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More foreign languages please, we’re British

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I’m feeling a bit frustrated. No, frustrated isn’t really the word, more annoyed.

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I’m feeling very dismayed at the importance placed on foreign languages in the primary school system.

What’s bothering me is how little importance seems to be given to learning foreign languages in the primary school system. Why oh why don’t kids start doing this in reception class?

This has been bothering me every since Helen’s last parents’ evening. Mrs Adams and I were given all the information we could have wanted about Helen’s literacy, reading and mathematics skills.

This is great. They’re essential parts of learning. If you don’t have basic reading and writing skills, well, you won’t progress far.

I know Helen studies French once a week (not nearly enough in my opinion). It’s clearly considered a very minor subject as she only started studying French in September when she started in Year Three. She is never set French homework and I’ve never seen the syllabus.

It’s an opportunity lost. All the multi-lingual people I know started learning foreign languages at very young ages.

None of the paperwork we were given during parents’ evening made any reference to Helen’s French studies. Her teacher was good enough to go and check for me, but if I hadn’t asked we wouldn’t have been told.

It seems to be a very similar story at most other schools. Foreign languages are simply a bit of an irritation, something that has to be done because it looks good. If this is the impression kids pick up at a young age, it’s hardly surprising that the Brits are so dreadful at languages.

Okay, okay, I have a slightly biased opinion. I am half-French. Even so, I was never taught the language as a child. The French I speak, I learned in my late teens, mostly by conversing with Parisians as I was a regular visitor to the city for a while.

It was the experience of having to learn a language as a teen that made me realise how important foreign languages are. When I became a father, I was determined my kids would learn French from a young age.

This, I hoped, would open the door to them to learn other languages. It worked for me. In my twenties I spent some time in Peru at a Spanish language school.

I was true to my word and have taught both Helen and Izzy French from their earliest days. I confess my efforts have been in fits and starts. Sometimes I’ve gone for a month without saying a French word to the kids. Sometimes I’ll speak to them in French every day for weeks.

Although my efforts may wax and wane, I must be doing something right. The report from Helen’s teacher was that her French is actually very good.

While that’s great news, it adds to my frustration. I wonder how more advanced her skills might be if she received more than one session a week?

The response I sometimes hear is: “Yeah, but the rest of the world speaks English.” While many people do, an awful lot don’t. Also, with Brexit on the horizon, I think it’s going to be more important than ever that our children speak foreign languages.

I don’t, however, feel that it’s given enough importance in the school system. Foreign languages should be more than a nice to have, they should be at the core of the education system.

4 thoughts on “More foreign languages please, we’re British”

  1. I was talking to my husband about this yesterday, that I was annoyed with the fact I’d never been given the opportunity to study a foreign language until year 7 when French was compulsive to year 9 for 2 lessons a week. Having lived now as an adult in 2 foreign countries it has annoyed me I’ve not be forced to learn a foreign language as everyone speaks English. In South Africa where there are. 11 official languages and here in Dubai all road signs, food packaging etc is in English. I am forced to speak English, if I try another language I have no idea what language I should try, as there are so many nationalities that I would probably start in Arabic but be speaking to someone who wasn’t Arabic and they would just speak to me in English anyway

    1. Ah, you make Dubai sound like Brussels in Belgium. You really don’t know what nationality the person you’re speaking to is and speak French to a Waloon and you’ll quickly know about it!

  2. I am German, here children start learning English in their first year (second term) in primary school. In my opinion foreign languages are really important, I speak English and a bit Dutch. But it‘s not a priority in schools (two lessons a week, no homework) and it is taught by German teachers. I‘d prefer a native speaker maybe just „playing“
    board games and singing with the kids or baking or whatever, since, after almost 2 years of English my son speaks about NONE at all. He knows a few words but just words, no sentences no basic conversation. I think that it‘s most important that learning a language at that age should be fun and interesting. But still, it‘s also about learning and kind of getting to know the sound of other languages as a correct pronunciation. It took me years at university to get rid of the worst of my German accent (and I still have by no means a British or Irish one, people just can‘t place where I‘m from). So actually I‘d prefer him getting a good pronunciation (we had a discussion about „dog“ and „doc“ being different words and spelled differently, typical German final obstruent devoicing). I actually have no idea how to improve his English. Teacher friends said that what had been done in most primary schools in all the years is done within two weeks in secondary school, they say it makes no difference if the kids had English lessons before. Well, being German I know how important foreign languages are but even here quite a few people aren‘t aware of that and expect the world to speak German.

    1. You make a couple of very interesting observations. Firstly, that language lessons should be fun. Even in the UK, this seems to be the way languages are taught these days. It certainly never used to be! It would also be much better if all lessons were taught by a native speaker. I know, for instance, that my daughter’s French teacher isn’t even fluent, let alone a native speaker.

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