There has a been a renewed drive in recent years to see foreign languages being taught at primary school level, with ministers and educational professionals arguing for the need to expand provision. This is because learning another language at an early age is seen to bestow a wide range of benefits to young learners, in terms of their cognitive development and cultural awareness, while foreign language proficiency is seen as an increasingly valuable professional skill later in life. But with many teachers, parents and pupils apprehensive about the challenge of learning a another language so young, what are the specific benefits that have been identified by those who believe passionately in its utility?
For a start, it’s a widely recognised fact that children learn languages more effectively than adults and older children, having a greater capacity to absorb new vocabulary and grammatical concepts. They’re also perceived to be more receptive to language learning and possess a natural enthusiasm that older kids with entrenched habits and preferences lack. The primary school environment is also seen as uniquely suited to the process of foreign language teaching. Because primary school teachers have responsibility for a single class all year round, they are able to integrate an additional language teaching with the teaching of other subjects, helping to shape an holistic approach to language learning. While it’s acknowledged that many teachers presently lack the necessary proficiency to pursue such an integrated approach, it doesn’t change the fact that primary education offers a uniquely supportive environment for the young language learner.
In terms of cognitive development, learning a second language has been reported to help children inhibit the recall of irrelevant information while boosting the focus with which they approach their learning. Furthermore, some studies have suggested that laying the foundations of language learning at an early age leads to more effective learning at secondary level, meaning greater proficiency and comfort with the language. While the evidence for this effect isn’t conclusive, it is true that introducing additional languages at an early age increases the child’s comfort and confidence with a second language, which can help to overcome some of the apprehension experienced further down the line.
Finally, language learning is valuable for its contribution to cultural awareness. Learning another language acts as a gateway to a new culture, helping to broaden horizons and improve children’s receptivity to new ideas and values. This kind of early cross-cultural understanding is an important attribute in today’s globalised world. Proficiency in a foreign language is also a valuable skill that can improve job prospects in later life, meaning an early start could be exactly the right move to give children a helping hand on their path to future success.
In conclusion, it’s difficult to make a case against the teaching of foreign languages in primary schools. The educational, cultural and economic benefits are such that kids will gain immeasurably from early contact with a different way of speaking. While wider provision poses some challenges, the possible gains make this a goal worth pursuing.