least five primary schools and typically 20. For there to be a ‘smooth transition’, all the primary schools would have to do the same language, ideally taught by specialists to approximately the same level. This would almost certainly mean that everybody would do French, which is what most primary teachers remember doing at school. This approach is undesirable in the 21st century, when we live in a global and multi-lingual world.

Instead, the ‘languages output’ we need falls into three categories. First, we need native speakers of English who have positive attitudes to speakers of other languages and an interest in international communication. Next, we need more people who understand how language works and how to learn languages effectively. Nobody can know at 7, 11 or 14 what languages they are going to need for business and recreation later on in life. Finally, we need enough specialist linguists to meet the needs of commerce and industry. Between them they should cover the main world languages, including French, Spanish, German, Mandarin, Japanese, Arabic and Russian.

If this is to be the long-term output, how should the available time be spent in the primary phase? Certainly not by studying just one language. A better way is for pupils to experience the basics of several languages, taught by their class teacher using teaching materials designed for non-specialists. The languages included in such an approach would be drawn from different language families and could well include Latin, which is useful for introducing pupils to important linguistic concepts. The final choice of which languages to teach would be left to the school, bearing in mind the linguistic mix within the school and the local population.

This approach has been trialled through a scheme of work called Discovering Language, promoted by the Association of School and College Leaders and funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. Evaluations show that it is teachable by non-specialists and is much easier to fit into the overall pattern of school life than a linear four-year course in one language, especially for the 25 per cent of schools where pupils are taught in mixed-age classes. The pupil outcome has been increased enthusiasm for language learning, resulting in a higher up-take at KS4, the point at which languages currently become optional.

The challenges for the Discovering Language project team are to find a way of assessing and demonstrating progression in ‘language awareness’ to convince teachers that this is a better way to teach languages, for them and for their pupils, and to convince the DfE and Ofsted that this approach meets the spirit of the national curriculum if not the letter.

Peter Downes is a former President of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the Association for Language Learning (ALL).

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