Specialists are divided over a French government plan to introduce the language of Shakespeare to three-year-old children
Is it possible to teach English to pre-schoolers? Education Minister Luc Chatel's announcement that he intends introducing English lessons for children as young as three-years-old has left specialists in the field perplexed. Some such initiatives already exist, primarily in big cities and in bilingual and private schools, with innovative teaching techniques, such as Montessori.
At the Saint-Jean-de-Passy kindergarten in Paris, children currently benefit from one hour of English per week provided by a mother tongue instructor, paid for by the parents. Such examples amuse Michel Morel, a member of the Association of Professors of Living Languages. "These schools are putting aside substantial funds for the learning of languages even though few parents can afford to pay. How can one imagine teaching English to three-year-olds who already have enormous deficiencies in their own language?" Morel says. "At that age, levels of vocabulary can vary (greatly)," he said. "The risk is that children get confused."
Morel is amenable to the idea of "attuning children's ears to new sounds because their brains are more absorbent than those of adolescents." But he also counsels against teaching children a foreign language before they know they how to read and write in their mother tongue, "around six or seven years old." Sebastian Sihr, secretary general of the teachers union, is not against the idea. "One can imagine introducing awareness of foreign languages in the form of nursery rhymes or games, for example." But he "categorically" disagrees with Chatel's proposal that teachers could be replaced with remote learning programs, via video or the Internet. "Screens are a useful tool, but the idea they could replace teachers is unthinkable."
But training the teachers – there's the rub. For the past dozen years, primary school teachers are supposed to teach a foreign language. Since 2006, recruitment exams have included a foreign-language component. But although younger teachers have benefited from more language training than their older colleagues, many are not at ease with languages, especially speaking them. This is due to a lack of training, not just in the subject itself, but also how to teach it. Some teachers have had as little as nine hours of foreign-language training.
In the past, the language certificates were "handed out rather liberally by the administration," notes Morel. They allowed the ministry to provide a quick fix instead of bringing in outside language teachers or secondary-school teachers to compensate for the lack of primary-school teachers with the appropriate skills. Many teachers, who hail predominantly from a liberal arts background, have only studied written English. Some have studied no English since taking the Baccalauréat examination (advanced high school diploma). "I know English grammar, but am totally incapable of speaking English," said Justine, a schoolteacher in Nice. "I'd be too afraid of making pronunciation mistakes and so on." This is the reason she does not teach language to her class of nine-year-olds. Justine is happy to "play a few songs in English" for the class.
Yet according to the national curriculum, primary students should have an hour and a half of foreign language teaching per week. In reality, it is hardly an hour. Part of the reason is that primary school hours were reduced to 24 hours a week in 2007. That means teachers have to focus on the basics, such as French and mathematics, and cut back on other subjects considered less of a priority. "An hour a week is better than nothing," says Morel. "It's a start. The ear gets used to it and takes in some new words. But there is such a deficiency in funding that no one can claim at the end to have a bilingual classroom. As for teaching in nursery school, frankly, it doesn't seem like a priority," Morel says.
Read the original article in French