A world of wonderful words at Bickley Park School

Patrick Wenham, the Headteacher, discusses the importance of teaching languages to children in a global world

Across the world, it is estimated that there are around 6,900 languages spoken. 

Mandarin has the largest number of native speakers, at around 955 million, followed by Spanish, with 405 million, then English at 360 million. These three languages are spoken by around 25% of the world’s population.

With free translation tools at the tips of our fingers, it has never been easier to interpret and decipher most of these languages. So, is there any point teaching our children how to converse in another tongue anymore? The short answer is ‘yes’.  In fact, we believe it is more important than ever to be able to communicate in a world full of wonderful words.

At Bickley Park School, we begin teaching French in nursery. At this stage, children are more receptive to learn, and generally don’t have the inhibitions from which older pupils sometimes suffer. New words are exciting: the act of remembering and reciting can help, and enhance, a child’s mental development.  As they learn, they also develop and grasp the skills of grammar, sentence structure and punctuation, so there’s a positive knock-on effect on their English too.   

Once children begin to scratch the surface of a new language, they become intrigued about the words we use in everyday English, noticing that some sound alike or derive from other languages. Languages feed a child’s curiosity and creativity, whilst building their confidence.

‘These approaches to learning are designed not just to excite an interest in language learning, but to open the ideas of young children to the amazing world in which they live.’

If we look at our European counterparts, most pupils begin to learn a new language at between six to nine years old, with some being taught two. Many deem this to be a young age, but we believe it’s never too early to learn.

However, since 2004, children in the UK have not had to continue to learn a second language beyond the age of 14. Considering we generally don’t start introducing language lessons to children until they are 11 years old, a mere three years of effort should give cause for concern that they will be disadvantaged alongside peers from other countries.

Experts predict that the world will become even more inter-connected and that the ability to communicate effectively with a range of people from different cultures and backgrounds will be an essential. An understanding of not just language, but also culture will be an important weapon in the armoury of a 21st-century citizen.

Children at Bickley Park learn French up to a high standard, but 10–13-year-olds also learn Spanish, with numbers, at the age of 12 or 13, taking GCSEs after three years of study and usually gaining A or A* grades. However, another aspect of their modern foreign languages programme includes world culture lessons in which they study a major country whilst learning its language at a conversational level and about its culture. This term, for instance, Year 3 are learning Russian and about Russia; next term they will learn Mandarin and about China and, in the summer term, they will learn Arabic and about Arabic customs.

These approaches to learning are designed not just to excite an interest in language learning, but to open the ideas of young children to the amazing world in which they live. Furthermore, it will enable them to stand out in a crowded world, as individuals with an international skill set and mind set. 


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