Caroline Sarll: We must lift our children out of linguistic poverty

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The Independent Online

It could only be in the Sarll household that you would hear the following: "Dad! Daaa-aaad! Mum wants me to tell you that your eye is getting cold!" Daughter No 2 then returns to the dining table, oblivious of her faux pas, and gets on with eating her own "eye" – complete with soldiers for dipping. Yummy.

No, we are neither aficionados of the Marquis de Sade, nor honorary guests at some strangely exotic feast. We are just a mildly maverick family, still attempting, after 12 seesaw years, to raise both daughters bilingually.

I've become accustomed to these occasional lapses into Denglisch, and I don't bat an Augen-lid when my girls mix their English and German. I know that Felicity meant to say "egg", and that the German word for it, Ei, stashed away in her bilingual brain for our German immersion days, just oozed out inadvertently. Kein Problem.

At least I know that my efforts are paying off. The girls are still reluctant to answer me in German (which makes them, apparently, passive bilingual), but they understand any German that is spoken to them and I am confident that one day, in the not too distant future, the German responses will start tumbling out.

As they did, albeit somewhat uniformly, a few weeks ago. Both girls accompanied me on a working trip to southern Germany, where they went to school for a week. "Science in German. Can't wait," said Daughter No 1 disaffectedly, pre-pubescent and prone to regular "Am I bovvered? bouts. While the girls were eating their zweites Frühstück (two breakfasts had to be an incentive to go), I, funded by an EU Comenius grant, was job-shadowing in a German primary and secondary school.

I was finding out how they get their youngsters speaking a second language at such an early age – at six or seven years of age, at least four years before we traditionally get our pupils started. With four 50-minute lessons of English a week, that's how.

Compare this with our state school average of three lessons of German, French or Spanish over two weeks, and it becomes clear that time invested is the key. Forget technical and whiteboard wizardry – neither school that I visited possessed such gizmos, yet the pupils could converse brilliantly in English after just a year. That was a real fillip for us chalk'n'talk teachers, who still insist on the entire class parsing a verb at the expense of all those wacky visual aids.

The results prove that the Germans and other European states have got it right. In a recent survey, nearly 70 per cent of Britons said that they could not speak any language other than their mother tongue. Across the EU, this figure is 44 per cent.

Our reputation as a linguistically neutered nation is reflected, too, in the alarming nosedive in GCSE language entries. In 2001, 78 per cent of all pupils took at least one language; this year, it was a mere 46 per cent. In Wales, a nation that parades its bilingual badge unashamedly, the figures are even more depressing: in 1996, 46 per cent of pupils took at least one language, but this was down to a dismal 28 per cent this year. Cymru Am Byth (look it up) is all very well – and, before you think otherwise, as well as speaking German and French, I am a Welsh learner and proud of it – but not at the expense of our ability to function within a European and global context. To survive in today's world, we Welsh citizens must start speaking other languages, not just our own.

Thankfully, although our family language "policy" may set us apart somewhat, I know that I am not alone in trying to stop the rot in national languages. My school has been offering French to its reception children and upwards for some years, and German is introduced from year four. Our recent European Languages Day was a marvellous multilingual display (we even had a rap in Latin!), which proved, through the pupils' aptitude, that starting young is the only way forward. Nationally, by 2010, all primaries must offer a modern foreign language, and in Wales, various primaries have been involved in a pilot scheme to do the same.

However, many schools have still not signed up to do this, citing curriculum constraints as the reason. As I reflect on the success of my Comenius trip and continue with my daily struggle to give my daughters a lifelong, culturally enriching experience, I urge those schools to think again. Primaries, please minimise those Harvest, Christmas and Easter concert rehearsals and give your pupils something that they cannot achieve when they leave you. It has been scientifically proven that after the age of 11 our voice boxes undergo a change that makes the perfect mimicry of another tongue almost impossible.

As Daughter No 2 would say: "Don't put all your 'eyes' in one basket." Embrace this new, language-loving approach. Parents, nag your child's primary school. Today. You, too, could soon have a language-loving child who will astound you with the priceless question: "Mummy, what comes after sechs?"

The writer teaches modern languages at St John's School, Porthcawl, South Wales

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