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17 January 2011

Learning at last: The language lesson Britain ignored 50 years ago

The Empire has long gone, so how come so many of us remain convinced that British ideas are the best? And that anything Johnny Foreigner thinks up can’t be any good?

The reality is that we can learn so much from the lead of other European nations. A simple and obvious one here in Spain is the central filter lane that allows traffic to turn left on to busy highways without blocking traffic on the main road.

But since the UK authorities didn’t think up the idea themselves, such filter lanes don’t seem to exist in Britain. Which is why you often see traffic clogged up by a lone vehicle trying vainly to get onto the opposite side of a main carriageway.

But nowhere is our rejection of superior European logic better demonstrated than in the pathetic attitude of British educationalists towards teaching children foreign languages.

The penny is finally beginning to drop, half a century after the rest of Europe showed us the way - and we chose to think we knew better.

While primary school kids in Holland, Scandinavia, Germany and France were being taught English from virtually the moment they started school, know-all British educationalists were fearful of causing confusion. Secondary school, they reasoned, was the time to begin – at a point when children have in fact passed the age when their sponge-like brains are able to become truly fluent in foreign languages.

In reality, young children do not become confused if introduced to an alien tongue. Indeed, they not only have the most amazing ability to absorb the complexities of language, but can learn a foreign one in a matter of months.

And so brilliant is their ability to mimic that even native speakers have no idea that they are in fact foreigners.

I was staggered when my six-year-old granddaughter suddenly started counting in Spanish – with a Mexican accent. At the time she’d never even been to Spain, let alone Mexico. She’d merely been watching Dora the Explorer on TV, and was mimicking what she heard.

To me, it was merely evidence of what I and many others have known for many years – that the BEST time to start teaching children another language is when they are toddlers. Or at least by the time they begin junior school.

Research by international linguistic experts has found that if children are introduced to a second language by the age of six or seven, they can achieve native-like proficiency. In other words, young children’s innate mimicry skills enables expat British five and six-year-olds to pick up Spanish to a level undistinguishable from the natives.

Many expat parents will vouch for that. Beautician Cath Munz moved to Orihuela Costa from Blackburn with her husband and family when children Bradley and Abigail were five and four respectively.

Jose Perez (centre) with some of my Belingua classmates
Both youngsters achieved fluency in Spanish within 12 to 18 months, without in any way compromising their English-language skills. Cath’s experience emphasises the folly of the traditional UK system which keeps foreign languages off most school timetables until secondary school.

For all the talk of educational advancement, until now little seems to have changed in Britain since my own schooldays half a century ago. I was taught French and Latin – but only from the age of 12. And that, according to the linguistic experts, is much too late for most children to achieve real fluency.

Instead, those of us who choose to leave our native country as mature adults face years of studying and frustration in order to master the local tongue to an acceptable level.

More often we end up being accused of laziness because we have neither the time nor inclination to spend hundreds of hours trying to soak up masses of alien gibberish when most of the natives speak English anyway.

Still, I can assure the tiny minority who do pursue the dream of speaking Spanish properly that the rewards are immense. Among the pupils in the three-hours-a-week class I attend at the Berlingua School of Languages in Quesada are five different nationalities – and that doesn’t include the lone Spaniard, our teacher Jose Perez.

The class includes two young women, a Russian and a Hungarian, who don’t speak English. Yet the mere fact we can chat together when we don’t speak each other’s language is something truly special.

But I’d happily have done without that special experience if only Spanish – or indeed any other foreign language - had been on the junior school curriculum in my hometown Cardiff way back in the 1960s.

FIrst published in Female Focus magazine, 2010