Foreigners like messing around too

The idea of learning a new language strikes fear into many hearts, young and old. Approached in the right spirit, however, it can be child's play. Introducing day two of our series, Hester Lacey explains how
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The Independent Online

Learning a language doesn't have to be a chore. Parents who struggled with French irregular verbs at school may find that bizarre, but it is true. Making your first faltering communications in a foreign language can be amusing – and it can also be rewarding.

But why should you, as a parent, spend precious holiday time engaged in the equivalent of a GCSE oral? First, the sense of achievement for a child batting answers back to a parent in French – or Spanish – is immediate; primary-school children, in particular, are delighted by the idea of being able to say something, however basic, in a language that isn't English. Second, this is a skill that has an obvious practical application: you can communicate. Finally, while the English are notoriously rubbish at language-learning, there's no reason for this to be the case.

Being multilingual is taken for granted among many of our European neighbours. There may well come a day when we are expected to come up to scratch.

Language learning is something of a lottery for primary-school children. Pupils at independent schools are far more likely to start learning French at, say, age eight. Some state schools make an effort to offer an introduction to a language but this tends to be outside conventional lessons, in lunch hours or after school. While the Government is keen to see children learn a foreign language when they are young, the first year that schools have to lay on language teaching is at key stage three (age 11). French is the most popular language, followed by German and Spanish.

But there is a wealth of research that shows early learning is the most effective, and that is backed up by recommendations from the European Union. The good news is you don't have to be fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, or any other language, to give your child's learning a boost. Many home teaching-aids are geared towards parents who have only the most basic skills themselves. Starting or practising a language really does lend itself to sessions that are fun – the learning process isn't obvious, but the enjoyment factor certainly is. As a bonus, parents may also end up improving their own fluency, vocabulary and ability to communicate.

Materials for home learning include user-friendly games, activities, tapes, CD-roms and websites. This reflects what is happening in schools. "Approaches tend to be more active, and more value is placed on speaking and listening than was the case a few years ago," says Steven Fawkes, who is president of the Association of Language Learning. "There is a multi-sensory approach to languages. You still learn grammar, but by playing games and interactive exercises."

Below, and on the next two pages, you will find some activities to introduce language learning to children, or to reinforce basic skills that they may have begun to tackle at school. For the youngest groups, the idea is not to put too much emphasis on reading and writing. Instead, you use pictures, rhymes, songs, and real objects. And you engage in physical activity.

For eight- to 10-year-olds, there is a similar emphasis on the spoken word. "Children at this age are very good at picking up sounds," says Fawkes, "so they can master foreign accents very impressively. At this stage, you are still focusing on dynamic skills, but also adding some literacy skills."

At age 11, the emphasis remains initially on speaking and confidence building. Not much weight is put on reading and writing in the first year of secondary school, according to Fawkes. But accuracy is important as well as expression and communication. The national curriculum and the GCSE exams place equal value on speaking, reading and writing, and those have to be balanced up come exam time.

Increasing parental involvement is reflected in the range of out-of-school opportunities. There has been a big boom in language clubs for children. One such is L'Ecole Alouette, in Birchington in Kent, whose founder is Lucy Montgomery, a former primary-school teacher. She has been running after-school classes for five- to 11-year-olds for 10 years, and is publishing a series of workbooks and handbooks.

You may well find a basic guide useful if you are a little rusty in the language your child has chosen. Try the Skoldo series of workbooks and handbooks, published by Ecole Alouette (French is available now, and Spanish will be published in September, 01843 843447); the BBC publication Teach Your Child French by Ted Wragg and Pascale Bizet (order on 0870 121 4193); or the Usborne series of workbooks, phrasebooks and dictionaries in French, Spanish, German and Italian. The Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research publishes an early-language learning guide for parents that lists out-of-school activities and suggests other resources, such as books and worksheets, that are suitable for home learning (020-7379 5110, or see

Example phrases for the activities we have suggested are in French, but they will work equally well with other languages.