Education Undersecretary Elizabeth Truss has just announced that all seven-year-olds in England will learn a foreign language – possibly Latin or ancient Greek. As a harassed parent who has to coax her 13-year-old son into doing his much-hated French homework, I can only cheer.
It has long struck me that we go about teaching our children foreign languages the wrong way. It is no surprise that we are by far the worst nation at languages. A few primary schools do teach a bit of French, but, in the main, we don’t address ourselves to conjugation until we are at secondary school.
Only by then it’s far too late. The point where our brains are spongy enough to absorb a language like it was a bag of sweeties is long gone, plus we are self-conscious teenagers.
Last night my son and I spent a depressing and relentless hour or so trying to get him ready for an exercise in spoken French. I have to admit he sounded terrible – but I don’t suppose a great many of his classmates will be much better. He can’t wait to give up French and I don’t really blame him.
Wouldn’t it be marvellous if our kids learned a language – doesn’t necessarily have to be French – while they are young enough to think it’s fun and not to care how awkward bending their mouths around alien sounds?
Presumably, it doesn’t matter what the language is – it’s the exercise of learning, and using, another tongue that wakes that bit of the brain up, preparing it for communicating with the rest of the world later. And that’s where Latin and ancient Greek have an advantage – the thorny issue of pronunciation is gone, because no one knows how it’s supposed to sound.
For a few years I lived in a Spanish speaking country. During my time there, I tried my very hardest to learn that most musical of languages. Living there I was doing everything they suggest you should – eavesdropping on buses, watching the TV, shopping and trying to understand jokes. It was total immersion.
Eventually I had enough Spanish to get by, but I was consistently frustrated by my inability to run with the words, like the locals did. Meanwhile, oddly, I found all the O Level French I had amassed some decades previously had mysteriously vanished from my memory.
I could only conclude there was only space in my head for the rudimentary parts of one foreign language at a time. I looked around me and saw others – ex pats from Germany, Sweden and Holland – breathed in the new language, as well as mine and a few others.
These people learned a second (and often third) language as part of their earliest education. So I say, bring it on, I say. Or rather “arcessite” if you want it in Latin.