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Early learning spells language proficiency

Children exposed to languages in their formative years become proficient in their later years, according to a European Commission Study.

Led by Dr Karen Ashton of the University of Cambridge, who has since joined as Senior Lecturer at the Massey University School of Educational Studies, the Survey on ‘Language Competences’ accounted for 55,000 pupils in 14 European countries, including Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, England, Estonia, France, Greece, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.

It tested 14 and 15-year-old students in listening, writing and reading skills in two most commonly taught languages in their respective countries from five chosen languages, namely English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.

Dr Ashton said that the four-year study showed that language learning in New Zealand should begin at primary school and be compulsory at high school.

It found that on average, 42% of the student-respondents could express themselves clearly and effectively in their first foreign language.

England was bottom of the table with 9% of the country’s teenagers able to communicate straightforward matters in their first foreign language, compared with 82% in Sweden and Malta.

The study examined the relationship between language proficiency and the language-learning environment with teachers, principals and education ministries also completing questionnaires.

“It is the first time that such data has been collected for languages. Earlier, there was no information available to support language learning policies or to enable comparisons across countries,” she said.

The Study showed a positive relationship between starting to learn a language early, the number of languages learnt, and language proficiency, demonstrating the benefits of starting to learn a language as early as possible,” she said.

Policy improvement

Dr Ashton emphasised the need to enhance language policy.

“Looking at the factors that positively relate to language proficiency is vital not only for countries that participated in the Survey but also for New Zealand. There is much to be done to promote learning of languages in schools,” she said.

Although learning languages is one of eight learning areas in the New Zealand curriculum, it is currently the only subject that is not mandatory. Governments should consider learning languages as a long-term investment, she said.

The study also found students who find learning a language useful achieve higher levels of language proficiency, and that a positive relationship existed between language friendly environments, informal language opportunities inside and outside schools, and language proficiency.

“The results highlight the importance of teaching languages as a means of communication, not just an academic subject. Students should be taught and encouraged to treat languages as part of their everyday lives.”

According to Dr Ashton, learning a language can increase a learner’s job opportunities and employability, especially in the global job and trade market, but is also important for personal and cultural development.

“As well as enhancing cultural awareness, learning another language helps students to develop more understanding of themselves whilst also becoming more understanding and tolerant of others,” she said.

The NZ factor

New Zealand Association of Language Teachers Senior Vice-President and Massey University Senior Lecturer in Language Teacher Education Adele Scott said that the Survey was relevant to teachers of languages in New Zealand.

“What we can learn from the report is that language learning in our primary schools has value for any future learning of that language since learners progress through the school system. It also benefits learning of other languages. School students should be ‘users’ and not just ‘learners of languages,” she said.

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