Monday, March 12, 2007


Some promising signs from the new Dearing report on language learning in schools. There will be recommendations for foreign language teaching in primary schools at least at Key Stage 2 (that's from 7 years old). However, the messages are mixed: there is no sign of a recommendation to reinstate compulsory language learning up to the age of 16. (The report is now available as a .pdf here; for some early reaction see here and here.)

Younger children love learning languages, as far as I can see. And there are some good (if expensive) courses for them. Try the BBC's Muzzy course, for example.

The report also makes some interesting comments about Higher Education, and in particular about the influence that universities can have on the uptake of languages in schools (p.21):
The influence of Higher Education

3.72 Although beyond the remit and competence of the review, the recent decision by one major University (UCL) to include languages as a criterion for selection of undergraduates has already attracted comment. Several Head Teachers have observed that if such a view was more widespread it would have a significant impact on the take-up of languages post 14. We therefore urge universities to consider whether, and in what ways, they can show that they value languages, albeit in ways that do not impact adversely on the widening participation agenda. We are aware, for example, of a recent proposal that where a candidate for entry does not have a language at GCSE level they might be required to continue their studies at university, or show evidence of studying a language, or a proven interest in languages.
This sounds very sensible and also rang a bell with another recent report into the general level of knowledge of science in the UK. It seems that since in the US, for example, most undergraduates are required to take at least some science-based courses at university, there is a higher general level of scientific understanding there than in the UK. Of course, university courses are crowded and busy as it is, and it would be a terrible task to add in additional language and science course, but I do wonder whether some of our undergraduates could benefit from a broader range of teaching than they receive at present.


Choppa said...

There's a problem with starting too soon on a foreign language that's not part of your everyday life, and that's the confusion it can cause in concept formation at a very basic level. It's not a problem for kids surrounded by articulate and concept-grounded adults who talk to them a lot of the time. But it's a *huge* problem for kids without that background - especially for kids who need to learn the language of their wider community as a second language. Immigrant kids or kids with a minority language or an "impenetrable" dialect of the standard.

The problem is compounded by disadvantaged kids sometimes wanting a different second language from the one offered. As in Sweden, where a lot of immigrant kids and parents fight like tigers to have their kids learn English while their Swedish is still very poor (and this can be at the age of 12+ still, despite a childhood spent in Sweden).

I've seen and suffered from this at first hand as a teacher of English at a secondary school with 100% immigrant kids, most of them at a conceptual level in Swedish in the seventh year (12-13) corresponding to second to fifth year pupils. Many of them have no chance of learning English. The language just refuses to stick. And they lose 3 periods a week which could go to learning their own mother tongue or Swedish. So they end up even more disadvantaged, having tried to learn more subjects than a Swedish kid of the same age with infinitely less social and conceptual preparation for it.

The studies I've read also indicate that the age of commencing a second language (if it's not part of the everyday life of the kids) makes little difference. In other words, no real advantage is bestowed by early learning, except perhaps for the pleasure of it in a good class in a good school with a good teacher.

I think the wiser thing is probably to rethink conceptual and social/human preparation for youngsters generally and take a leaf out of Comenius's book. Make sure kids up to the age of 12 get a thorough grounding in movement, rhythm, mother tongue, music, art,crafts, etc so they can communicate physically, orally and in writing and other forms of representation. So they can tell and present and absorb all kinds of human stories. And as much basic maths as they can take so they can have fun making things that are stable and have interesting forms etc.

If kids can be kept fresh and curious and creative till they're 12 or so, then they can get stuck into any number of demanding subjects in a more methodical and abstract fashion. And they will have a huge advantage when it comes to learning languages, because their imagination will not have been stultified, and they will know about other countries and people through stories of various kinds (history, discovery, animals, travel).

And today, with the internet it won't be long before they're snogging virtually with teenagers in other cultures using other languages ;-)

So I think the report may be good in its attitude to the benefits brought by language, but its arsy-versy when it comes to the context of language learning in present-day Britain, with its "real-existierend" community, culture and schools. Given a human, creative and optimistic Britain, with meaningful jobs and a day full of self-discovery and self-expression, there won't be any problem with learning anything.

Momof2inCT said...

Thanks for the interesting post about the promising signs regarding early language learning, Kenodoxia.

I just wanted to note that I do not agree with Choppa’s comment and throw some additional thoughts out there for anyone interested in this thread. It appears that Choppa’s view may be limited by an assumption that the teaching of a new language is “abstract and methodical” and the fact that he is teaching older children. It is important to divorce the benefit of early language learning from the method used to teach the second language. If we continue to be stuck in the mindset that language learning is a matter of memorization and drills, foreign language learning will always be more frustrating than necessary for learners of any age. If you consider learning through immersion or the method of focusing on functional and living language (the way that we all begin learning our first words and phrases that communicate our needs and afford us the ability to hold simple conversations as toddlers) the learning comes a lot more naturally. Think about it. Do you remember consciously memorizing the singular and plural forms of past, present, future perfect and other tenses of verbs when you learned English? I don’t. Perhaps this is a strong message about how the focus on this sort of rote memorization in foreign language teaching may not be the best approach?

Setting theories on teaching methodology aside, there is an expansive body of research that demonstrates the advantages of learning a second language in the early years of childhood – prior to adolescence. A subset of this research including a groundbreaking study by the University College of London finds that the earlier the better. The summary of the entire study was published in Nature, but it was summarized in an article by the BBC. In brief, this research shows that early language learning actually increases the mass of grey matter in the brain with the increase proportional to the age of acquisition. The earlier the second language was learned - the greater the increase in grey matter.

The entire body of research on foreign language learning can be a bit conflicting in its analysis of the precise degree of cognitive benefit to early learning. However, the research conducted specifically to discover the potential advantages or disadvantages to early language learning all points to the fact that there is absolutely no confusion or long term deficiency caused by learning multiple languages in childhood. The plasticity of the brain in the area that controls language learning easily allows this and facilitates it prior to adolescence.

I would encourage anyone interested in this topic to read the scientific study by the University College of London noted above as well as to dig deeply into the findings of Ellen Bialystok, PhD and Laura-Ann Pettito, PhD. (They are both well respected experts in this area.) When you look into the growing body of research on this topic you will see that the benefits found to be associated with early language learning are very interesting – higher cognitive function, later onset of Alzheimer’s disease, improved scoring on national standardized tests, ability to read sooner…so many things that we would wish for our children.

This is an important and current national dialog in the UK and in the US. If you are a parent like me (a native English speaker who was first introduced in school to a new language at about age 15 and struggled with it), I think that you’ll be amazed with what you find out if you poke around a bit more on this topic and frustrated that an initiative to begin our children on a second language earlier is so late in coming.

From a mother of 2 in the US