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Modern languages in a primary school setting: oui ou non?

Karine Early, Head of Modern Foreign Languages at Barrow Hills School, thinks languages should be taught as early as nursery school

Posted by Rianna Newman | July 02, 2017 | Teaching

For many children, learning a modern language is not a lesson they are challenged with until they reach secondary school. But at Barrow Hills School, an independent co-educational prep school in Surrey for children aged two to 13, being exposed to the words and sounds associated with a new language begins as early as the nursery years.

I believe the earlier the children are familiarised with the accent and pronunciation of difficult sounds – such as the ‘r’ in French, the better. Our children in nursery can already say a few words correctly and because of their age, there is a huge enthusiasm for learning something new.

Technique tactics

Naturally, when working with very young children, teaching techniques need to be adapted to match capability and care is taken to avoid confusing children, who at this early stage in their learning journey, are still developing skills in their mother tongue. Learning is done through games and songs so the children associate learning a language with fun activities. 

The gender divide

At the risk of perpetuating a stereotype, traditionally it has been acknowledged that sciences are more the boys’ domain (a view which is certainly no longer true given the focus on STEM for girls these days) whereas girls excel more than their male counterparts when it comes to learning a new language. Research indicates that there is a difference in performance between girls and boys in languages, with the girls outperforming the boys.

It is really important to vary the teaching style to engage girls and boys. Boys like spoken games, competition and writing tasks which have clear time limits. Girls and boys like lessons which are ‘active’, especially when learning grammar.

Popular choices

In terms of the most popular modern languages to introduce within the primary school environment, French and Spanish tend to dominate. Both languages are considered sufficiently mainstream for children to appreciate their relevance, for example, many parents may elect to holiday in either France or Spain, providing the child with an opportunity to experience the language at first-hand.

Benefits of a modern language

But outside of the clear advantages of being able to communicate with these ‘holiday friends’ there are clear benefits of a young child learning a second language.

Teaching a modern language extends to introducing a child to cultural differences, for example, learning how Christmas is celebrated in France and in other countries. Children are fascinated by this phenomenon and interested in finding out more, indeed, frequently these sessions pave the way for wider discussions.

In addition, getting to grips with another language can actually help them make good progress with the finer points of their first language.

In many ways learning a modern language helps a child’s overall confidence and progression with their first language. In the case of Barrow Hills’ children English is obviously the first language they are taught in the classroom, but by taking early steps to introduce them to either French or Spanish, it clarifies and supports the linguistics – or ‘theory’ – behind those English language lessons.

Future language options

Whatever language is chosen, it is likely to provide a good foundation for extending a child’s fluency in further modern languages later on. Once a pupil has a firm grasp of the basics, especially the grammar, it is really only a question of getting up to speed with the vocabulary before making it possible to communicate with a degree of proficiency. 


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