Letters: Language teaching

With the right teaching, children find the pleasure of language


Sir: Toby Smith (letter, 18 December) has fallen for the cosy fallacy that children automatically do better in foreign languages if they start them very young at school. Extensive research evidence suggests that this is not necessarily true. Many other factors need to be considered besides age.

Children living in bilingual situations do indeed learn the second language more quickly because they have masses of natural exposure and practice, but most children in UK schools are not in this situation. They have very little exposure to the second language and are grappling with cognitive development, as well as with literacy in their first language. We should not forget that a staggering 40 per cent of boys are failing to reach government reading targets in English by the age of 14. How would the very early introduction of another language help them?

The large primary French experiment in the Sixties, which seems to have been forgotten, found that pupils taught French at primary school had no advantage at all over pupils who started at secondary school. One reason may have been how the languages were taught - in my case with a gramophone record and listen-and-repeat methods. If we fail again to get the method right, language teaching at primary school will again be a monumental waste of time and money.

It would be foolish to rush into teaching foreign languages very early in primary school without thinking carefully about the optimal age to begin and the methods to be used. I am pleased to see that Dearing's committee have left this open in their interim report.

Personally I favour a small quantity of motivating activities starting at around the age of eight, to include awareness of other scripts and sound systems (such as Arabic and Japanese) as well as of European languages, none of it to be assessed. The emphasis should be on motivating children to explore and see the value of other languages, so that when children are older they will be open to the sheer pleasure as well as the utility which language learning can bring.



Saudi scandal a bad omen for democracy

Sir: It may be timely to ask why this government signed up to the international anticorruption agreement when its implementation would obviously be so painful.

Was it incompetence or negligence not to recognise the danger to our arms export business, whose true nature has always been an open secret? Perhaps this was an example of Tony Blair's third way, grandstanding on the world stage whilst in reality doing little; relying on window dressing to create the right perception whilst behind the window it was business as usual.

It was unfortunate for the Government that the instigators of this investigation at the SFO naively believed in the rule of law. Let them get back to chasing the small fry; the big ones have political protection; they are above the law. Last Thursday may have been a good day for burying bad news but it was a bad day for good governance, for democracy and for equality under the law.



Sir: When confronted with questions regarding the decision to rein in the investigations of the SFO into bribery allegations and his own interview with the police in relation to the "cash-for-honours" investigations, Tony Blair has demonstrated a remarkable lack of concern.

Mr Blair promised to ensure his government would be noted for its openness and its drive to eliminate the sleaze that had beset the previous Conservative administrations, yet the sight of a prime minister being interviewed by the police and the blatant cave-in to threats from Saudi Arabia have caused him no alarm whatsoever.

This is the man who recently cited his prime ministerial judgement alone in dismissing objections to the renewal of the Trident nuclear deterrent; who continues to live in complete denial in relation to the consequences of his unjustified and illegal war in Iraq; who obscurely has denied any perception of "honours" being traded for loans or donations to his party; and who now expects the public to believe that the SFO's investigation of the Saudi affair has been curtailed as it was jeopardising the security of the country.

Given that among the accomplishments of this New Labour administration have been a marked diminishing of government accountability to Parliament and the centralisation of key decision-making in 10 Downing Street, the recent "demob happy" behaviour of the Prime Minister should be sounding alarm bells throughout Whitehall and beyond.



Sir: As a signatory to the 1999 OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, Britain is unable to legally justify dropping the investigation into allegations of BAe bribery on grounds of economic interest.

So, once again, Mr Blair resorts to vague threats to our "national security" to subvert inconvenient international legalities; once again the Attorney General allows himself to be used to justify Mr Blair's actions; and once again a morally bankrupt Cabinet sits back and lets it happen.



Sir: Jeremy Warner's comment that there was no victim in the BAe Systems bribery case is breathtaking (Outlook, 15 December). "The Saudis were being bribed with their own money," he blandly asserts, presumably unaware of the damaging effects of corruption in so many societies.



Sir: Is the sale of arms to the Saudis in the "national interest" in the same way that the sale of arms to Iraq was in the 1980s?



Sir: Bruce Paley (letter, 18 December) suggests we may just as well sell off the country to the highest bidder and be done with it. But with the auction presumably supervised by Tony Blair and Lord Goldsmith, how could we be sure that the winner would actually be the highest bidder?



Extreme sufferings of lab animals

Sir: I was disappointed to see that in Sir David Weatherall's recent report, the main argument against exempting non-human primates from medical experiments was that such tests are useful for medical research.

Usefulness alone cannot be a sufficient reason to justify testing on non-human primates. Genuine medical tests on humans would probably be very effective but, fortunately, no one would dare to suggest such an abhorrent possibility.

The real argument in support of continuing to use primates in research remains the fact that they are not human, but this distinction is not germane when the infliction of extreme suffering is the issue. And the ethical relevance of that is implicitly acknowledged by the regulations purporting to "minimise suffering" of lab primates and other animals.



Patients who need physiotherapy

Sir: In her article "What's gone wrong with the NHS?" (7 December), Deborah Orr drew attention to and was concerned about the serious problem of unemployment of newly qualified physiotherapy graduates. As a neurological physiotherapist I was however concerned that she perceived physiotherapy as "important but non-essential".

Once patients who have had strokes, head injuries, spinal injuries etc are medically stable, it is only rehabilitation which will ensure they reach their full functional potential and subsequent discharge home.

In fact, recent evidence from America shows that the more rehabilitation stroke patients receive, the quicker this process is.

From both a patient's and a bed management perspective, physiotherapy is definitely essential. I am sure my colleagues working in other specialisms would argue the same.



A hearty cheer for the Australians

Sir: I raised a cheer on hearing that England had lost the Ashes. Not that I have anything against sport in general or even cricket in particular, I'm just so relieved to have Radio 4 back.

Hundreds of thousands of listeners in rural areas still can't get a decent VHF signal, so on long wave we have to put up with BBC Sport's arrogant insistence that the British public can't have enough of cricket. BBC Radio 4 is a vital cultural institution, more so than TV, and must not be hijacked by a single-interest obsession.



Sir: As the awarding of honours is a recognition of meritorious achievement, will the Prime Minister be recommending the withdrawal of the MBE from the members of the England cricket team?



How to contain hospital superbugs

Sir: I write with the strongest possible support for Dr Spencer's comments about the need for isolation facilities to deal with staphylococcal infections ("Superbug infections could be controlled by isolation", 18 December).

In the early 1960s we still saw large numbers of boils, carbuncles and whitlows, but they still responded to antibiotics. Isolation wards were introduced to cope with hospital staphylococcal infections and were very successful. The environment around these patients becomes contaminated with staphylococci on discharges and skin scales, which can be contained in isolation rooms. This also cuts down nasal carriage in staff and other patients.

Unfortunately for a variety of reasons (mainly financial) isolation wards were discontinued. Strains of staphylococci vary in their toxin production and resistance to antibiotics and unfortunately, but almost inevitably, strains will emerge with both characteristics.

MRSA took a hold because of lack of isolation and it is extremely important to tackle PVL strains before they increase and spread in the population. Isolation facilities will make the most difference, as Dr Spencer points out, and now is the time to introduce them.



Diana and the ring from Dodi

Sir: Doubtless Michael Cole is handsomely remunerated by Mohamed Fayed to propagate the idea that Diana Princess of Wales was on the verge of engagement to Dodi Fayed at the time of their deaths, but he should not get even a bonus Harrods Christmas hamper for his letter of 18 December.

When I quoted Diana as telling me, "Rosa, I know he [Dodi] will give me a ring. It will go firmly on my right hand", this was not a reference to any specific ring, and certainly not one "presented previously", as Mr Cole imagines.

The point Diana was making to me, in her characteristic way, was that she had no intention of becoming engaged, still less married, to Dodi Fayed.



Sir: Your paper has benefited from the blanket coverage of the Daily Express regarding "the death of Diana". After buying the Express for years (mainly for the sudoku) I made my newsagent laugh as I refused to buy it when Diana was on the front page.

Since their failure to accept the findings of the Stevens report I have decided never to buy it again. I now enjoy your many interesting articles plus the sudoku.



Prize for riding

Sir: Zara Phillips did not win a prize because she was meant to be good at public speaking, but because she excelled at a highly exacting and even dangerous sport. She dedicated her Gold Medal to a friend, Sherelle Duke, recently killed in a riding accident. In a competition for spiteful writers Mark Steel (13 December) might well carry off the crown.



Where is the snow?

Sir: Understandably, Michelle Gower of Enfield, north London, finds Lapland with no snow ugly and also finds that there are no picture postcards there ("Lapland can only dream of white Christmas", 14 December). Presumably there was a lot of irony in her voice when she said those things, perhaps while waiting for her VAT-free and heavily polluting flight back to one of the myriad airports surrounding London, some of them soon to be expanded.



Menacing stereotypes

Sir: I was on the 207 bus on Thursday, sitting next to a frumpy, dusky, middle-aged Asian woman who was reading a Muslim publication. Fearing that she might be carrying a bomb, I moved and sat next to a fat man with a hairy face and cracked lips who was ogling the page three girl in The Sun (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, 18 December). I could tell that his mind was on other things than bombing his fellow passengers, so felt safe.



Britain at a crossroads

Sir: A succession of British PMs appear to be under the impression that they have Europe in one hand, the USA in the other and that by swinging their arms around they can bring them together and pull them apart; raise them up and pull them down as Britain stands on its unique pedestal erected at the crossroads of Great World Affairs. What the rest of the world sees is a loony up a back-alley waving his arms around and giggling. It's the embarrassment I can't stand.



Big idea

Sir: What a splendid idea to give details of an obesity helpline with sales of larger-sized clothes (report, 15 December). I have a better idea. Why not print slogans on the clothes themselves, such as: "Warning from HM Government - obesity kills. The person wearing this shirt is overweight. The consequence of obesity is often fatal disease." Nanny state? They haven't started yet!



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