Page last updated at 09:49 GMT, Wednesday, 9 September 2009 10:49 UK

Pupils play madame in language class

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Meeram is teaching the rest of the school to speak Urdu

When a new child brings a new language to Newbury Park Primary school, they are treated like little movie stars.

The school in Redbridge, north east London, invites children who speak a different language at home to help teach this new language to the rest of the school, using film and computer technology.

It then adopts it as its "language of the month" and pupils in all years learn some of the most common words and phrases, and the numbers one to 10.

Founder of the scheme and ethnic minority achievement teacher Joe Debono said: "It started simply as a common courtesy, but as we went on we found that children who have their language valued are more open then to learning English than if we just let them hide their language away.

"The children doing the language of the month are treated like little movie stars and that's the way they get to see themselves."

A child's language is a big part of their identity.
Joe Debono

He said the programme had made children who may have previously felt uncomfortable about speaking another language more confident.

And with between 30 and 40 languages being spoken at the school at any one time, it is quite a lot of pupils.

Research suggests that when children with English as an additional language are allowed to do some learning in their community language that they actually do better over a range of subjects.

But all too often additional languages are viewed as a problem rather than an asset at school.

The National Centre for Languages is calling for all children to be given the chance to learn their own community language as a way of boosting language provision. And if Newbury Park experiment is anything to go by, it could be quite popular.

Mr Debono said: "Children are always coming up to me and asking if we can do their language.

"It's a big change from how they were 10 years ago when children who had English as an additional language would try to keep it quiet."

When Mr Debono started at the school, there were 250 pupils who spoke Tamil, but not one teacher could say a word of Tamil - not even hello.

"It didn't make sense," he said.

"If you want to get to know a person you want to get to know a little about their language. It's only polite."

Urdu speaaking Meerab, age four
Lessons are taught using an interactive white board

He continued: "A child's language is a big part of their identity. It comes after their name and family.

"We knew it was an important button but not quite how important it was to their identity until we tried language of the month."

Collector of languages

The language lesson is built into the school day, with video clips of this month's movie star beamed onto the interactive white boards.

For example, at registration the class is taught how to say good morning in the language of the month and at break time they will lean how to say thank you.

Mr Debone said: "By the end of the month the five-year-olds will have learned about eight words in the language and the older ones will have learned about 24. And each month we start a new language."

Joe Debono
Mr Debono devised the language programme

The programme is only a small part of the school day and it does not mean that English is being side-lined.

"We do speak English 99% of the time and all the children here can speak English. The language of the month helps this," said Mr Debono.

The school has won several awards for its programme and plays host to scores of visitors interested in the project every year.

Mr Debono says the school has become a collector of languages and has now covered about 50 languages. These range from Arabic and French, to Swahili and Tagalog.

"If a child comes into the school with a new language they are very highly valued," he adds.

So does the school intend to cover every language?

"There are 6,000 languages and it will take hundreds of years to cover them all but it would be nice."

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