Language teaching in primary schools

Over the past six years the number of children in primary schools learning foreign languages has doubled, according to a report in The Times. So it appears that the UK government might just achieve its aim that all primary school pupils are learning a language by 2010.

The most popular language by far is French, which is taught by 89% of primary schools. German is taught by just 9% of schools, and Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Urdu are by fewer than 3%. Over 4,000 primary school teachers with a language specialism have been trained, and thousands more will be trained by 2010, at least that’s what the government hopes.

A review of languages in schools carried out last year by Lord Dearing recommended that languages be made compulsory at primary level. This hasn’t been implemented yet.

Do you think the study of foreign languages should be compulsory in schools? Is it compulsory in your country? If not, do plenty of people study languages anyway?

20 thoughts on “Language teaching in primary schools

  1. Yeah, I think languages should be compulsory; from as early on as possible; as many as possible. There’s no reason that English speaking children shouldn’t grow up learning and speaking at least English, French, Spanish and German. A lot of Europe is polyglot, why not America and England too? Of course, this is coming from a language addict who will hopefully soon need to take his shoes off to count how many languages he knows. 😉

  2. Everyone says that the ability to absorb languages is highest at really young ages (whether it’s true or not, people seem to believe this)

    Then, they put off compulsory 2nd language education until at least High School – about age 13/14, in the USA in the schools in LA, AFAIK.

    This makes absolutely no sense. Why not start 2nd language instruction from the beginning?

    Are they afraid that the kids will become confused? That might be possible in some rare cases, but it hasn’t affected “naturally” bilingual kids. I know several people who grew up with a non-English first language and, today, speak both their native language and English fluently, without an accent, even.

    It helps people understand their own grammar and language better. Plus, it’s a window into a culture other than their own. In the myopic US, where Hollywood defines our perceptions of other countries, that’s something sorely needed.

  3. I’m not sure that it is an easier for younger children to learn a foreign language but it does seem that the end result is a more fluid and natural speaker of the 2nd language.

    I think that part of the reason that we think that kids learn easier is because they don’t remember how hard it was because it was just part of life.

    Do you ever think about 2nd grade and say history, math or English class was hard? Probably not.

  4. Simon, are this UK statistics?
    In the Netherlands is a proposal to start at the age of seven with lessons in “foreign languages”, cause for children between three and twelve it is much easier to pick it up and to keep it. That’s what is stated at least and this is my experience too: I learned two other languages at a rather young age. Not at school but by playing. Children are keen to immitate.

  5. Here, where I live in the US, our local schools make it mandatory for all high school students to have two years of a language (French, Spanish, Latin, Greek, or German). Spanish is by far the most popular because it is thought of as being “very useful” with the growing Spanish-speaking population.
    Unfortunately, those first two years are very watered down and contain little material so that all students, regardless or academic ability can take these classes. Further years are usually more dense.
    As for children being able to learn more easily, studies have shown that children from a very young age, can differentiate between languages and that they only mix or “confuse” them when they do not know a word in one language and replace it with a corresponding word from a different language.

  6. Yes, yes, and yes! In the US, apparently the government is starting to say “Gosh darn, it would be useful if we had some Arabic or Farsi speakers in our country.” Many children and teenagers who want to learn a language do not have that option. Spanish is normally taught in elementary schools, but by “taught” it means maybe once a week, learning a few greetings and vocabulary words. In North Carolina, where I grew up (in an urban area with one of the better school districts in the state), languages were not an option in middle school (ages 11-13, I think Spanish was offered one year but then dropped). Most high schools offered French and Spanish, but as AR said, the level was disappointing. I was lucky enough to go to a charter school, where Latin and German were offered. We begged for Russian (and there was someone on staff who could teach it) but no dice. I did four years of French and German and was lucky enough to have a great German teacher who did literature with us, but this is by no means the norm. At university, I had to leave the Modern Languages major (I was majoring in German and Russian and minoring in French) because courses were so disappointing. In upper-level French courses, we were speaking predominately English in class! This is one of my crusades, because at the age of 23, trying to keep up study on seven languages, I can tell that my mind is failing. I always think “if only I’d been able to learn at least one or two additional languages as a child,” because they really *stick* when you do. As it is, any language I don’t study constantly gets lost.

  7. I couldn’t even get German in High school! Spanish and French were the only options. Russian? Forget it. Arabic or Farsi may as well be Martian.

    My friend grew up in Idaho and, Lucky dog, he actually took Russian in high school. Somebody knew Russian on staff, go figure. This was not the norm.

    Very good for him, because later he became fluent during his 2 year stay in Russia – and then met a Russian girl back in Idaho and married her!

    See what great things can come from second language instruction. 🙂

    I took one year each of German, Russian, and Armenian in junior college. I pretty much knew a lot of the Armenian and Russian that was taught the 1st semester. The German came really easily, too. I got the best scores in class and didn’t even have to study. Too bad I forgot most of it from disuse.

    Nobody speaks German, not even Germans! They all spoke English on Lufthansa even though I made the effort to speak some German. I must not have been doing it right.

  8. Until recently it was compulsory to study a “modern foreign language” in Scottish schools. I suspect that one of the reasons this was reconsidered was the difficulty some pupils have in reading/writing their own language – a prerequisite for the way in which a 2nd language is often taught.

    My own (music) pupils occasionally complain, on their way to a language class, about the languages on offer and are baffled by the preeminence of French & German. When I ask what they would prefer, Spanish & Italian are always top of the list. Despite our changing world, very few mention Mandarin or Arabic.

  9. I think this makes sense only in monolingual countries. In India we have a three language policy where one learns the state language ( which could be one of the official languages of India’s many states) the national language Hindi and English ( which is an official language of India as well). The second language is introduced at age six and the third language at age ten This puts a tremendous burden on the child and sometimes he needs to learn not just three different languages but three different scripts (as in my own case).Sometimes these languages do not coincide with his own mother tongue ( as in my own case) and results in him not learning anything properly. I do believe that one of the reasons that I cannot read or write any Indian language fluently is due to our language policy.

    I guess that foreign languages would be an additional burden.

  10. I was very fortunate to attend a private grammar school where French was compulsory between the ages of 5 and 10 at the point parents could choose for their child to either continue with French or start Spanish and stop French. Then, the last two years Latin was required.

    Now in high school, French, Spanish and Latin are offered, but my the language program is a joke, with the exception of Spanish. So I decided to take French classes at a local language school and begin Spanish. This is really paying off because my French is getting fairly good. However, it makes me sad to see my comrades slowly loose all hope of learning a second language, but I’m determined to beat the system and study on my own in both French and Spanish. Also in college I’d like to study Italian, German and Arabic. These are lofty goals, but I think I can achieve them.

  11. I have to add, while I of course agree that language instruction is a necessity especially at young ages, I think that the way we currently understand language instruction is not sufficient. Sitting in a classroom repeating words like “calculadora” and “la silla” after the teacher five times a week (now you know what I took in high school) is not instruction. Students (at least in the US) don’t learn languages the same way they learn math and become intimately familiar with algebra and basic concepts–language is treated as more of a side thing, something that’s great to know but not essential to quotidian living.

    That must change for any sort of real effect to take place.

  12. @ Geetanjali
    Don’t let a Tamil hear you say Hindi is the National language of India! It’s only the Official language.
    Tamils don’t have to learn Hindi. Tamil Nadu is the only state that is allowed to communicate with the National government in Tamil and English. Every other state must use Hindi or English. 😀
    I understand the lack of interest Tamils have with learning a very “foreign” language like Hindi which they feel undermines their own language because of its use at the national government level, since I am a Bengali. But… for most Indians, learning Hindi is not as bad as the Sanskrit-based vocabulary is shared (even in many Dravidian languages). For many people, Hindi is easier for them to learn than English.

    Anyway, I understand the importance of language with globalization. Naturally people want to learn Arabic, Spanish, or Mandarin, but I personally feel that this undermines less populous languages.

  13. In public schools in my part of the US, no one even learns English right, much less anything else. They don’t even teach basic grammar until high school.

    However, at the private school I go to, two years of Latin are compulsory (and I think one of Spanish), and Classical Greek is an option in your senior year. (I got lucky and got it as a freshman before they changed everything.) Unfortunately, Spanish is the only modern language they offer, but it’s a small school so that’s (barely) understandable.

  14. Working as a teacher in a primary school in London, I spent about 15 minutes a day teaching the year 1/2 children French which was hilarious as it’s a language that I know very little of. I enjoyed it though and so did the children.

    My colleagues in Key Stage 1, however, were against the idea for many reasons, not least of which was the fact that many of the children had great difficulty with English, the language of instruction – and not just the children who spoke Sylheti or Arabic at home – children who should have been fluent in English, being the children of English speaking parents, had great difficulty expressing themselves or understanding more complex instructions. It was thought that introducing a foreign language would confuse the children.

    Also, the school day is packed to bursting with loads of things that we have to do with the children, not just maths, English, science, but loads of other things, like teaching them citizenship, teamworking skills, conflict resolution, getting stuff together for the displays, getting ready for the next festival (Easter, black history, etc.) and loads of other stuff that I can’t remember. Normal stuff like music often got knocked off the timetable, so when we were told that we’d be teaching a language as well the teachers sighed wearily, tutted, rolled their eyes and got back to doing whatever they were doing.

    I was the only one enthusiastic about the idea, not because I didn’t agree with my colleagues, but because I’m a language nut myself. As I said, the children really enjoyed it. We learnt (I say ‘we’ because I was having to learn this language about 40 minutes before I taught it) a few nouns a week and then had a guessing game as to what picture was on the card.

    Their pronunciation was faultless (inasmuch as they echoed my very shakey French pronunciation) and they suffered none of the embarrassment or shyness that even slightly older children experience when using a foreign language. I think this is why people say that children learn foreign language better than adults. They didn’t appear to be able to learn vocabulary faster or use it more correctly.

  15. My name is Clint, and I am an executive at I just finished a blog post about our emphasis on “andragogical retrieval” (a new term!) in language learning, and I’d be really interested in receiving comments from all of you. Thanks in advance for sharing your insight.


  16. AR

    I’m Tamilian myself!! ( although living outside Tamil Nadu) and one of the regrets that I have is that I couldn’t learn my own language at school.Yes I know that the three language policy is not implemented in Tamil Nadu but now most Tamils make an effort to learn Hindu because one has to interact with people outside Tamil Nadu and Hindi is useful as a link language.

  17. It has to be a good idea to teach all young kids a compulsory second language. I think when they got older, they would have a more rounded world view and be more open to other cultures. I think a lot of Native English speakers think that they speak the official world language and that everyone else is just speaking some inferior babble.

  18. I do believe it should be complusolry, as the world is expanding and as an American, many Americans, aside from the famous Hispanic biligual culture, do not know a second language, but I think it needs to be taken VERY seriously. You have a person like myself, who takes 3 years of Spanish, only to forget most of it, and not use it, since we get virtually no verbal practice, and it’s all by textbook.

  19. I am a primary language teacher in Australia. (Korean)
    The main languages taught here are (in order of popularity):
    Japanese, French, Indonesian, German and Chinese (Mandarin).
    Depending on the region, many schools do Italian, Greek, Arabic or Korean.
    Our prime minister speaks chinese, (I don’t know how well), and he is trying to promote Asian languages in Australia.
    Even though Australia was originally and is now multi-lingual, many people don’t actually learn much language at school. (I think its a societal problem of not wanting to learn much at all!!)

  20. In my opinion, it is good for primary students to master other languages, but at the same time, let them learn the languages voluntarily, instead of being forced to do so. And don’t give too much emphasis on examinations to evaluate the students’ fluency in any languages that they learn. Make the language learning more fun and less boring.

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