Tuesday 14 August 2012

Two languages good, three languages better

There's nothing particularly new or innovative about the proposal put forward by the Conservative Assembly Group last week for the teaching of foreign languages in primary schools.  It’s an idea which gets floated periodically, takes a headline or two, then fades away again.
That doesn't mean that the idea is without merit.  Indeed, in principle it's something I'd support.  There are one or two little difficulties with it however.
The first is that so few primary school teachers are themselves fluent enough in a foreign language to teach it.  There's a "chicken and egg" question there, obviously.  How do we make sure that our adults are multilingual if we don't teach them languages as children; and how do we teach the children without the multilingual adults?  It's not an insuperable problem, but neither can the cycle be broken by simply passing a new law changing the curriculum.
The NUT representative was also right to draw attention to the already over- full curriculum.  (And that's something given a further relevance by the proposal put forward by some in the wake of the Olympic Games that children should have six hours of sport every week.)
Again the curriculum should not be an insuperable problem - other countries manage it after all - but there does seem to be something of a trend amongst politicians to be forever tinkering with the curriculum.  And it’s invariably about adding to it, not taking away.
But my biggest concern is about how effective such a policy would be.  The Tories talked glibly about Wales now becoming a bilingual nation, and aiming to become trilingual.  Worthy words.  However, that glosses over the fact that the teaching of Welsh as a second language in our schools has been a massive failure to date.
Children are leaving primary schools in Wales -- even so-called Category A schools, where Welsh is supposed to be the medium of instruction - unable to function in Welsh.  Most people involved in the system know that; but few are willing to say it.
It isn't inevitable that this should be so; nor is it a reason, in itself, not to try and teach other languages as well.  It is, though, a reason to look at how we teach languages and how we can do so more effectively.  If we can't teach two languages effectively where both of those languages are highly visible and in use every day around us, there seems little hope that we will add a third and teach it effectively.

1 comment:

Peter D Cox said...

My grandchildren (English mother, German/Dutch father) live south of Brussels. They speak English and German fluently at home - at 4 and 6 - and the eldest goes to a Dutch speaking school where she'll also learn French.
I am barely fluent in English, have spent 15 years not learning Welsh and am grateful for my bad, school, French and German.
Guess who is better off?