Teach foreign languages from age five, says Gove

Children in class with globe Mr Gove wants more emphasis on key facts and course content

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Every child aged five or over should learn a foreign language, Education Secretary Michael Gove has said.

He told the Guardian that almost every other advanced country teaches a foreign language from that age, and the UK should set itself the same target.

Mr Gove vowed to "pull every lever" to make that happen, including encouraging schools to extend the working day.

The National Union of Teachers said any lessons must be well integrated into the whole primary curriculum.

Mr Gove criticised Britain's "perverse pride" in not knowing a foreign tongue.

But he also pointed out that some schools in deprived areas were already teaching five year olds Spanish - and that should be possible to replicate nationwide.

'Cultural outlook'

"If we pull all the levers, change teacher training... get schools that have language potential to take over under-performing schools, and we move the curriculum review in the right direction, then we can move towards the goal," he said.

"The number of pupils sitting a language GCSE plummeted from 444,700 in the summer of 1998 to 273,000 in 2010.

"Learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children."

He said learning languages improved people's brain power.

"Just as some people have taken a perverse pride in not understanding mathematics, so we have taken a perverse pride in the fact that we do not speak foreign languages, and we just need to speak louder in English," he said.

"It is literally the case that learning languages makes you smarter. The neural networks in the brain strengthen as a result of language learning."

He said one of the problems was that children were not in school long enough, and called on more head teachers to follow the example of academies and extend the day.

NUT general secretary Christine Blower said there was an advantage to learning an addition language at an early age.

But she added: "Many schools of course are already providing a language learning experience for children at primary level.

"There is a need to ensure this teaching is provided by qualified teachers and is well integrated into the whole primary curriculum."

The interview came on the eve of the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, which Mr Gove is due to address on Tuesday.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 269.

    When we lived in Belgium it was not ususual for the person at the supermarket checkout to be able to speak French, Dutch and English. They could probably speak German too. Not being tri-lingulal was seen as a positive disadvantage in most jobs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 264.

    I think there should be more focus on how languages are taught in schools. I took Spanish GCSE and now three years on I cannot speak a word! The problem is that learning language for GCSE is that you are taught 'hello my name is ... can you tell me where the beach is?'. So you learn phrases but not the actual language !

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    Our daughter, now 15, has been learning languages from an early age outside of school as both of us enjoy languages, and now speaks Greek as well as French - she's doing GCSE French and a 'Language Leader' qualification, and busy exploring Russian off her own bat. It's good for schools to teach from an early age, but not all teachers especially in primary are confident in their own skills to do so

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    As a primary teacher I have taught French although I can't speak it. I definitely think children should be taught other languages but they need specialist teachers. Problem is, which language do we choose? Additionally, it's unfair to compare Brits not speaking other languages. As an island we're cut off far more than other European countries. I try my best to teach my own kids with DVDs etc.

  • rate this

    Comment number 202.

    I have taken Spanish classes since I was 5 but I still cannot speak Spanish because those early classes were not geared towards learning how to speak the language, rather they were geared towards learning short phrases. The classes never built upon each other so each year I learned the same phrases. If you do teach a child another language than you can't just coddle them, you must teach them.


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