How many of us wish we could turn back the clock and learn a foreign language, so we could show off our fluent French, Spanish, German, Urdu – or whatever it might be – on holiday?
Thankfully most primary schools are now teaching at least one language. This will become statutory for Key Stage 2 from September 2013, although we are still waiting with bated polyglot breath for further, more specific direction from Mr. Gove, following his unenlightening comments in his letter to Mr. Oates: “Pupils must learn to speak in sentences, with appropriate pronunciation…”. **
To date, the language of choice in the primary sector is still almost exclusively French. But some primary schools are now offering Spanish, German, even Mandarin, and I heard recently from a Head of Department that they are taking to Mandarin like Peking Ducks to water. However, European languages remain by far the most accessible, both in terms of speed of progress and speed of travel to a country where you can show off your skills.
In an ideal multilingual world, any language should be introduced from toddling age. Parents, linguists and scientists agree that an infant’s linguistic brain is more permeable. (I doubt those are the scientists’ words, but something to that effect.) Young children up to puberty-ish relish new words, new sounds, new songs and new concepts. They are not nearly as embarrassed or self conscious or afraid of making mistakes as their teenage siblings, and they have exactly the attitude which most secondary school MFL teachers would give their right arm for.
Teenagers often need to be coaxed, unless of course a foreign language will help them ‘pull’ on the school exchange! Luckily most schools and language tutors now subscribe to some great language learning websites and Apps, although these are merely the icing on the cake. (Ever wondered why in French, we say the “cherry on the cake”?) Websites won’t get you through your exams without the teacher-input, but they will make your homework more fun. Now, as controlled coursework is gradually phased out of language assessments, to be replaced by more spontaneous speaking and writing, we hope that all pupils will see languages more as tools for human communication: tools which open doors to so many new places and people.
Adults, even reticent retirees, need not despair – au contraire! I once taught a group of eleven lovely ladies, where the average age was 72. They lapped it up and made outstanding progress, with or without the delicious Bordeaux oiling the wheels of the conversation. Most importantly, it is never too late to learn a language, and everyone is more than capable of it: you just need to develop the right skills. Then with each language you learn, you will find it comes more naturally. A little like learning a musical instrument or a sport, all it takes is practice with a pinch of passion, and an inspiring teacher can make you love languages and live languages, until – like me – you realise that you could not live without them.
** From the DfE website, June 2012: