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Start Your Language Learning Early

August 2, 2019, 12:40 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • The government is trying to address the declining popularity of MFL at GCSE and A Level, but it’s at primary level that real progress will be made, says Mala Henry…
Start Your Language Learning Early

The fall in pupils studying foreign languages at GCSE and A Level continues to cause concern and unease. According to BBC research undertaken in February this year, uptake in foreign languages at GCSE has declined between 30 and 50% in some parts of England since 2013.

Students disclosed that languages are seen as a ‘high risk’ subject both by themselves and their schools, and that many believe “It is harder to get a good grade in a language.” The report further revealed that foreign language learning is currently at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium.

To help boost Britain’s linguistic skills, Schools Minister Nick Gibb in April unveiled a target for getting three in four secondary starters studying one language at GCSE and taking the exam, starting from this September. Will this change make any difference, or do we perhaps need to go back to grassroots and address what’s really happening and being achieved at primary level?

Citizens of the world

Despite the government making language learning compulsory for children between the ages of 7 to 11 back in 2014, little progress has been made, with a good number of primaries still struggling. The British Council’s Language Trends 2018 report stated that, “Languages remain a marginal subject which many primary schools find challenging to deliver alongside many other competing demands. The lack of consistency between primary schools, in a context where secondary schools take pupils from many different feeders, is one of the barriers to smooth transition and hinders coherent progression in learning.”

Research produced by scientists and language experts over a number of years has repeatedly shown that introducing foreign languages to young learners has significant benefits. Among those experts is Patricia Kuhl – a professor of speech and hearing sciences who has gained international recognition for her research into early language acquisition and brain development and studies of how young children learn.

Kuhl’s work has played a major role in demonstrating how early exposure to language alters the brain. As she explains in a TED talk titled ‘The Linguistic Genius of Babies’, “Babies all over the world are what I like to describe as ‘citizens of the world.’ They can discriminate all the sounds of all languages, no matter what country we’re testing and what language we’re using ... When babies listen, what they’re doing is taking statistics on the language that they hear. Why is it that some adults pronounce French with a foreign accent and toddlers will not? Because they no longer perceive sounds the way they did as infants. Now they hear the sounds through the filter of English, and as a result they have a foreign accent.”

Early language learning is the key to success at GCSE and A Level, but it needs to be delivered in a similar way to the other learning taking place at that age. The primary classroom teacher is of crucial importance here – they will have a relationship with their pupils, will understand their learning styles and needs, and can encourage and promote languages in the classroom.

Sadly, what they don’t have in many cases are the language and linguistic skills needed to deliver it. Training and the availability of resources thus become the essential ingredients for success.

Cross-curricular learning

La Jolie Ronde Languages for Children has a long and proven track record of successfully teaching French and Spanish to young children since being established in 1983. Children from as young as 5 are able to start learning through the La Jolie Ronde structured programme, and there are other programmes available for 0 to 3 and 3 to 4 year olds, enabling children to join the programme at a starting point appropriate to their age.

Children will proceed to absorb words, phrases and pronunciation through repeated exposure to the language, and through being taught in a relaxed environment with the aid of fun teaching methods. Young learners benefit more from being exposed to language and text through songs and stories, rather than simply working at word level and acquiring vocabulary.

Children will happily join in with engaging action songs and role play activities for the enjoyment they offer. An added bonus is that early language learning can also help them to develop other skills and reinforce their learning in other subject areas, such as PSHCE, PE, geography, literacy, music and dance. For these reasons alone, early years and primary are key times to make language learning a bigger part of the school week.

Naturally embedded

Issues that primary schools will likely need to manage include a lack of specialist teachers, an absence of good training opportunities, time constraints and budget restrictions, not to mention quality teaching materials.

La Jolie Ronde’s Scheme of Work for non-specialist teachers is specifically designed to address and solve each of these hurdles. Written in accordance with the MFL Programme of Study requirement, it’s an affordable, flexible 4-year programme that provides support to teachers with no previous experience of teaching foreign languages, while also serving as a guide for more experienced staff who can modify it to suit their needs.

One of the Scheme’s biggest benefits is that everything is already pre-prepared and planned in a consistent and easy to follow format.

Each lesson contains a set of learning outcomes, a link to the relevant Programme of Study objectives, suggested core vocabulary and details of the accompanying CDs and track numbers to be used in lessons, so that pupils can hear correct accents and pronunciations.

Split into two schemes, for years ¾ and 5/6, the lessons themselves are broadly divided into four 15-minute units, with each unit giving details of the teaching sequence suggested and pupil activity. Tailor-made training courses are also available, while pupil activity books prepared for each year are perfect for showing progression.

La Jolie Ronde programmes are developed and carefully prepared with the transition to secondary language learning in mind. Children who receive the learning experience of La Jolie Ronde classes and programmes take away with them happy memories of language learning that’s been ‘naturally’ embedded from the start, mirroring their experience of the other school subjects they’re taught. This helps to form a vital and positive foundation, and will give the pupils added confidence when the time comes for them to approach languages at secondary school.

Mala Henry is Marketing Manager for La Jolie Ronde; for more information, visit or follow @lajolierondeltd

Need help delivering languages?

La Jolie Ronde’s award-winning Scheme of Work allows you to meet the MFL Programme of Study requirement with confidence. Currently used in over 6,000 schools, teachers are able to deliver four years’ worth of teaching, whether it be in French, Spanish or both.

Perfect for the non-specialist teacher and an aid to the more experienced, the Scheme of Work consists of two halves one for years 3 and 4, and another for years 5 and 6. The Scheme includes detailed lesson plans, resource CDs, songs and poems, IWB activities and digital sound files for embedding pronunciation.

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