Languages at 5 – what’s all the fuss about?

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?

Why I love being self-employed (Part 6)

This reason follows on from the last, as it’s still about CPD. Two years ago I decided that I would like to learn British Sign Language – partly because I’ve always had an interest in communication, partly because as a language teacher I always enjoy trying out new languages, and partly because I really enjoy working with under-achieving children, and deaf children tend to under-achieve.

Having chosen the course I wanted, I eagerly scanned the list of adult education classes that came through my door, discounted all the ones that were on the far side of Birmingham, and all the ones that were on nights when I did private tuition, and was left with one on at 10am on Mondays. If I was employed full-time in a school I would have had to give up right there, but being self-employed I can choose my own hours, so I signed up for it.

Now, unlike most people I love Monday mornings. I can have a bit of a lie-in, a leisurely breakfast and I miss the morning rush hour. I get to start the week by being a learner not a teacher, so I can remind myself what it’s like to be in the position of the children in my class. And at the end of it all I come away with new skills and qualifications.

Why I love being self-employed (Part 5)

Be honest – put your hand up if you’ve enjoyed every single INSET day you’ve ever had. It’s fine when they’re about something you have an interest in, or if it’s something that’s useful even if a little on the boring side.  Unfortunately sometimes they are neither interesting nor useful, but you have to turn up for them anyway. I remember one particular training day I endured, where we had a singing teacher come in and we had to spend the whole day learning and singing new songs. As someone who was told at the age of seven that with a voice like mine I should never – ever, under any circumstances – open my mouth and sing, I have had nightmares about that particular INSET day ever since.

Being self-employed means that I am now responsible for my own CPD. I no longer have to sit through training courses that bore me – I can choose whatever I want to do. Sometimes it’s something quick and inexpensive, such as reading a teaching magazine for ideas; sometimes it’s something longer term, such as the free courses you can follow through OpenLearn at the Open University. Other times I will splash out on a course that particularly interests me – for example the British Sign Language class that I’m enrolling on for the 3rd year running (completed level 1, now half way through the two-year level 2 course). From September I have booked myself onto a series of courses for teaching children with dyslexia. I’m far more excited about those than I ever have been about an INSET day.

Of course it’s not always easy when I have to fund my CPD myself, but given a choice between paying and choosing myself, or free training chosen on my behalf, I wouldn’t swap the freedom I have.