Is it a case of ‘the younger, the better’ for children learning a new language, or indeed, anything?

I love reading research. It’s the academic in me, I guess, speaking here, because without an evidence base, you can’t actually prove your point. And unless the evidence base is large, inclusive, sustained over a period of years, and the research outcomes independently scrutinised, I know the conclusions are worthless.

” If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and walks like a duck, it’s a duck”

And here I mean no disrespect to fowl, but so many policy decisions made without evidence turn out to be ‘turkeys’ – one day wonders.

Two years ago, our Head of MFL Kate Ing and I started a serious sideways look at the teaching of modern languages, partly because the government had launched its ‘new’ initiative to ensure every primary school child would learn a modern foreign European language from age 7 to 11 from September 2014 onwards. We joined a local primary school cluster supported by the University of Reading, attended a couple of meetings through which direction was being given to primary schools on what might work well for them and networking with the University lead advisors to share with them our thoughts . Please bear in mind as an independent school we have considerable experience of teaching languages at this Junior level, both living and dead, and much of government’s rhetoric was directed at its own schools to unify and harmonise provision for its children.

Speaking at the time, Kathryn Board, head of languages strategy at the CfBT, an education charity which has merged with Cilt, formerly the National Centre for Languages said “When you scratch beneath the surface you’ll see there is an enormous diversity of things happening under the label of languages at key stage two – from a few words and a song to quite rigorous teaching. For some the new curriculum and the emphasis it places on grammar and written language will be a challenge, for others it’ll be business as usual.”

The national requirements seem to specify 30 minutes a week for Years 3 and 4, with 45 minutes for Years 5 and 6. When Kate and I heard this, it seemed to us quite extraordinary that anyone would expect children to make ‘progress’ in the primary years with such poor provision. Moreover, in so many schools where there are many languages outside of the ‘brief’, might not time be spent better looking at these and leave the ‘hard stuff’ of grammar and writing until the start of secondary school? After all, that’s what so many independent schools have done for years; encouraging enquiry and understanding of language and culture, promoting story and enthusiasm for learning during these formative primary years.

Professors Florence Myles (Essex) and Rosamond Mitchell (Southampton) have been researching Early Second Language learning for years, and their most recent research (2008-11) has now surfacing in a variety of lectures and publications, the one catching my eye most recently being yesterday’s article in the Conversation, an on-line academic journal. It’s worth a read, honest, because it really does reinforce what all experienced teachers know, and that is there is a time and place for enthusiasm, and equally, and probably rather later on in a child’s school career, a time for hard learning and rigour.

Summarising Myles and Mitchell’s work would be trivialise much of the very great detail held therein, but here’s the principal outline. Older children learn more rapidly and effectively than younger children, because they have a wider range of cognitive strategies at their disposal and because their more advanced literacy skills in their home language could be brought to bear to support their second language learning. That’s not to say that the younger children were not more enthusiastic, they were, and that if you want to speak like a native, you have to start  very young! But the reality of life in our schools is that we can’t immerse our children in that second language, it’s migrant children that can enjoy that benefit; if we really want to make an impact, then we’d need an hour a day including holidays and amazingly supportive home families, and even then the advantage is likely to be quite small.

Other research highlights that pretty much every ‘subject’ has a life cycle it seems, that cycle could be as short as three years, and is age and stage appropriate. The first HMI who ‘inspected’ my headship back in 1981 was the lead languages inspector for the South of England. His experience taught him that successful outcomes at 16 and A level take-up for the final two years of sixth form were as likely in schools that started at 11+, 12+ or 13+ and he certainly took a keen interest in what we were dong with 10 year olds with French and ‘wondered why we bothered?’ It is interesting to note that written outcomes in Latin have almost always been visibly better than in Modern Languages, and certainly CEM centre University of Durham’s research highlights just how much more demanding Latin and Ancient Greek are at GCSE level. This is because they only test 2 of the four skills for language learning, reading and writing, and leave well alone speaking and listening.

Really good schools (and teachers therein) understand their purpose in education well. Socialising children to collaborate, to work and play ‘nicely’ and to gain enthusiasm for learning starts their journey to age 5. Getting stuck in to becoming literate and numerate, to enquire and purposefully learn new skills takes children through their primary years, cognitive development aligning with ‘subject’ matter and ‘context’. Much research continues to highlight how disadvantageous it is for education outcomes for summer-born children in a country whose school year is organised around 1 September; too much too early is the significant problem here, because existing skills have not been practised sufficiently to become permanent before the child has been moved on.

This is so noticeable in school in so many other subject areas. Neat handwriting, once the pride of primary school outcomes is no longer something we can expect 11+ year olds to have. Such neatness requires fine motor control of hand and fingers, as already stated, practice makes permanent. Children no longer permitted a fine art experience in junior school might not be able to draw and paint, unless family values have ensured such activities have continued at home. In subjects as diverse as PE and Resistant material technology, it is obvious fine and gross motor control cannot be relied upon with new starters in year 7. These provide challenges for both teachers and children as they enter secondary school, so year 7 , 8 and 9 need to be spent establishing, rehearsing,  and developing the whole of a child’s skill repertoire, before moving to subject choice for GCSE in Year 10. If we trim the curriculum at secondary and force choices too early, then it’s not just the summer born children that are left floundering.

So I have no doubt that in the right hands, early second language education in our primary schools could do what research expects of it; to provide enthusiastic children ready to start the hard graft at secondary school. But if government requirements are for some higher purpose, then like all the other ‘quackery’ our politicians pronounce, it’ll be a dead duck.

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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