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Seven-year-olds will soon have to learn a foreign language. Audrey Ward reveals how you can give your child a head start

5 August 2012
News Review; Education, The Sunday Times

Although Tristam Larder is English and has spent most of his life living in Yorkshire, from the moment his daughter Emmeline, 2, was born, he has spoken to her only in French. As Emmeline became more alert, his wife, Annabel, would point things out to their baby daughter in English and he would translate the words into French.

“You’re talking into a void for a long long time,” he recalls. “I did start having doubts.”

One evening, however, when Emmeline was 14 months old, Larder, who works in London for the estate agency Savills, used the words “faire dodo”, the French equivalent of “time for bed”.

“She looked at me, nodded and headed for the stairs to go to bed,” he says. “I was taken aback. It was incredibly exciting.”

Larder, who spent his teenage years living in Nice, has found speaking a second language a great advantage, particularly when it came to finding a job in the property industry, so he was determined to teach Emmeline French — or, as he puts it, “to give her the best present you can ever give a child”.

Now Michael Gove, the education secretary, wants other children to be given that gift. Currently one in 10 state primary schools in England teaches no foreign language and only 34% of children at state schools took a GCSE in one last year. However, the government has said that from 2014 all primaries must teach pupils a foreign language from the age of seven.

Research shows children can learn faster when younger because they are less inhibited about speaking a foreign language. Jocelyn Wyburd, of Cambridge University, says: “Lots of studies of bilingual children have shown that young children are like sponges and can pick up language very easily.”

So how can you give your little one a head start? While some parents enrol children in foreign language nurseries, others employ tutors or try to teach them at home using CDs and books.

Nida Griffiths, who works for a charity that protects endangered species, was determined her daughter Leila, 4, would be bilingual. “I’m not particularly good at languages and my husband Peter isn’t either. Both my sisters are fluent in at least one other language and I’m quite jealous of that, ” she explains.

When Leila was nine months old her mother enrolled her at Peques Anglo-Spanish nursery in Fulham, southwest London, and she has attended three days a week ever since. There she sings Spanish songs, writes Spanish words and speaks Spanish with her teachers and classmates. She is also being taught Mandarin by a Chinese teacher who is there two days a week. “Leila was chatting away incoherently one day. When I asked her if she was speaking gobbledygook, she said, ‘No Mummy, I’m counting to 10 in Mandarin’,” laughs Griffiths.

In a month Leila will leave the nursery to start school but Griffiths has devised a way for her to keep up her Spanish. A Colombian nanny will collect Leila from school twice a week and spend three hours with her until Griffiths returns from work.

Research shows that learning a second language can help improve conversation skills and literacy in English and can benefit study in other subjects. Jonathan Solity, director of KRM, a psychological and educational research consultancy, hopes the government’s move is more than just a token gesture.

“Ideally the language needs to be taught every day,” he says. He also believes that seven is quite a late age to start when compared with other countries such as Spain and Belgium, which introduce languages for pupils at the age of three.

Like Solity, Rohani Omar believes a child is never too young to start learning a second language. She has hired a Mandarin tutor to teach her son Etienne, 4, twice a week for an hour. “It’s very playoriented.

The tutor uses flash cards and in the past six months she’s introduced work books. She also brings along a laptop and uses computer games to help him.”

And Omar is hands-on in helping Etienne to learn once the tutor has left. “She has downloaded the videos that she shows in the class, and I play them with him,” says Omar. “She’s also given me a list of vocabulary that he is learning and so I’m testing him and picking up some words as we go along.”

If you would rather expose your child to a short burst of a foreign language, you could always adopt Susan Rich’s strategy of total immersion. During family holidays in La Rochelle and Normandy, she sent her children, Sara and Alexander, to a kids’ day club geared towards French children. Then aged five and three, her children were surrounded by others who spoke only French and had no choice but to try to speak the language.

“It worked very well when they were three or so because it made them very familiar with French and, as they grew older, helped them to realise it’s not just something you learn in a classroom: it exists outside the book,” says Rich, herself a languages teacher.

Sara, now 11, recalls feeling nervous at the beginning of the holiday week. “It was scary because I could only talk to a few of the children: the others couldn’t understand me and I couldn’t understand them.” But by the end of the holiday she was far more confident. “As I progressed I enjoyed it more and more,” she says.

What else to do ?

Teach your children foreign nursery rhymes and songs ? Read comic books written in other languages with them

Watch programmes such as Sesame Street on foreign-language TV via the internet

Find online computer games in different languages. Warner Bros produces Harry Potter games aimed at many nationalities