Michael Gove has announced at the Conservative Party conference (2011) that Primary Schools should teach Modern Foreign Languages to children from 5 years old, and that he is prepared to ‘pull all the levers’ to make this work, including extending the school day by one hour. Alongside this are other announcements, including more secondary-style subject-specialists teaching in primary schools. Stunningly, this seems to be a very popular proposal, with very little dissent across the political spectrum. Where it’s reported in the papers (online) you’ll see hundreds of comments of the likes of ‘though I hate to agree with Gove, I agree with him on this’.
I’m not against children learning foreign languages, just as I’m not against them learning anything else, except the techniques for violence of any kind. In fact, I’m very much in favour of learning about foreign and heritage languages and cultures, which can be done effectively through acquiring a language. However, I need to point out a few reasons why we can’t unthinkingly accept this proposal. This is an ideological proposal without due consideration of either the intrinsic motivations children might have or of any extrinsic rationale for increasing multilingualism by English children. Gove is mainly pushing the subsidiary argument here, that second language acquisition has neurological benefits transferable to other learning, but in comparing English schools to those in other countries, he is also suggesting that multiple languages are a requisite for national competitiveness.
Neither of these two arguments is proven or even sound. I’ve only just read the news reports and have not had time to research the issue to refresh my memory in detail, but I recall that the claim of neurological benefits of bilingualism have been proven to be unclear. Bilingualism only develops skills that are transferable to linguistic skills, not to other domains of learning. In other words, knowing two languages doesn’t make you deficient in either language (although there may be some reduced ability to pronounce naturally in one or the other).
More importantly, if we’re talking about schools, any neurological benefits could only apply to learning that is so effective that the results are equivalent to natural bilingualism. Such results require immersion, where other subjects are learned through the foreign language and where the context (e.g. migration) helps the children feel that their language learning is essential.
Curriculum structures in England don’t allow for foreign language acquisition to fluency, even with weekly lessons over 5 or 6 years. If children don’t progress relatively quickly to competence, and have little contextual motivation, many will lose interest. If Gove’s goal is that children should acquire a second language to competence, so that their languages can become economically useful at maturity, there would need to be major alterations across the full timetable, staff profile and teaching methodology in primary schools. As it is impossible to imagine that the majority of schools would teach wholly or partly through a foreign language, significant time would need to be taken from other areas, and this is likely to be to the detriment of physical, outdoor and creative activities. If Gove wants to extend the primary school day by one hour, formal learning will cut into after school arts and sports. If we imagine that 95 hours a year is extended from 5 or 6 years to 10 or 11 years of schooling, and then account for the factor of teaching yet more languages, this would take up approximately 1300 hours of schooling and still not achieve fluency except in a minority of children.
There is an additional concern about how this works through Secondary School transition. Again, if fluency is the goal, a particular language will dry up if it is not continued throughout Secondary school. However, it is difficult to see how there can be continuity of one key language for the same child through both the Primary and Secondary phases. In England, we don’t have the advantage of other countries worldwide who have English as the prime choice for a second language. We have no prime choice.
There is a common argument for the ‘critical period hypothesis’; the notion that the cut-off period for language acquisition is at age 12. This must be driving Gove’s push to introduce foreign language at age 5. It is indeed true that young children, because they have a pronounced capacity to absorb, repeat and imitate sounds, can pick up languages quickly. However, this doesn’t mean that adults are unable to acquire a language to fluency. New techniques have recently been developed to retune the mature brain to notice and recall what seem like alien sounds. Also, it may be misguided to attempt to teach a foreign language outside an immersive bilingual setting to young children. To learn an unfamiliar language without immersion, you need some maturity as a language learner and an ability to grasp the metacognitive dimension of language. (You need to understand that a word is a symbol, that a thing can be represented by more than one word, that meanings differ with context and so on.) In this formal setting, the younger you start the more likely it is to put a child off from language learning when they are ready and can actually see the need.
The particular flavour of this ideological push for multilingualism fails to acknowledge that an increasing number of children in England are already bilingual at age 5, yet their schooling encourages them to stop using their first language (Sylheti, Arabic, Polish, Urdu, Hindu, Mandarin etc etc) in favour of English. Some of these languages might be economically relevant for the UK but somehow these children, when resident as first to third generation immigrants, don’t fit the image of English native child representing the nation abroad.
When we assume that foreign language acquisition is an undeniable good, we are failing to consider the effort, and even pain, that children can experience in trying to learn. We’re also assuming economic benefits that are completely unpredictable if we are projecting 15-25 years into the future when these primary children reach maturity. In that time, technology will very likely bring instant translation devices (as we are almost at that point now with instant translation of text online and vocal translation apps) and, in turn, we will see a greater homogenisation with English as a dominant language. Also, the impacts of climate change in and beyond that period will see forced migrations to more benign places such as the UK. The purpose of foreign languages in that context will be for peace-keeping and extracting knowledge for co-operative adaptation and conservation of heritage, in the absence of available translation technology.
I’m not projecting this future in order to be cynical or dismissive. I don’t want to be looking ahead to a future like this but my picture is based on the agreed projections that I believe we should acknowledge in planning future education. I’m projecting this way so that we can set language acquisition in a more appropriate frame.
I stress that I don’t want to be seen to be dismissing the learning of diverse languages out of hand. I would like to see children leaving primary school with much richer awareness of other countries, peoples, stories, words and meanings, but think this would be better achieved by greater emphasis on ‘global citizenship’, using technology to enable foreign exchange, and with more access to the music, poetry, art, ecological practices and ideas of global peoples. This should include helping children to greet others and use basic conversational vocabulary (‘my name is…’, ‘I live in…’ etc) in several languages. Aiming to attain fluency in a foreign language is another matter entirely and that should be a matter of family choice. If the child is already bilingual, they may prefer support to maintain their home language in school, rather than learning a third language, for example. Language learning, and schooling in general, should be personalised. Some children have strong aptitudes and motivations for developing language fluency, and local authorities should provide educational resources for this purpose, but the Government should not impose it as a requirement on every school for every child.