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Mr Gove and primary modern languages

You have to hand it to our education minister, he's full of ideas. His latest pre-conference interview reveals his plan for compulsory modern languages for all children from the age of five. He says there is a "slam-dunk" case for such an idea. Dude! He adds: "It is literally the case that learning languages makes you smarter". To achieve his aim he suggests we would have to lengthen the school day. No problem. As Mr Gove says:

"More and more of the young teachers coming into the profession do so because they are idealistic – they want to work as long as it takes to help children succeed. If teachers know the Department of Education are on their side to help them, then any staffroom voices saying 'don't go the extra mile' will be a diminishing force."

I'm not sure what planet Mr Gove is on, but it doesn't have staffrooms.

But let's be serious for a moment. I doubt if Mr Gove understands much about the nature of language learning, language acquisition and bilingualism. To get one thing straight, for example, there is no telling evidence that learning a language makes you "smarter" (whatever that may mean). Research in bilingualism has sought to prove a correlation between bilingualism and IQ and there isn't one. The early Peal and Lambert (1962) study in Montreal seemed to show that bilinguals performed significantly better on verbal and non-verbal intelligence tests, but many subsequent studies have been unable to confirm this and the consensus is now that there is little or no correlation between bilingualism and intelligence, even if bilingualism and language learning bring all sorts of other benefits.

Now, that point aside, is there any worth in compulsory MFL at primary level? According to the Wade, Marshall and O'Donnell report, by 2009 the success of the recent primary languages strategy was patchy, with nearly a fifth of schools unlikely to be on board by 2010. One key finding was: "Respondents’ views on the main challenges to current provision were: finding time to deliver languages within what they considered to be an overcrowded curriculum, lack of staff knowledge or expertise and budget restraints."

The primary languages headteachers' survey by CILT contains plenty of very positive observations about the value of the strategy, along with suggestions to government that more money is needed to recruit skilled practitioners and that a slimmed down curriculum is required to allow enough time for MFL. There are no doubt many success stories and a great deal of enthusiasm, along, no doubt, with some reluctance on the part of primary teachers.

In my local area of Ripon, North Yorkshire, there is a reasonably well established programme of French at nearly all the local primaries. Teaching is either carried out by peripatetic teachers or the regular teacher. There is also an excellent North Yorkshire French curriculum designed to help teachers. We survey all out Y7 pupils on arrival and it now appears that the vast majority have done some French, although usually with one session a week at most, and often less, over the previous two years. How has this affected the abilities and enthusiasm of our Y7 students?

I have to report that most have acquired some vocabulary knowledge, though not strongly embedded. Most do not pronounce very accurately and very few have any written skill. I detect no greater general skill or enthusiasm compared with the time when there was little French at primary school. At the same time, I detect, thankfully, little antipathy towards the subject. Essentially, we have to start from scratch and provide a little extension work for the small minority of pupils who have covered more significant ground. I somewhat regret the fact that what I offer is now no longer new and fresh. My colleagues would share my view.

What we have now will definitely not lead to any greater long term achievement at KS3 or at GCSE.

If it is decided that MFL teaching in some form should be compulsory from the start of primary, then it has to be based on sound theory and methodology. For the younger learner we require an element of immersion and natural acquisition. For this to work we need fluent speakers and sufficient time. Such speakers would necessarily have to be imported and paid. For serious progress to be made, regular sessions, at least twice weekly would be needed over the whole of KS1 and KS2. Along with immersion and natural acquisition, by Y5 and Y6 strong elements of rigorous, structured vocabulary and grammar learning would be needed (the sort of thing one finds at prep schools). Is this feasible? Is it desirable given all the other requirements of a child's primary education? Is it fundable? I would say no.

To complicate matters further, we have the issue of which language to teach? This requires agreement and coordination across local authorities and academy chains. How would parents feel about their child doing six years of French to then go to secondary school to begin Spanish? This is not a trivial issue.

Furthermore, we must acknowledge that language learning is hard, very hard. Less able youngsters would make little progress unless there was considerable immersion and motivation. This will not happen.

So, Mr Gove, when it comes to second language acquisition, it is one thing to say that younger children pick up languages more easily than older ones,  it is another to provide the conditions for this advantage to really tell.

Perhaps Mr Gove should read this:


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We were delighted to receive a review of The Language Teacher Toolkit from eminent applied linguist Ernesto Macaro from Oxford University. Macaro is a leader in the field of second language acquisition and applied linguistics. His main research interests are teacher-student interaction and language learning strategies pupils can use to improve their progress.

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