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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 February, 2004, 16:07 GMT
Getting the language bug at seven
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

children with puppets
A starring role for French puppets
The British are terrible at foreign languages.

Speaking them might be essential for international business and useful for holidays, but still most of us ignore them.

The bone-dryness of verb tables and noun lists puts many pupils off for life, so much so that only 11% of 16 year olds carry on to A-level.

From next year, a foreign language will no longer be compulsory at GCSE, to the dismay of many educationalists.

So what is the government, which insists there is no point forcing adolescents into unpopular subjects, doing to address the problem?

It has adopted the continental approach: start them young.

Fast progress

Since September last year, 19 councils in England have been taking part in two-year "Pathfinder" projects, providing children from seven upwards with French, German and Spanish lessons.

By 2010, the government hopes every primary school in the country will offer them.

Sheffield City Council has been given around 200,000 to run its trial. It is sending four teachers out to primary schools to spend half an hour a week with each class.

French lesson
Teachers say younger children grasp languages easily

The aim is to give children a feel for languages and for existing staff to learn the best way to teach them.

Liz Griggs, a language teacher with 10 years' experience at secondary schools, has noticed speedy progress among the children she helps at Monteney Primary School, on the outskirts of Sheffield.

She said: "I love it. The children are very enthusiastic. They have the motivation of trying to prove they can do it.

"It's the perfect age to start a language, because they are so receptive. They find it easier to mimic accents than when they are older.

"Hopefully we are lighting a touch paper of enthusiasm for languages which will carry on through secondary level, giving them a head start.

"They are very, very keen to get up and show what they have learned."

Games and pupptets

This was certainly true of her class of nine and 10 year olds, learning how to say numbers in French.

Pupils sang songs, played bingo and role-played with puppets, a duck called Helene and frog called Jacques.

They showed a good grasp of accents and seemed able to follow the gist of what Ms Griggs was telling them, all in French.

Jordan, aged nine, said: "This is my favourite lesson. I like learning how to spell the words and say the accents.

"I've been to France on holiday, so that makes it more interesting for me. It's good fun."

Monteney's head teacher, Nicola Shipman, has seen an improvement in school morale since the foreign language lessons started.

Language teacher Liz Griggs
The children can mimic accents well
Liz Griggs, teacher
She said: "I'm delighted with what's happening. The parents are hearing about what the children are doing at school and it seems to be rubbing off on them too.

"We've applied to the British Council for a teaching assistant from Italy, Spain or Portugal to come over. We also want to offer more languages. It's been a very good start."

In Germany, pupils learn English from the age of seven. Italian pupils start foreign languages at eight and French pupils at nine.

It is too early to say whether the Pathfinders approach here will have the same success as abroad, as most of the children involved will not sit GCSEs for at least six years.

But, as Ms Griggs said: "The children are so keen. It would be great if they carry that feeling through."

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13 Oct 03  |  Education


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