The primary school where every child learns to speak 40 languages

Richard Garner
Monday 10 March 2008 01:00

If this is March, it must be Nepali. Welcome to Newbury Park Primary School in Redbridge, north-east London, where its 850 pupils will have learnt phrases in 40 languages by the time they transfer to secondary school.

The school has adopted a policy of teaching each language spoken by the 40 ethnic groups among its pupils. "It was more out of politeness," said Joe Debono, who runs the "language of the month" programme. "You have 250 Tamil children in the school. It is just polite to greet them in their own language and recognise their culture. And it is a way of celebrating the ethnic diversity of the school and not seeing it as a problem."

The scheme has tangible benefits, he explained, as it can help children who may be refugees to overcome the sense of alienation they might feel in a new school. It may also encourage pupils to study in more depth one of the languages they have encountered at Newbury Park when they transfer to secondary school, where language learning is compulsory for 11 to 14-year-olds.

Mr Debono selects a child every month to present lessons in their native tongue. He researches the language with their parents and films a video of the child talking their own language which can then be used in every class in the school.

In introducing the new language of the month, every class starts by greeting each other in the language to be learnt. In consultation with the pupils, Mr Debono draws up a list of a dozen or so phrases they feel it would be useful to learn in each language. The pupils then go on to recite them.

"It's the sort of language that would be useful if you were holidaying in the place," he said.

The pupils go on to play games to further their knowledge of the language, with teachers placing cards with words on their heads. They have to guess what the words are by asking their pupils questions. The pupils then shout out "yes" or "no" in the language of the month.

This month, it is the turn of seven-year-old Aneeka Bhattarai, whose family is from Nepal, to be the school's latest foreign language teacher.

"It gives them a lot of self-esteem and they are quite proud they've done it," said Mr Debono. "They've appeared on the internet, too, and, in some cases, all their relatives abroad in Nepal or Sri Lanka have watched it and said: 'That's so-and-so's daughter on the screen.' They often seem quite fascinated that an English school is taking the trouble to teach their language."

Mr Debono is at pains to point out that the language of the month is not taught as part of the modern foreign languages curriculum. Under new government regulations, every primary school will have to ensure that all its pupils start learning a language from the age of seven by 2010. "It's not taught in depth," he said. "It is complementary to the national curriculum."

Newbury Park's pioneering project has aroused interest among teachers from other schools in ethnically diverse areas who have visited it to see if they might be able to implement a similar project in their own schools.

The scheme has also won international acclaim, with visits from Finnish and Danish schools and a twinning project with a school in Barcelona, and has helped to boost community involvement in the school, particularly among parents who might otherwise have been bashful about becoming involved with their children's education because of their own poor English.

Colin Whitehead, who has been headteacher at the school for 14 years, said: "In that period of time, our proportion of children with English as an additional language has gone up from 40 per cent to 80 per cent."

The school has also doubled in size in the past six years as the borough of Redbridge plays host to thousands of new immigrants. The biggest ethnic group at the school are Tamils who have fled the civil war in their homeland, Sri Lanka.

"Many of them started off by settling in Europe – Norway, Denmark, France or Germany – and then, through the European community, they came on to England," said Mr Whitehead. "The languages they spoke at home were Norwegian, Danish, French and German so we included them on our 'language of the month' list."

The result was the pupils learnt a more ethnically diverse mix of languages than might otherwise have been the case. The school is already taking steps to implement the Government's primary school languages initiative by introducing French to seven-year-olds and, in a rare move for a state primary, Latin for 10-year-olds. Latin is considered by many experts to be a good language to give youngsters the necessary skills they then need to go on and master another language.

In fact, Latin is now being considered by the school as a future candidate for another language of the month so the entire school from the age of four upwards can get some basic knowledge of the subject. In the meantime, though, the lessons in Nepali will continue until after Easter, at which point the school will embark on its 41st language of the month – Afrikaans.

"We have one pupil at the school who speaks that language," revealed Mr Debono.

Newbury Park's language lessons

1. Albanian
2. Arabic
3. Bengali
4. Cantonese
5. Catalan
6. Dari
7. Finnish
8. French
9. German
10. Greek
11. Gujarati
12. Hebrew
13. Hindi
14. Italian
15. Japanese
16. Kannada (Indian dialect)
17. Lingala
(a Bantulanguage from Congo)
18. Lithuanian
19. Mandarin
20. Mauritian
21. Creole
22. Nepali
23. Norwegian
24. Polish
25. Portuguese
26. Punjabi
27. Romanian
28. Russian
29. Sinhala
30. Slovak
31. Somali
32. Spanish
33. Swahili
34. Tagalog
35. Tamil
36. Thai
37. Turkish
38. Twi
39. Urdu
40. Yoruba

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