We must lift our children out of linguistic poverty

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Thu Jan 15 12:52:48 UTC 2009

Caroline Sarll: We must lift our children out of linguistic poverty

Thursday, 15 January 2009

It could only be in the Sarll household that you would hear the
following: "Dad! Daaa-aaad! Mum wants me to tell you that your eye is
getting cold!" Daughter No 2 then returns to the dining table,
oblivious of her faux pas, and gets on with eating her own "eye" –
complete with soldiers for dipping. Yummy. No, we are neither
aficionados of the Marquis de Sade, nor honorary guests at some
strangely exotic feast. We are just a mildly maverick family, still
attempting, after 12 seesaw years, to raise both daughters
bilingually. I've become accustomed to these occasional lapses into
Denglisch, and I don't bat an Augen-lid when my girls mix their
English and German. I know that Felicity meant to say "egg", and that
the German word for it, Ei, stashed away in her bilingual brain for
our German immersion days, just oozed out inadvertently. Kein Problem.

At least I know that my efforts are paying off. The girls are still
reluctant to answer me in German (which makes them, apparently,
passive bilingual), but they understand any German that is spoken to
them and I am confident that one day, in the not too distant future,
the German responses will start tumbling out. As they did, albeit
somewhat uniformly, a few weeks ago. Both girls accompanied me on a
working trip to southern Germany, where they went to school for a
week. "Science in German. Can't wait," said Daughter No 1
disaffectedly, pre-pubescent and prone to regular "Am I bovvered?
bouts. While the girls were eating their zweites Frühstück (two
breakfasts had to be an incentive to go), I, funded by an EU Comenius
grant, was job-shadowing in a German primary and secondary school.

I was finding out how they get their youngsters speaking a second
language at such an early age – at six or seven years of age, at least
four years before we traditionally get our pupils started. With four
50-minute lessons of English a week, that's how.  Compare this with
our state school average of three lessons of German, French or Spanish
over two weeks, and it becomes clear that time invested is the key.
Forget technical and whiteboard wizardry – neither school that I
visited possessed such gizmos, yet the pupils could converse
brilliantly in English after just a year. That was a real fillip for
us chalk'n'talk teachers, who still insist on the entire class parsing
a verb at the expense of all those wacky visual aids.

The results prove that the Germans and other European states have got
it right. In a recent survey, nearly 70 per cent of Britons said that
they could not speak any language other than their mother tongue.
Across the EU, this figure is 44 per cent. Our reputation as a
linguistically neutered nation is reflected, too, in the alarming
nosedive in GCSE language entries. In 2001, 78 per cent of all pupils
took at least one language; this year, it was a mere 46 per cent. In
Wales, a nation that parades its bilingual badge unashamedly, the
figures are even more depressing: in 1996, 46 per cent of pupils took
at least one language, but this was down to a dismal 28 per cent this
year. Cymru Am Byth (look it up) is all very well – and, before you
think otherwise, as well as speaking German and French, I am a Welsh
learner and proud of it – but not at the expense of our ability to
function within a European and global context. To survive in today's
world, we Welsh citizens must start speaking other languages, not just
our own.

Thankfully, although our family language "policy" may set us apart
somewhat, I know that I am not alone in trying to stop the rot in
national languages. My school has been offering French to its
reception children and upwards for some years, and German is
introduced from year four. Our recent European Languages Day was a
marvellous multilingual display (we even had a rap in Latin!), which
proved, through the pupils' aptitude, that starting young is the only
way forward. Nationally, by 2010, all primaries must offer a modern
foreign language, and in Wales, various primaries have been involved
in a pilot scheme to do the same.

However, many schools have still not signed up to do this, citing
curriculum constraints as the reason. As I reflect on the success of
my Comenius trip and continue with my daily struggle to give my
daughters a lifelong, culturally enriching experience, I urge those
schools to think again. Primaries, please minimise those Harvest,
Christmas and Easter concert rehearsals and give your pupils something
that they cannot achieve when they leave you. It has been
scientifically proven that after the age of 11 our voice boxes undergo
a change that makes the perfect mimicry of another tongue almost

As Daughter No 2 would say: "Don't put all your 'eyes' in one basket."
Embrace this new, language-loving approach. Parents, nag your child's
primary school. Today. You, too, could soon have a language-loving
child who will astound you with the priceless question: "Mummy, what
comes after sechs?"

The writer teaches modern languages at St John's School, Porthcawl, South Wales

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