Now some nursery schools are attempting to borrow the 'bilingual family' idea to teach toddlers a second language. One such is Little Stoke Grange Nursery, near Stone, Staffordshire, where the children, aged three and four, are entirely unaware that they are learning a foreign language. But one of the school's two teachers always speaks to them in English, the other always in French.
At the start of one day last week, Shula Moorland, the English-speaker, settled the children down and said 'Mrs Smith' would take the register. 'Pardon, pardon,' said Lynn Smith, as she stepped between the children, working her way to the front. They parted to let her through.
'Donc, on va compter les enfants,' she said (Let's count you). 'D'accord,' said little Sam, unprompted (Fine, go ahead). She pointed at each child in turn and they yelled out one to 14, in French.
The children's accents were perfect. Mrs Smith produced a drawing of a face with removable ears, eyes, nose, and mouth. 'Voila les oreilles,' she said (There are the ears).
'Les oreilles,' the children chanted back, their intonation rising on the first syllable and falling on the third, trilling the 'r' and swallowing the 'll' in fine mimicry.
None of the children volunteered a complete sentence in French. Few had been coming to the nursery for more than one or two terms, and French was still very new to them. If they needed to ask a question it would always be in English.
But they all seemed remarkably untroubled if the answers they got were in French, and seemed to understand most of what was said to them. 'Vas laver les mains,' Mrs Smith said to Daniel, who had globules of red poster paint smeared all the way up his forearms. Without any hesitation, Daniel went over to the basin and washed his hands.
Both teachers had the idea of setting up a bilingual nursery after similar experiences elsewhere. Mrs Moorland taught in Bradford, where toddlers from immigrant communities often came to nursery with very little English, so it had to be learnt at school as a second language. Mrs Smith taught in France, where English and other languages are commonly taught to toddlers by the 'bilingual parent' method.
According to Mrs Smith, who also teaches French to children aged five to 11, the younger you learn a foreign language, the easier it is. 'They're like little sponges here. You just have to go on repeating what you want to say and eventually they understand you,' she said.
Older children, she added, are handicapped by inhibitions about 'performing' the strange sounds of a foreign language. 'But in the nursery, it's completely natural for them to say canard if they're talking to me about a duck. To them it's just another word, and it's fun to use.'
Academic research supports the idea of early language training, according to Colin Baker, a specialist in bilingualism at the University College of North Wales at Bangor.
Adolescents starting a foreign language are able to learn more quickly than toddlers because of their greater brain- power, he says. But the advantage of starting young is that learning is effortless, and leads to better pronunciation. 'It also seems to get the second language embedded more deeply in the brain's language-system,' he said.
Most of the research, he explained, had been done at the Institute for Studies in Education at Ontario, Canada - a bilingual country where the 'bilingual parent' or 'immersion' method is used, to some extent, in all schools.
The research had found that the most effective method is 'early total immersion', by which English- speaking children aged four to six would have all their lessons in French; aged seven to 11, they would have 80 per cent, and aged 11-18 half their lessons in French.
Keeping the language up throughout childhood is crucial to success, Dr Baker added. If you learn French at nursery, then drop it until you get to secondary school, your early learning will have been a waste of time.
In Scotland, foreign-language teaching is being introduced over the next three years into all primary schools, following two large pilot studies which showed that secondary-school children did better in languages if they had had previous tuition.
But in England there is no national policy on languages in primary schools (let alone in nurseries), and provision is patchy. None of the primaries near Little Stoke Grange offers French, although there is an after-school 'Club Francais' for nursery-leavers.
The Government argues that the high cost of training new language teachers makes languages in all schools at an early age a very long-term aim. But given the heavy weather the English traditionally make of languages when older, it may be the only way we will ever stop being the dumb men and women of Europe.
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