Teaching a Modern Language to Children at Primary School

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Richard Johnstone

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Department of English, NTNU


The teaching of a modern foreign language (in many cases, English) to children at primary school is a major policy priority in many countries across the world. In order to develop a well-informed policy, it is necessary to be clear about the influence of the "age" factor and to avoid any assumption that merely by beginning "early" one guarantees success. In fact, it is argued that each age brings its own advantages and disadvantages for learning an additional language, and some examples are given of those areas in which younger learners appear to enjoy an advantage, and of those other areas where the advantage seems to lie more with older learners. For a policy on modern foreign languages at primary school to succeed, it is necessary to go beyond achieving a predictable level of success in a relatively small number of "showcase" schools which operate in favourable circumstances and to address those factors which apply to all schools in each particular country, including those in less favoured circumstances. Four different factors are briefly discussed and exemplified, either by reference to published international research findings or to the writer's own personal experience gained in observing classes in different countries. The four sets of factors are: societal, provision, process, and individual/group, and each has some influence on the outcomes of modern foreign languages education at primary school.