It is interesting that the UK is finally taking note of the importance of learning a language from an early age. As reported by the BBC, schools in England and Wales will introduce a foreign language from the age of 7 in primary schools from 2014, subject to public consultation. The Scottish government has previously said that Scottish school children will start learning a foreign language from the moment they start school, aged 5.
This is something I wholeheartedly support. I often feel that my struggle to learn French was directly linked to the fact that I only started learning when I was 11 years old and was only required to learn a foreign language until the age of 15. Being young, and not very good, I instantly dropped French after my standard grade, which is something I now bitterly regret.
Native English speakers often have the attitude “Oh, everyone speaks English anyway.” and I feel that this is why foreign languages have previously been seen to lack importance compared to other subjects. Of course, though, they are wrong.
What’s strange is that my mother, being fluent in French and Italian, had a golden opportunity to bring me up as a bilingual child. However, perhaps inadequate support, or a lack of knowledge of effective implementation, prevented her from doing this with me. If she had known that what she was teaching me was being backed up in the classroom, I wonder if she would have perhaps been more willing to give it a go.
I learnt a lot about my native language by using principals I learnt in French. Tense’s, for example, were something I was never taught in English class (English Literature was favoured over English language), but, they are something I became familiar with by learning their French equivalents.
I feel that by teaching children from a younger age, not only will there be a vastly larger number of British children who become Bilingual and take languages further than GCSE or Standard Grade, but standards of our written and spoken English will also improve. Indeed, in her book, Raising Bilingual Children (Mars Publishing 2003) Carey Myles states that “Bilingualism has been linked to a variety of positive cognitive benefits, including early reading, improved problem-solving skills, and higher scores on the SATs, including the math section.”
Working in a Language School, I am constantly surprised by students’ abilities and often ashamed at my own lack of a foreign language. What is common among the majority of our students, is that they have been learning English since they were very young and many of these students come to us aiming for fluency, not just to achieve conversational level. This will hopefully be the outcome for UK students.
Personally, I’d be happy if I could still have a basic conversation in French! Who knows, had I been caught young – perhaps I’d be doing that and more by now!
For me, there is a long way to go – so here’s hoping that the future generations of UK children will be able to go into a foreign hotel without asking “Do you speak English?” in years to come!