On the 11th May 2010 a new government coalition came to power in the UK and ever since then any state education websites, including the National Curriculum, have shown the banner, "The DfE is conducting a review of the primary and secondary National Curriculum." This means that currently education is in a unknown with the old curriculum being reviewed but as yet nothing to replace it. All we can say with certainty is that there will be a place for some subjects within the new curriculum and they will have varying degrees of importance, for example Maths and English are sure to have high ranking in the new curriculum as they have had in subsequent curricula. Although ICT, which was gaining greater emphasis under the "Rose Curriculum," would appear to be losing importance as it is rumoured to be dropped as a statutory subject, Anon (2011). Other subjects on the other hand we cannot tell what will happen to their importance or whether they will be included at all and this includes Modern Foreign Languages (MFL).
The previous government stated that every child in Key Stage 2 should have the opportunity to study a foreign language and develop their interests in the culture of other nations. However this does not mean that the new coalition government will have the same opinion although Michael Gove, Education secretary, has stated "The Coalition Government is fully committed to the teaching of languages in schools, not only for its social and economic benefits, but also because learning a language helps pupils to understand the different cultures of people around the world" (2011). The aim of this essay is to analyse whether or not, from research, teaching Modern Foreign Languages in primary schools is a worthwhile initiative or whether it should be lowered in the rankings or even dropped altogether.
In the independent sector MFL is taken as essential and a good thing whereas under state education it would appear that it is not regarded as important. This is the only curriculum area where a discrepancy exists between the independent sector and the state sector, Sharpe (2001). To understand this we must look at the origins of the two sectors, firstly the state primary sector inherited many of its traditions and culture from the elementary system which emerged after the 1870 Education Act. The underlying philosophy of elementary schooling can be characterized utilitarian; pupils were to be taught what is considered for them to be useful to know and able to do. Whereas the independent sector takes its philosophy from that of the older established universities whereby each child should become 'an educated person' meaning that MFL played an important part in this because of the access this gave to great works of literature. Although the distinction between the two sectors and there curricula have become less distinct over the years with the state sector now teaching a much broader curriculum. Nevertheless it would appear that MFL is still the major distinction between the two sectors curricula.
With the creation of the European Union and one economic market with one currency there has been an increased importance on the value of cross-cultural communication, a fundamental part of learning languages, Driscoll and Frost (1999). This would suggest that teaching a foreign language is important because it will help children advance when they are in business due to the fact that they will be able to communicate with the European markets. Whereas without the learning of a language they would be relying on the fact that the person they want to communicate with, in Europe, speaks English. Although a study by the European Commission in 2006 showed that 51% of the EU spoke English either as their mother tongue language or as a foreign language. These figures are significant because a majority of the 51% are found in the countries that the UK does business with most, Germany, France and Spain. This would suggest that children do not need to learn a foreign language as it is more than likely that when in business they will speak to someone who speaks English anyway.
Although this research into European markets and the importance of modern foreign languages does not specify whether they should be taught in primary schools or just in secondary schools as is being done at the present time. The research also ignores the fact that the UK is increasingly putting more and more emphasis on trade and business with Asia, UKTI (2011), which has a much lower population that speak English thus making learning a foreign language important when wanting to work in business. Which is a further flaw with this study as it assumes that all children will want to go on to work in international business which, even though the world is becoming more and more globalized, means that some children will never have to speak to someone in another country.
Research into the acquisition of language is essential when deciding whether or not MFL should be taught in the primary phase. However there is little conclusive research evidence to support the proposition that there exists an overall critical age for foreign language learning except in naturalistic conditions (Lapkin et al, 1991). In 1963 the then minister of education, Sir Edward Boyle, gave government support to a pilot scheme aimed at the age of eight. In 1974 the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) brought the pilot to an abrupt end stating;
"... it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the weight of evidence has combined with the balance of opinion to tip the scales against a possible expansion of the teaching of French in primary schools." (Burstall et al, 1974)
This dismissal of the study was justified by the fact that the evaluators found no substantial differences between those who had been taught French for three years prior to secondary education and those who had not. Although this study was not perfect as one of the biggest issues raised at the time, Gamble and Smalley (1975), was that when the children got to secondary school there was no distinction made between those who had previously done French and those who had not in essence operating a 'start again as if they know nothing policy'. A study by Ausubel (1964) would suggests that older learners appear to out-perform younger learners in the rate of language acquisition because they have a better grasp of grammatical patterns which transfer from their mother tongue to the foreign language. This study would support the current systems whereby MFL is taught as a statutory subject in key stage 3. This is supported by a further study by Scarcella and Higa (1981) which states that older children have had more practice in sustaining conversations.
Although there is strong empirical evidence to support younger learners superiority in oral and aural performance irrespective of formal or informal settings, Singleton (1990). A study by Tahta et al. (1981) showed that young learners appear to possess a superior 'sound' system which enables them to imitate sounds more accurately and increasing age shows a decline in the quality of native-like pronunciation. Burstall et al. (1974) noted that one of the results of an early start was the primary beginners demonstrated more positive attitudes to speaking French than secondary beginners. A Scottish pilot in MFL by Low et al. (1993, 1995) showed that the pupils who had been taught in the primary school showed particular ability in speaking and listening, although reading and writing were introduced successfully. All this research would suggest that starting to teach MFL at the primary stage is beneficial as children would find it easier to grasp the language at an earlier age and also that fact it is started earlier means the child has more time to practice the language.
Another factor that is important to take into consideration when thinking about the teaching of MFL both at primary and secondary is the amount of time that is needed in order to make sure children get the greatest chance at excelling with the language. Vilke (1988) found that the amount of time doing MFL is considered to be a significant factor in achieving high levels of proficiency. Vilke also estimated that over 1000 hours of contact time are needed for learners to achieve proficiency in a language, in secondary schools in England the amount of time spent on MFL is set to less than half of the advised amount. Through the introduction of primary MFL the amount of time spent learning a language can be increased to meet the 1000 hours than is needed, although learning years may not hold equal weight.
When teachers assess whether a child has succeeded in learning during a lesson or over a topic they look at the original objectives and say 'yes' they have met them or 'no' they haven't. This is where a large issue arises for the teaching of MFL because teachers seem to set purely linguistic objectives and building a foundation for improved language acquisition later in schooling, Driscoll and Frost (1999). Whereas the focus should be on the broader educational value of foreign language learning at such a formative time of schooling. With a lot of the MFL teaching being done by external agencies who want to look good to the school so that they get hired again