Thursday, 22 November 2012

Lessons from abroad

Lessons from abroad: International review of primary languages is a research report from the CfBT published this year and written by Teresa Tinsley and Therese Comfort. It looks at practice in a number of overseas countries, some of them Anglophone, for example the USA and Australia, others including Asian countries, France, Spain and Scandinavian nations. It is a very lucid and interesting review.

The clear executive summary is worth reading and in a sense it says nothing very surprising, but delving into the detail a bit more I was more persuaded a little than before about the value of second language learning at primary level, though remain as sceptical as ever given the challenges it presents to Anglophone countries.

To sum up, research is pretty clear that there are significant benefits to children in learning another language whilst young. The younger you can go, the more likely you will be able to tap into the natural acquisition capabilities of the under 6s. In addition, there is a natural fit between the "joyful" (I liked that word in the report) learning of languages and primary methodology.  The familiar problems arise, however: how to you make enough time for it to happen and who will have the expertise to do the teaching? As the report states, subject specialists are deficient in primary methodology, whilst primary specialists are usually very short of foreign language skills.

Further, how do you provide for continuity between primary and secondary cycles, especially in a country like England where there is no agreement on which the best second language should be. As the conclusion of the report states:

"... early language learning can only be effective when there is sufficient time, high-quality teaching and continuity through to higher levels of learning." (p.81)

I remain of the view that, despite the government's recent commitment to modern languages at primary level, the resources, planning and political follow-through will be too scarce to make it work. Sufficient time will only be allocated if CLIL* approaches are used and these demand significant language skills on the part of teachers. Continuity will become harder to achieve as the schools become more autonomous, with access to less local planning. Lastly, in the current economic climate there are no funds for further training and history teaches us that the enthusiasm of politicians for primary languages is ephemeral.
* Content and Language Integrated Learning. This means teaching other subject areas through the medium of the second language, thus killing two birds with one stone.


  1. Thanks for this review Steve. I do understand your scepticism but I feel that if we wait to make languages compulsory in primary until it can be done in a top quality way, we will wait for ever, meanwhile some schools will press ahead and the gap between them and the rest will get wider, with no chance of planning for continuity and progression in secondary. So I say we need to get on with it and keep making the case for it to be done in the most effective ways with sufficient training. I hope the report contributes to that in some small way!

  2. Thanks for commenting and writing the report. I'm sure it makes the case strongly for primary MFL.

    I take your point entirely. Half a cake is better than no cake, as they say. But we won't achieve the desired continuity, so maybe we should play up the benefits of longer contact over a child's school career, metalinguistic knowledge and intercultural understanding. I cannot see us getting high quality progression and internalisation of the syntax of one language.