Parents and early years educators often consider when is an appropriate time for young children to begin learning a new language. Yojana Sharma explores different approaches across Europe.

Early foreign language classes are on a roll. All primary schools in England are expected to teach a language from next year, and many are doing so in key stage 1 already - with official blessing and parent support. La Jolie Ronde, the commercial French and Spanish course for early learners, has doubled the number of language centres around the country from 500 five years ago to about 1,000. This comes on top of a tenfold increase of sales to primary schools in the past four years.

The switch to earlier teaching appears to be an international phenomenon. Almost all European countries already start a foreign language between eight and 10, and others have lowered the age of starting English by at least three years. In France, it has been brought forward to seven and in some German states as low as six. In Spain, a language is now being offered from three. And there is evidence all over Europe that parents want to go lower still, convinced that English will give their children an advantage in the global economy.

In South Korea, English is taught from eight, but parents flock to enrol their children in private preschool English classes to give them a head start. Japan is more cautiously introducing primary English as parents push the pace by spending millions of yen on out-of-school classes. In China, swifter expansion of English in primary is restricted only by a lack of teachers. But is earlier always best? South Korea recently outlawed preschool English language centres, saying too early English was not appropriate for children’s development - although the ban has had little effect so far.

Meanwhile, Germany is embroiled in a row over how low to go after secondary English teachers in Bavaria said primary languages were “redundant” and that, after one year of secondary school, there was no difference in language skills between pupils who started in primary and those who started at the beginning of secondary. As a result, some German politicians are calling for a winding back of primary languages.

“The entire claim of ‘the earlier the better’ has never been well founded,” says Professor Wolfgang Klein, director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. “Now it turns out that attempts to teach languages early are not always successful, it may be given up or modified.”

Marianne Nikolov, professor of English applied linguistics at Pecs University in Hungary, is a noted expert on early language learning. “People assume that an early start will bring linguistic benefits,” she says. But she points to studies in Spain comparing younger-starting cohorts to older language learners that found no significant difference, or only a very slight one. “This is exactly what would be expected. The younger the learner, the longer it takes to achieve the same level compared to someone at a slightly later age,” she says. “What younger children are good at is willingness to learn.”

In the Seventies and Eighties, experts believed children were neurologically receptive to learning a second language at particular ages. Known as the “critical period”, subsequent research suggested that around nine was the best age to start. But the comparisons were mainly with adult learners rather than older children. Now it is generally agreed that during childhood, age is not the only factor for language success. “Up to age 10 there is no evidence of any change in development that would make a certain age better for language learning,” says Professor Klein. “Before 10 it is not about age but the amount of access to a language and other pressures that affect motivation, such as pupils asking: ‘Why do I have to learn this?’” With English now a global lingua franca, there is huge motivation around the world to master it at an early age. But in the UK, the first foreign language is usually French.

“Motivation levels and support from parents for a foreign language is not so strong in England as it is in other countries,” says Dr Janet Enever of London Metropolitan University. “As the child does not have a reason to do the language, it is up to the teacher to generate enthusiasm and enjoyment.” This may put more pressure on primary teachers here compared to other countries. So can we avoid the pitfalls and tap into children’s ability to learn without fear? In England, there is no minimum requirement of language proficiency for primary teachers, unlike in Austria or Italy, which require proficiency comparable to above GCSE level. Dr Enever is director of the Early Language Learning in Europe (ELLiE) project, a study of 1,200 early language learners in seven countries, including England. Their research found that while teacher qualifications varied widely, the countries taking part preferred generalist primary teachers with an expertise in foreign language, rather than specialist language teachers. “The important thing with primary teachers is that they are able to use instruction in the language with confidence and integrate it into the primary curriculum in various ways,” Dr Enever says.

ELLiE said that 47 per cent of teachers found teaching at primary level exciting and rewarding, 37 per cent found it “exciting but challenging and difficult”, indicating a need for considerable support. But 16 per cent found it “demanding and exhausting”. “This is a delicate issue everywhere,” Professor Nikolov says. “Sometimes in primary the teachers are not qualified. They do not want to teach languages and in some cases they are forced. In some cases they are the main problem, typically they say there is not enough time in the curriculum.” Dr Lid King, national director for languages, is responsible for organising the primary languages strategy in England and is aware of how important staff training is for the success of early language learning. “We are making provision to train 900 primary language specialists a year,” Dr King says. He estimates about 4,600 specialists are already in place. But that still leaves 17,000 primary schools without a specialist and some way to go before every primary has one, like Austria. However, Dr King believes that only a small number of schools have teachers with no language qualification. He estimates that some 40 per cent of primary teachers are thought to have a language at A-level or better, while more than one in 10 schools employ a native speaker.

Research suggests that the amount of time pupils spend learning a language does increase their proficiency. However, this does not relate only to the number of years a language has been learnt but also to the number of hours a week is dedicated to learning. The European Union’s recently published “Key Data on Teaching Languages at School in Europe 2008”, found that while schools were beginning a first foreign language earlier, usually less than 10 per cent of classroom time is devoted to it. It is rare for languages to take up more than two hours a week in primary. Antonella Sorace, professor of developmental linguistics at Edinburgh University, believes studies that show little advantage for early language learning often looked at classrooms where children were learning for only a limited time each week. “You need more than half an hour or an hour a week. In an ideal world, language should be a very important part of the curriculum,” she says.

Heiner Bottger of Eichstatt University in Germany carried out the research among Bavarian teachers that instigated the backlash against early language in the country. He believes misunderstandings about what can be achieved in an hour or two a week in primary may have prompted secondary teachers to dismiss an early start. “The main objective of primary English in Bavaria is as a first stage into the English language,” he says. “But what I found was that secondary school teachers had high expectations of primary English language learning.” This highlights the radical overhaul of language learning that occurs right through the school system to the end of secondary, when languages are brought into primary.

Professor Nikolov says: “Continuation in secondary schools is a problem everywhere in Europe except in some countries such as Finland and Sweden where the foreign language is part of the core curriculum. I would say not one country is completely successful in ensuring the transition to secondary.” In England, the QCA has found the proportion of primary pupils learning a language has risen to more than 70 per cent but there is wide variation in the methods used to teach them.

Marina Dixon, primary languages adviser for Suffolk, says: “Our secondary schools may have five to seven feeder primaries, where four might be doing French very well and others that are not doing so much.” Suffolk has made tackling transition problems a priority of its languages strategy. “We need to develop an understanding for secondary teachers of what primary languages mean. It is not just a bit of singing and dancing that they can ignore when the children come to secondary,” Ms Dixon says. “There should be some joint teaching and mutual lesson observation. What we don’t want is for children to arrive in Year 7, do what they have done before and switch off.”

Dr King agrees that the biggest challenge will be the transition to secondary. “But this is not just a problem for languages - we have transition problems in maths and English too at 11, 16 and even 18.” But pressure on secondary language teachers may be eased as a result of the overhaul of key stage 3 languages to take better account of what is happening in primary schools. Further cause for optimism can be found in Suffolk. Four years ago, only a few of its primary schools had French clubs. Now 95 per cent of children in the county are learning a language at primary school age. Ms Dixon also believes that by 2011, when languages will be a fully statutory requirement, “we will have children with a range of experiences, but the most positive is that they will have four years of language at a stage where children are very fast learners.”

WHEN DO THEY START IN EUROPE? The age of beginning compulsory first foreign language varies across Europe - Spain - 3 - Austria - 6 - Italy - 6 - Norway - 6 - Portugal - 6 - Germany - 6-8 - France - 7 - Finland - 7 - Poland - 7 - Sweden - 7 - Czech R. - 8 - Belgium - 8 - Denmark - 9 - Hungary - 9 - Netherlands – 10

Source: Yojana Sharma , Times Educational Supplement – 29th May 2009