Languages in primary schools

There was some discussion on the radio this morning about a plan to make the teaching of foreign languages compulsory in primary schools in England. A review of languages policy has been undertaken by Lord Dearing and Dr Lid King, National Director for Languages at the Department for Education and Skills. They are recommending that languages become a compulsory part of the curriculum for children between of 7 and 14, that language courses are made ‘more engaging’, and that there is more investment in the training and support of teachers. A summary of recommendations can be found here.

Apparently languages are already taught in 70% of primary schools. In secondary schools, the number taking languages after the age of 14 fell dramatically after they were made optional and the government wants to try to reverse this trend.

Only a few obstacles will stand in the way of this plan: the lack of language teachers, trying to fit language lessons into an already over-stuffed curriculum, and the possible negativity or indifference about languages among the kids and their parents.

At what age are languages introduced in your country?

This entry was posted in Education, Language.

45 Responses to Languages in primary schools

  1. ISPKN says:

    When I was in Fifth grade, we all took Spanish class. We didn’t learn anything except songs and very simple phrases. In fifth grade at another school, my younger brother learned a small amount of German, but there really isn’t much language education in Elementary schools here in Utah. In Junior High, however, nearly everyone took a language, even though the only two available were French (which I took), and Spanish. Maybe the fact that there wasn’t much language learning in Elementary school made us more interested in taking a language class when it was available.

  2. Anders says:

    This language-site of yours is very interresting! Thank you for it.

    When I was in scool we begann to learn English in the 4th grade at the age of 10. At 13 a lot of us begann to learn German or French. I live in Sweden.
    In Sweden the pupils learn different languages but the only one that they learn enough to be able to use meaningfully is English.

  3. Ben L. says:

    In the US, I believe most children have the option to take a language in junior high school, about age 12. It only becomes mandatory in high school, meaning all students must take at least two years of a language some time between the ages of 14 and 18.

    IMO, this is inadequate. Were we to inculcate foreign languages in the lower grades, we could then use them to teach some of the same material we currently teach in English while simultaneously reinforcing language skills. ISPKN brings up a good point regarding students’ interest. To that, I would say there must be a balance between what students’ wishes and requirements- to me, since learning a second language at an early age is not likely to overload students’ studies (indeed, many students already do this with little difficulty), it is too great an educational opportunity to let pass.

  4. John B says:

    In Florida when I was going to school (80s and 90s) the only required language classes were in high school, where we had to take two consecutive years of a language (at my school there was Spanish, French, German, and Latin). Further courses were offered, but not many people took them. I remember having little Spanish classes in elementary school (and still remember a few words from them!) but nothing comprehensive enough to really stick.

    It’s really too bad, as now as I’m learning languages I feel like I wasted such a huge amount of time in my youth.

  5. Colm says:

    In Ireland the kids start learning a second language (Irish or English) when they start school so about 4 and a half or 5. Then when they are about 9 or so they start a third Continental European language like French, German, Spanish or Italian. Then in secondary school they can if they wish take on a fourth language (be it Latin or the languages mentioned before). The max I think is 5: Irish, English, Latin and two continential European languages.

  6. Aeneas says:

    In Quebec, there was a debate about this very issue just recently. The main language of education is French, and the Ministry of Education decided to make English classes mandatory from the first grade on (starting at about 6 years of age). However, many Quebec natioanlists felt that this would be to the detriment of French, due to the already abundant American influence in culture. In other words, I think the argument is that it’s too early, and also that it would be to the detriment of French in North America, since the younger generation would be more inclined to use English.

  7. Lau says:

    In Denmark English is taught as a compulsory subject from age 9-10 and then German or French is introduced from age 12-13. Most people seem to reach a fair degree of fluency in English, but only few people are actually able to use their German/French for anything.

    There was an interesting feature in the news today about high school students in southern Sweden choosing to study Danish to give them the a better chance to work or study in Denmark.
    Though the Scandinavian country are normally very equal this seems to be a one-way move. Only few people here would even consider studying Swedish, even though about a fifth of the population lives only half an hours drive from Sweden.

  8. Mike says:

    At my high school, or maybe in all of Washington state, 2 consecutive years of a language is only required if you plan on going to a 4-year university after high school. I have several friends who didn’t take a single language class, because they didn’t plan on continuing with school.

    Oh, and when I was in middle school, Spanish was only offered to 8th-grade students, and the class was only one quarter long.

  9. Polly says:

    I’m in California, USA. I wasn’t aware of any language courses until public high school (age: 13) at which point it was mandatory – 2 years worth. The only languages offered were: French, Spanish, and, if a teacher was available, Latin. I think German might have been offered at some point before or after I attended, but never in my 4 years; I would have definitely taken German over Spanish. Over all, the education was pretty lousy. Nevertheless, Spanish stuck to my brain. I would say this had much more to do with my attitude than the classes.
    At the risk of repeating myself from previous comments: My wife took French in the same high school I attended, and she barely knows a handful of words. I have another friend who says the same, although, he went to high school elsewhere in the US – Boise, Idaho, I think.
    If education administrators value foreign language, then why on Earth do they postpone it until after young childhood? Kids seem to practice their language skills much more due to a relative lack of inhibition and greater natural chattiness in comparison to adults. Why not strike while the iron’s hot?
    My general opinion of education is that very little is learned or retained by those who aren’t interested in the subjects. Those who have the interest will learn anyway. I’ve increased in knowledge almost as much after I finished school than while in school; and a broader range of topics, too.

  10. Polly says:


    אײן לשון איז קײנמאָל נישט גענוג

    It’s yiddish! (right?) I wondered why it sounded German.

  11. Harris Engelmann says:

    That it is, Polly! I’m assuming you can read the hebrew alphabet, or did u look at the transliteration?

  12. Harris Engelmann says:

    As for the question, languages in my highschool in Pennsylvania are started in 7th grade (12 or 13 years old), although many students do not start the language until 9th. My school offers, in descending popularity, Spanish, French, and German (mine :)).

    Just for some fun polly, I’ll write this in Yiddish as well- see how much you can understand!

    Far etlekhe hanoe “Polly” vel ikh oykh dos post shraybn af Yidish- zolt zen vi fil ir farshteyt!

    Far a entfer zum Kashe, s’rov talmidim onheybn tsu lernen an oyslandishe loshn ven zey zaynen in sibter klaser (12 oder 13 yor alt) khotsh etlekhe oysklaybn ontsuheben in mitlshul (14 oder 15 yor alt). In mayn mitlshul, ken a talmid lernen zikh Shpanish, Franzoyzish, un Daytsh (ikh hob ouysgekliben daytsh).

  13. Harris Engelmann says:

    oops it should be “an entfer” not “a entfer” and “ikh hob oysgekliben” not “ikh hob ouysgekliben”!

  14. Jeksi says:

    In the US, language education seems kind of badly done in public schools I believe, but at a private school, it’s done a bit better, with education starting in junior high school (mandatory), and moving on to having a bunch of different options such as French, Italian, etc. The textbooks are pretty badly made, with no logic really revealed, but the teaching covers the gaps well.

  15. Declan says:

    My mother is a French language teacher, teaching French as a compulsory subject (there is no other available to take its place) between the ages of 12 an 18. She says that the French that is learned in primary schools (before 12 years of age) is more of a disadvantage, simply because it is not thought well. Based on her experiences, you either have to really commit to teaching the language well when children are young, or otherwise not at all.

    Briefly on Irish being thought from 4 years up. I am presently sitting a state exam, as is my sister, and as those exams approach, the amount of grammar that we were presumed to have known is amazing. In other words, both of use have learned the Tuiseal Guineach (I cannot even spell it) by hearing the phrases repeated over and over again, and seeing the mistakes corrected. Granted twelve years after our commencement of learning, it was outlined to us what it actually is, let alone how to use it, but it had a slightly negative effect. By the way, I totally support starting to learn Irish so early, because it makes it so much easier to pronounce, it is nearly as natural to me as English.

  16. Declan says:

    Sorry, that is meant to be “Tuiseal Guinideach” (the genitive case, but still wrong) which is closer to being right.

  17. Ben L. says:

    Harris- Fun vuher shvitstu so gut yiddish?

  18. David says:

    At my Primary School, I learnt French from grade prep to grade 2. We didn’t call it French though we called it LOTE (Languages other than English), but what is the point of calling it Languages other than English when you only learn one language? I think if they’re going to call it LOTE they should teach us about a number of other Languages. Like how the language was formed, do they use gender? and similarities the language has with English itself.

  19. Zachary says:

    I attended a French primary school, and in a community where most speak English, English was being taught. I would say as early as the age 7, but I can’t remember for sure. Most French speakers at my school could also speak English as a second language, so by Elementary/High School everyone is fluently bilingual in either French or English. Spanish is offered optionally as a third language by grade 9 (age 14-15), many people easily pick up at least level 1 Spanish.

    But the success isn’t seen as well in English schools or immersion schools, where learning French starts later, and usually kids have no motivation to speak it due to society and their families being predominantly English (or another language).

  20. Josh says:

    I don’t even speak any yiddish and I can tell that this:

    Harris- Fun vuher shvitstu so gut yiddish?

    Means, “Where’d you learn to speak Yiddish so well?”

    I was really young when I left Canada- about 6 years old, but I remember speaking English and French in school. One part of the day was all English and the other part was all French. I can’t remember which. When we came to the states we had these 15 minute Spanish classes every day from 1st grade to 6th grade- then after that we could choose to take German, French, Spanish, Latin and sometimes Japanese from 7th grade to 12th.

  21. Polly says:

    @Harris Engelmann,

    Thanks for confirming. No transliteration, I just read it. Actually, more like “sounded it out.”

  22. Polly says:

    Quite a bit more than I thought, though the English certainly gave me a lot of help. 🙂

    Far etlekhe hanoe “Polly” vel ikh oykh dos post shraybn af Yidish- zolt zen vi fil ir farshteyt!
    “For ??? ??? Polly I will [euch] write this Post in Yiddish-should see how much you understand”

    I’m originally from Allentown, PA. My family moved to CA when I was in 1st grade.

  23. Too late, in the public schools in the U.S.–it’s generally high school (grades 9-12), and not even required in all schools. Even the school I went to with the strictest requirement only had a 3-year requirement. I really think it needs to start a lot earlier, as children are best at learning languages young. Some private schools do this, and I will definitely want to look into that when I choose a school for my future children (whenever that may be).

  24. Ben L. says:

    Wos ik shreibe kan ik nit nennen jiddish- s’iz nor a kaudervelsh fun hezish un a kleine bisl jiddish.

  25. Joseph Staleknight says:

    Ich lerne auch Jaedisch! (Simon – Is that how you spell “Yiddish” in German?)

  26. BG says:

    Joseph Staleknight: Ich denke es ist “Jüdisch” auf Deutsch.

    At my private high school 3 years of a modern foreign language (Spanish, French, German) and one year of Latin are required. Italian and Ancient Greek are also offered sometimes as a side. We can also take multiple languages if we really want to and can fit it. (Next year I am trying to take German III, Latin III, Greek II, and French I.)

    The public high schools here in California require 2 years of a foreign language. In 2nd grade there was this optional Spanish class after school once a week that I took for about a month, learning very little. (The only thing I remembered from it is counting to ten and some colors.) Then in 4th grade we sang songs in Spanish for about 15 minutes every week or so.

  27. Joe says:

    In Florida it’s still at least two consecutive years of a foreign language. Spanish is the most popular; most schools offer others, mine offered German and French as well when I was in high school (I graduated in 2004 so it wasn’t too long ago) but now they’ve added American Sign Language and Latin.

    I know that in New York to get a Regent’s diploma, you need to take four years of a language. At least that’s how it used to be up until the 1990s, I don’t know if it is anymore. Note that that’s for a Regent’s diploma, and that’s the highest general degree because you need to pass state tests for each subject, sort of like an early precursor to today’s AP (Advanced Placement) program sans the college credit with AP.

    Anyway it doesn’t really work that much more effectively, my mom had four years of high school Italian and she can’t say really anything anymore (from lack of use) though she can understand quite a bit still.

    However I think the strategy is as others have said; it’s really best to institute it earlier on in the child’s education, at least around the ages of 9-10. But if you’re going to do it, you have to do it right. My brother’s school started doing mandatory Spanish lessons, once a week… but his pronunciation is awful, they spend little time on actually learning and more on doing projects. I think making piñatas and tacos is culturally enriching but at the end of the day it doesn’t do much for increasing language skills on the whole. Languages should be made to be fun, but not totally dumbed down to the point where it’s all fun and no real learning. Out of my two years of Spanish in high school, I can list you many little projects we had to do, but the amount of Spanish I learned was next to nothing, and I even got an A in the class.

  28. Ben L. says:

    I was more pleased with my high school Japanese course. We did do several projects, but the focus stayed on language acquisition. The class was comparitively large (at least 30 students with one teacher) and commonly comprised at least two class levels. Also, the teacher- while ceertainly a fine teacher- was not as far as I could tell a master of the language, so without deprecating the teachers efforts, I must say I don’t think we had enough of an example from native speakers. So, after three years of high school Japanese, I can’t really say anything more than the basic greetings and recognize perhaps a few more words on TV.

  29. Polly says:

    ¡Tacos and Piñatas!? OK, maybe my H.S. Spanish classes weren’t SO bad after all. LOL!

    Schools tend to treat younger kids as if they aren’t willing to learn. I think the truth is, sometimes, that some teachers aren’t really willing to teach. I had a few of those, and consequently ended up with virtally no English grammar or literary education, except for 1 year out of high school.

  30. Polly says:

    …And now as a result of my poor education I post typos on blogs! 😀

    “virtally” s/b “virtually”

  31. Benjamin says:

    I’m from Germany and when I was in school* we started with English in the 5th grade, at the age of 10/11 and had to choose a second language in 7th grade (in my case French or Latin – I took French). But since the education system is being reformed now this changed a bit. As far as I know, pupils start to learn English in the 3rd grade now, maybe even earlier. I already heard of kindergardens in which you learn some words: The numbers up to ten and such… – so that’s at the age of 3-6 when those kids learn their first few words in English.

    *eww, that expression sounds as if I were like 40 years old now, looking back on my childhood, but actually I was still in school 3 years ago 😀

    @Joseph & BG
    Yiddish is called Jiddisch in German – pronounced quite the same, just spelled according to German rules. 😉
    Jüdisch on the other hand means Jewish – and for completion: Hebrew is Hebräisch. 😉

  32. Harris Engelmann says:

    polly- etlekhe hanoe means a little fun- i think etlekhe is from slavic, hanoe is from hebrew. Shvitstu- keynmol hob ikh dos nisht gehert (I’ve never heard that)- the word for speak/talk is reden. Yidish auf Deutsch- Jiddisch- Juddisch would just be “jewish”

    Un, ikh hob zikh gelernt yidish fun mir aleyn un fun a lererke. Ikh leyen kimat yeden vokh “forverts” afn internets, un oykh kolerley bikher, ober s’iz shver tsu lernen yidish haynt tsutog. s’rov mayn visinshaft kumt fun daytsh un hebreyish, vayl ikh ken bloyz reden yidish fun tsayt tsu tsayt- german spekers, you should be able to understand most of this- ill post a translation later 🙂

  33. Harris Engelmann says:

    and polly- oykh is the yiddish version of auch- almost dipthongs are changed- (u with umlaut to i, o with umlaut to e, u.s.w. (af yidish, ukhdoyme)

  34. Harris Engelmann says:

    and the “zolt” is command form- “ir” is implied- i know, its confusing to me as well!

  35. Harris Engelmann says:

    at shvitsn- that means “to sweat”- see Jewish-English “I’m shvitsing”- I’m sweating

  36. BG says:

    @Benjamin: I knew Jüdisch was German for Jewish and I think that is where the name Yiddish comes from so I just assumed it was the same. Thanks.

    @Harris Engelmann: I can understand most of it.

  37. Ben L. says:

    “schwitzen” meaning “to speak” is something I picked up in Hesse. I couldn’t find it in my German etymological dictionary, so I was beginning ‘sweat’ whether or not I was right about it. But, of course, Google soon found the reference I was looking for (

    ‘The one word I know in Schwaibian is schwezen. It sounds like schwitzen (to sweat), but it means sprechen (to talk). For a long time I was really wondering why people were always talking about sweating.’

    But let me apologize anyway for my crimes against Yiddish.

  38. SamD says:

    In my local school district in Ohio, students don’t have the opportunity to take a language until they are in the ninth grade (about 14 years old), and even then it’s not a requirement. Only two years of French and Spanish are available, and the state and district don’t require a foreign language. I know that some of the other districts in the area offer more languages and for more years, but I don’t think any of them require a language.

    The local university doesn’t require languages for admissions, but students need to fulfill a language requirement to get a bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree. Students can fulfill the requirement by taking a test, so there is some incentive to take foreign language classes for free in high school.

  39. Harris Engelmann says:

    Benjamin- haha it’s not a crime. It just shows that German and Yiddish don’t have everything in common, although i have to admit i’ve never heard of schwetzen in general, and certainly never for Yiddish.

    BG- Sind Sie Deutscher?

    Polly- more stuff about “oykh” not equaling “euch”- “euch” becomes “aykh” – it would probably be spelled “eich” using german spelling rules.

  40. Benjamin says:

    Hehe, I think you mixed up some names. 😉 🙂

    @Ben L
    I only know the word ‘schwätzen’* which probably is the one you meant – though in Baden-Württemberg, where I live, this word has a clear e/ä-sound that distinguishes it from ‘schwitzen’.
    Anyway, there is also a really similar word: ‘schwatzen’ – right, the same without the umlaut 😀
    The meaning of these two words is quite the same, though I feel a slight difference between them, which i can’t really describe though. What you can say about them is, that ‘schwätzen’ is definitely South German, while ‘schwatzen’ is also used in High German. 😉

    *actually your spelling ‘schwetzen’ and the proper one ‘schwätzen’ would be pronounced the same way, anyway, since the short e (written with a small epsilon in IPA) sound is represented by e and ä in German. ^_^

  41. harris englemann says:

    Which names lol?

  42. BG says:

    Harris Engelmann: Ich bin nicht Deutscher. Ich lerne Deutsch in der Schule. When I said that I understood most of it, I meant that I got the jist of it. There were quite a few words I didn’t recognize. Sind Sie Deutscher?

  43. harris englemann says:

    nein, ich bin nicht- auch habe ich Deutsch in der Schule gelernt.

  44. Questioneer??? says:

    I went to a private school in the states and we began learning french at age 5/6. These classes didn’t focus on grammar and such, but rather hearing the language and preparing our vocal chords for future speech in French. It also really helped that the teachers were native speakers.

  45. Ailsa says:

    Sorry this is a late comment but since discovering this wonderful site, I’m hooked.

    It’s weird, since in the UK, public schools (i.e. private schools) seem to think ancient languages make them seem more impressive.
    I’ve been taught French since I was 6, then we had an option of German or Spanish at 14, but Latin has been taught since we were 9 (at 15, we all change subjects anyway, but hey ho) I also was able to learn Ancient Greek for the last couple of years. But it all depends on what teachers were available. My cousin, by the presence of so many good teachers, was able to learn Russian and Polish. And here in the UK, we’re now being highly encouraged to learn Mandarin.

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