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Compulsory languages at primary school level may be a positive step, but does it address the bigger picture?

Curriculum changes, a new education secretary and policy reviews all spell good things for language education. But is enough being done to join up the dots?

This academic year, primary school pupils started learning languages. A change to the curriculum now requires all schools using the national curriculum in England to teach a modern foreign language at primary key stage 2. Pupils aged seven to 11 will be learning basic French or Spanish and, in some schools, even Mandarin and Arabic.

A recent report from the British Council said that 85% of primary schools welcomed the move. “It’s a very positive step to introduce languages at key stage 2,” says Vicky Gough, schools adviser for the British Council. “But will they be able to continue the language they have chosen at secondary school?”

Gough’s comments address the bigger picture in language education: although small steps are being made, giant leaps are still a long way off.

The educational benefits of introducing compulsory languages at primary level are plentiful. From the pupils’ perspective, the learning process is thought to be easier. Research into brain development says the younger brain is more able to learn certain skills, in particular those related to languages and music. This is to do with the brain’s ability to form connections, or its neuroplasticity. In other words, a child’s brain is literally more malleable.

It is also thought that children learn languages better when they are younger because they aren’t as shy as teenagers about their accents or making mistakes. Paolo Pini, managing director of primary language support network Language Angels, says there is also a benefit to the child’s overall educational development: “Learning at an earlier age helps them to develop a forensic approach to language learning as well as developing long-term memory skills.”

From a policy perspective, however, the curriculum change hasn’t filled some of the big gaps in language teaching.

One criticism, which Gough raises, is the question of what will happen when pupils get to secondary school. There is no provision for ensuring the same languages offered at key stage 2 will be available at the secondary school the pupil attends. Considering some secondary schools can have up to 25 feeder schools, all with different languages taught to varying degrees of ability, secondary schools will be tasked with teaching students with a broad spectrum of linguistic backgrounds.

Pini’s company, Language Angels, provides primary schools with teaching specialists and resources. Pini says the majority of primaries he works with have opted to teach French as part of the new curriculum, with Spanish second most popular. Gough says she would like to see a longer list of languages available at primary level. “Our Languages for the Future report identified the languages that will be vital to the UK over the next 20 years and it would be great to see more schools teaching those languages,” she says. Mandarin, Arabic and Turkish were among the 10 languages on the list.

But such an ambitious plan is a far-off vision. Even implementing the current curriculum is a challenge, due to a fundamental lack of language teachers. “The most significant problem remains the lack of foreign-language specialist teachers available,” Pini says. “There are so few available, perhaps as a consequence of the many years in which prolonged compulsory foreign-language learning at school has been neglected, that it is impossible to sate the demand of all the primary schools in the UK.”

The coalition government’s cabinet reshuffle, which saw Nicky Morgan appointed education secretary, could see this change. In her first day on the job, she announced a review of the GCSE and A-level syllabuses, which included a large chunk of work around how languages are taught.

Morgan’s consultation took into account research conducted by an advisory board led by the Russell Group for matching up A-level teaching so it better feeds through to university level.

Katrin Kohl, German literature professor at Oxford University, who sits on the A-level Content Advisory Board (Alcab), says the emphasis on languages as simply a skill useful for employment has eroded the pleasure of language learning. “It has completely turned young people off languages,” she says.

Some of Alcab’s proposals are quite radical. It wants to see more English in A-level foreign teaching – the rationale being that, given the relatively little time available to language teaching, students may not have the intellectual tools needed within the target language to engage creatively with certain texts, such as a piece of literature or a challenging film.

Kohl says one of the most pressing needs for A-level reform is how exams are currently assessed. “The criteria are effectively: use of the spoken language; written language; and manipulation of language. There’s nothing there to do with culture,” Kohl says. “Culture might come in as a carrier of languages, but examiners aren’t expected to know what you’re writing about.”

If Alcab’s proposals were to be put in place, the A-level syllabus could see the inclusion of authors such as Gabriel García Márquez and an all-round emphasis on foreign literature and culture.

Kohl wants to move beyond the idea of languages as something that just boosts employability – including at primary level. “Kids should be taught transferable language skills, thereby opening their minds to what languages can do. This is not just something you learn bits of – it’s actually something to do with how we think,” Kohl says. “We can’t think without languages. We can’t communicate across cultures without understanding them through their languages.”

The Guardian