Language barriers

Written by: HTU | Published:

A new study focusing on global language learning finds that English-speaking education often provides less resource and encouragement for languages. Teresa Tinley and Therese Comfort consider the challenges common to successful primary language teaching

Opinion often questions the value of teaching foreign languages to young children when they have not yet mastered their own.

Our research however uncovers that this is almost universally contradicted, and shows that there is clear evidence demonstrating the value of second language learning through its support in young children’s development of English literacy. It also highlights the added-value of second language study in learning about language in general and perspectives on other cultures.

However, the challenges associated with introducing a foreign language into the primary curriculum in English-speaking countries are much greater in that there is no one obvious language to teach but interest in providing a diverse range of languages.

In the UK, the Nuffield Inquiry of 2000 concluded that parents, employers and the wider public believed in the importance of starting to learn languages in primary schools and there have been significant initiatives to develop this in both England and Scotland as well as developments in other parts of the UK.

However, questions remain not only over which languages should be taught and the level of investment which is worthwhile, but about how to provide a suitable curriculum with adequate time allocation, enough well-trained teachers, effective transition into secondary school, and teaching which is appropriate to the age and cognitive level of the children.

There are lessons to be learned from countries where language learning is well established and successful and from other English-speaking countries also experiencing the perception that an education in a foreign language is somehow less important because of the widespread use of English worldwide.

Our research has examined evidence from Europe, Asia, American and Australia on how early language learning is organised, which approaches work best, and why starting at a young age may be beneficial.

Scientific evidence is less clear about the age at which children should ideally start to learn a foreign language in order to draw on the innate abilities they use in acquiring their mother tongue. Although researchers have not been able to reach any firm conclusions, they agree that young children learn languages differently from older learners and have some advantages over those who start later.

Early learners tend to be more intuitive, less anxious and better at acquiring the sounds and rhythms of the new language. Starting early allows for more time for language learning overall and a sustained experience with the potential to lead to higher levels of proficiency at the end of secondary school.

An early start alone is not a guarantee of success – the amount and quality of teaching are important determinants, as well as continuity of learning in secondary school.

The two most common models of language learning in primary education are to introduce the new language at the beginning of compulsory education or, (slightly less frequently) to start after just two years, commonly at age eight. It is slightly less common to start in year 4 – in many education systems this means at around age nine, or later in primary education.

However, even when countries do not have a formal start until later it is common practice for schools to begin earlier.

Rationales for early language learning are strongly linked to a country’s international aspirations and the desire to prepare children to engage successfully in international environments. In non-English-speaking countries, English is seen as essential for this purpose and other foreign languages are given a much lower priority and sometimes even ignored altogether.

The English-speaking countries studied (the USA and Australia) offered a more diverse range of languages in primary education but at the same time were less successful at achieving widespread coverage: in both countries the trend is towards shrinkage of primary languages provision, in contrast to expansion elsewhere.The curriculum time allotted to language learning varies widely depending on the goals and expectations of foreign language education. English-speaking countries dedicate the least amount of time to foreign language learning and this is associated with low expectations about standards of achievement.

Linking foreign languages to other curriculum areas reflects good primary pedagogy in that learning is holistic, allowing children to transfer and reinforce knowledge and skills between curriculum areas. It can also be seen as efficient in that it allows for more exposure to the foreign language without taking time away from other subjects.

The quality of the teaching force is a key concern in research regarding the effectiveness of teaching new languages to young children. Education systems the world over face a common challenge in training enough teachers with expertise in both the language they are teaching and in pedagogies appropriate to young children.

The introduction of languages in primary schools is frequently inadequately planned for in terms of teacher supply and training. Teachers are central to the success of primary languages and serious investment needs to be set aside for their training and development. A clear picture is required at the outset of who is going to teach the new language, and their training needs in both age-appropriate pedagogy and competence in the language being taught.

The level of language competence needed by teachers is dependent on the teaching goals and approaches used, but it is good practice to specify it, as many countries do.

A relatively low level of competence can, in some circumstances, be compensated for by excellent methodology, but however good a teacher’s knowledge of the language they are teaching, they still need to understand primary pedagogy and how teaching a foreign language to primary-age children is different from teaching older pupils.

This explains why the favoured solution to teacher provision for primary foreign languages is to provide training in the language and language teaching to generalist primary teachers. Despite this, countries often employ an eclectic approach to supplying needs.

In many countries the ongoing needs in terms of both teacher supply and CPD have been overlooked once the initial push for implementation has been completed. They should not be underestimated. International programmes and opportunities for bilateral collaboration should be exploited to the full as primary languages teachers could derive huge benefit from these for their professional development.

In England, the need to manage the transition between the primary and secondary phases has long been seen as crucial to the success of any primary foreign languages initiative.

The report looked at the spectrum of issues involved in providing for continuity and some ways in which these have been addressed. It found that unequal or inconsistent provision for primary languages presents a problem for secondary schools who are then unable to build on what children already know. It also exacerbates social inequality.

A clear national statement covering language teaching from primary through to secondary, setting out expectations on what pupils are expected to achieve at each stage, is a prerequisite for avoiding wastage and frustration in the system. National or state-wide guidance is essential in providing a framework for continuity, but there is also a need for shared understanding and liaison at school and local level.

Governments have a key role in ensuring that curricula for primary and secondary foreign language learning are designed as a unified whole, and that they set out high expectations of progression throughout the system. They can also ensure that teacher training for languages builds bridges between primary and secondary practice.

They can set expectations regarding liaison between primary and secondary schools and help to remove barriers to this happening – but the onus is on schools and on action at local level to put this into practice. The issue of continuity is therefore a fundamental challenge to be addressed at all levels in the system.

There is a particular challenge in achieving continuity while at the same time offering a diverse range of languages and choice to pupils. Given the widespread expectation that Anglophone education systems should cater for a much wider range of languages than currently, this is an issue which deserves more detailed investigation and a review of the options and solutions which could be applied from primary through to university.

The assumption that English-speakers do not need to learn other languages because others are learning ours is seriously flawed, not only on instrumental economic grounds but on educational ones. However, evidence from around the world shows that English education systems institute less compulsion, dedicate less time and generally provide less resource and encouragement for language learning than other high performing education systems.

Given the educational, intellectual, cultural and literacy benefits of learning another language, and in particular starting language learning early, this represents a severe impoverishment of our education.

If we are to raise our sights and set high standards for what children should be able to do by the time they leave secondary school, we need a carefully planned, adequately resourced early start to language learning as part of a coherent programme reaching through primary school to secondary and beyond.

• Teresa Tinley from Alcanta Communications and Therese Comfort, languages education lead for primary with the CfBT Education Trust are authors of the CfBT report Lessons from Abroad: An international review of primary languages.

Further information

Download Lessons from Abroad: An international review of primary languages.


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