Policy Papers

Policy papers connect research with policy through focusing on a specific piece of research and explaining its relevance for policy. The link to policy can range from pointing out conclusions and lessons for practice through to discussion of existing policies and practices and formulation of policy recommendations. In all cases the emphasis is on providing research evidence for criticising, endorsing or proposing a policy.

Learning foreign languages in primary schools: is younger better?

  • The teaching of a foreign language was introduced in the National Curriculum in primary schools in England in 2014 (Key Stage 2 – age 7–11). Children now study one foreign language for up to one hour per week.
  • This policy was primarily based on the belief that young children learn foreign languages faster, and that teaching foreign languages early to young children could therefore close the gap which currently exists between our young people and their European counterparts in terms of foreign language capability, making them more competitive on the global market.
  • Research shows, however, that children are slower at learning a foreign language than adolescents and young adults. This is because young children do not yet have well developed cognitive resources and therefore need abundant language input to compensate. The current one hour weekly, well below the several hours of teaching in many European countries, is insufficient to meet current expectations about achievement.
  • At the same time, research shows that young children are very enthusiastic towards the learning of foreign languages. There is, therefore, a strong case for an early start, in order to capitalize on this enthusiasm.
  • Research on current educational provision has highlighted two further areas of concern, in addition to the low amount of teaching input: (i) the transition between primary and secondary school is problematic because children arrive with very diverse foreign language experiences; (ii) the lack of specialist teachers, lack of training for teachers, and lack of adequate teaching resources.
  • Improving provisions for teacher training and resources is vital for the success of the current policy of teaching one foreign language in primary schools. A smooth transition between primary and secondary schools should also be ensured to mitigate its adverse effects on the motivation of young learners.
  • There are broader cognitive, cultural, societal and literacy benefits to learning foreign languages besides linguistic proficiency. These benefits need to become more central in the development of the primary languages curriculum and shape expectations.
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