From little linguists to language graduates?

One of the joys of teaching pre-school children is how they respond in class. When I ask ‘Wo ist Wolfi?‘ (Where is Wolfi?) they instantly leap up, shouting and pointing out his hiding place; there is enthusiastic knee-slapping and foot stomping whilst we sing our Guten Morgen song; and some children instantly fall in love with certain toys and puppets that we bring along.

In noticing how much the children are growing in confidence, especially after only a few weekly sessions, I feel pride, and also hope that they will find it easier to engage with and enjoy formal language learning at school. This is especially because this September languages will be introduced as a compulsory subject area for pupils at Key Stage 2. This means that all children 7 years and up will get the chance to start learning any modern or ancient language, such as German, Spanish or Latin.

This is a fantastic opportunity for children to learn different ways of thinking and communicating, and about other cultures. I’d like to think it could also improve the general standard of foreign language ability at secondary school. Rather embarrassingly, the 2012 European Survey on Language Competences ranked English teenagers as some of the least proficient overall in terms of foreign language skills, when compared with their European counterparts. Unfortunately, foreign languages cease to be compulsory at Key Stage 4, but hopefully the additional years of tuition will give a further boost to the numbers choosing a language GCSE.

I also have the vague and distant hope that today’s little linguists might in turn be inspired to go on and study languages at university. Why? For the sheer pleasure of it, for the myriad benefits of multilingualism but also, more prosaically, because it might help them get a job. As there are fewer students taking a degree in modern languages at UK universities, language graduates are currently in high demand in the workplace. And if the high tuition fees are offputting, then those language skills could be used to study somewhere in Europe where studying for a degree can be much cheaper than doing so at home.

Of course thoughts about a career are a long way off for today’s pre-schoolers and their parents. A more relevant question might be: Why aren’t languages being introduced into the infant school classroom as well as at junior school? If we truly want to reverse the decline in language skills shouldn’t we start whilst children still have a high degree of linguistic sensitivity? In fact, north of the border young children will soon be learning not one but two foreign languages! The Scottish Government has committed to children learning a second language at Primary 1 (Reception year) and a third no later than Primary 5 (Year 4).

Our little language learners and nurseries are so enthusiastic about speaking and singing in German and Spanish. Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing if our infant schools and teenagers could be encouraged to do the same?

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