Early Learning of Modern Foreign Languages: Processes and Outcomes

Early Learning of Modern Foreign Languages: Processes and Outcomes

by Marianne Nikolov

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Modern languages are offered to young learners at an increasingly early age in many countries; yet few publications have focused on what is available to children in different contexts. This volume fills this gap by documenting the state-of-the-art in researching young language learners using a variety of research methods. It demonstrates how young children progress and benefit from an early exposure to modern languages in different educational contexts, and how affective, cognitive, social, linguistic and classroom-related factors interact in the processes. A special strength is the range of languages: although English is the most widely learnt language, chapters focus on various target languages: Croatian, French, English, German, Italian, Spanish and Ukrainian and the contexts include China, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Norway, Poland, the Ukraine, and the United Kingdom.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781847699879
Publisher: Channel View Publications
Publication date: 02/27/2009
Series: Second Language Acquisition , #38
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 15 MB
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About the Author

Marianne Nikolov is a professor of English Applied Linguistics at the University of Pécs, Hungary. Her research interests include early learning and teaching of modern languages, assessment of processes and outcomes in language education, teacher education, individual differences, language policy and research methods. Her work has been published in journals (e.g., Language Learning, Language Teaching Research, Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, Magyar Pedagógia, Modern Nyelvoktatás) as well as books.

Marianne Nikolov is Professor at the University of Pécs and  Director of the Doctoral School of Linguistics. She used to teach young learners of English and worked as a mentor for many years before moving to higher education. Her main research areas comprise the age factor and early language learning, assessment of and for learning, teacher education and classroom research. She has published books and papers in various refereed journals, conducted large-scale national and smaller-scale international studies, organized international projects and colloquia at national and international conferences, and gave plenary addresses at national and international events. http://ies.btk.pte.hu/tartalom/12

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Early Learning of Modern Foreign Languages

Processes and Outcomes

By Marianne Nikolov

Multilingual Matters

Copyright © 2009 Marianne Nikolov and the authors of individual chapters
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84769-147-7


A Third Language at Primary Level in Ireland: An Independent Evaluation of the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative


Introducing modern languages at primary level in Ireland involves challenges and possibilities which differ from those of some other countries. Irish, a minority language is the first official language. All but a small proportion of pupils speak English at home but begin to learn Irish as a second language as soon as they begin school. Learning a modern foreign language at primary level is, therefore, an entirely new experience of diversity for most Irish pupils.

The Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative in Ireland began in 1998 with 270 schools and now has almost 400 (about 12% of primary schools). Pupils in the final two years in elementary school receive 1.5 hours of tuition within the normal school day in one of four languages: French, German, Spanish or Italian. Within the Initiative, there is also an emphasis on language diversity of a slightly different kind in that those European languages that traditionally were less commonly taught in Ireland (Spanish and Italian) are especially promoted. This chapter describes the experience of modern languages at primary level for pupils, parents and teachers. It draws on findings from Phases 1 (Harris & Conway, 2002) and Phase 2 (Harris & O'Leary, 2007) of an independent evaluation of the Project.

The Language Situation in Ireland

The early teaching of modern languages in Ireland takes place in a sociolinguistic context which differs in a number of respects from that obtaining in many other countries in Europe (Harris, 2007). Irish, an indigenous minority language, is also the first official language of the country. It has been taught to virtually all primary-school pupils since the foundation of the state about 85 years ago. In the vast majority of cases, it is taught as a second language to pupils whose home language is English – as a single school subject in 'ordinary' mainstream schools. It is also taught in immersion ('all-Irish') schools in the main English-speaking area. While these immersion schools are still relatively small in number, they have grown significantly over the last 20 years. Irish is also taught, of course, in the relatively small Gaeltacht heartland areas, mainly along the western seaboard. The teaching of Irish in these different contexts is central to the larger national goal of revitalising Irish as a general means of communication.

Parents and the public generally are in favour of the teaching of Irish. Harris et al. (2006), for example, report that 67.4% of the parents of pupils in ordinary mainstream primary schools are 'favourable' or 'very favourable' to Irish being taught at this level. Only 14.5% feel that less time should be spent on the language.

But parents in Ireland are in general also anxious that their children would learn other modern European languages. As part of a national consultation process called 'Your Education System', a representative sample (n = 1511) of the population aged 15+ years was surveyed in order to establish views nationally on a number of education issues (Kellaghan et al., 2004). Two key findings emerged in relation to foreign languages in primary school:

• 57.1% of respondents felt that 'too little emphasis' was placed on teaching foreign languages in primary schools (Kellaghan et al., 2004: 6, 26).

• 78.7% considered the teaching of a continental language in primary school to be 'very important/important' in achieving the objectives of schooling (Kellaghan et al., 2004: 35).

These percentages are notable given that statistics from 30 European countries show that Ireland is the only one where foreign-language learning at primary level is neither compulsory nor a core curriculum option (Eurydice, 2005: 24). The Irish Business and Employers Confederation (IBEC, 2004) identified a number of key priorities for the Irish education system, one of which was the development of a national coordinated system to make modern languages a compulsory subject in primary school. In addition, the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN) in its report Languages and Enterprise (EGFSN, 2005) called for the extension of the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative to all primary schools nationwide and its full integration into the mainstream curriculum.

Yet another significant feature of the language situation in Ireland in recent years is the relatively sudden appearance of the languages of the 'New Irish' immigrant communities, such as Polish, Russian and Chinese. Until now, Ireland has not seen any immigration comparable to that experienced elsewhere in western Europe. The scale of this in-migration, largely as a result of the buoyant economy, is indicated by the fact that the population of non-nationals in Ireland grew from 7% to 10% between 2002 and 2006. By comparison, the non-national population of the UK grew by only two percentage points between 1960 and 1990 (Barrett & McCarthy, 2006).

The Modern Language Initiative and the Evaluation

In 1998, the national Pilot Project on the Teaching of Modern Languages in Irish Primary Schools was launched in response to growing public interest and debate. The Pilot Project (later renamed the 'Initiative') began with 270 schools and now has around 400. Pupils in the final two years of elementary school receive 1.5 hours of tuition within the normal school week in one of four languages: French, German, Spanish or Italian. The modern language teachers are either members of staff in the school or, more often, visiting (non-staff) teachers. The teachers are supported by a National Coordinator and a team of Project Leaders who conduct inservice training, source teaching materials and visit schools. Initially the Project was financed by the European Social Fund but later became part of the National Development Plan.

Clearly, early foreign-language learning in the Irish context has many features which distinguish it from enterprises in other countries. Some of these distinctive features derive from the particular sociolinguistic context in Ireland. Others derive from the fact that it is such a major innovation that it presents a whole range of educational and teacher-training issues. The present account of the early learning of modern foreign languages tries to map out the main features of the programme being implemented and to assess its impact on pupils' proficiency and attitudes, and on schools and education more generally. The account is based on an extensive independent evaluation of the Project which was funded by the Irish Government Department of Education and Science. The evaluation consisted of two phases. Phase 1 was carried out by Harris and Conway (2002) and Phase 2 by Harris and O Leary (2007).

Phase 1 involved a number of activities and instruments:

• Group and individual linguistic-communicative tests in all the languages were administered to pupils in 22 representative schools.

• Questionnaires were used to assess pupils' attitude-motivation as well as their experiences of learning a modern language.

• A survey of all modern language teachers involved in the Project.

Phase 2 is largely based on surveys of class teachers and principals. The former are regular class teachers who do not teach the modern language themselves but whose classes are being taught the language either by a visiting teacher or less often by another staff member in the same school. The views and experiences of regular class teachers are very important, since any significant expansion of the initiative would in the longer term have to be based on class teachers delivering the modern language programme.

Findings Relating to Early Foreign Language Learning in Ireland

Pupil success in learning the language

The evaluation shows that the vast majority of pupils have made real progress in developing (a) listening comprehension skills and (b) an initial competence in spoken communication. For example, in the case of the speaking test, the overall mean score achieved by pupils was 75.7 out of a possible 108. Girls performed better than boys.

No class or school could be said to be failing to make significant progress in learning the modern language and, within classes, only a minority of pupils in a small number of cases were not making worthwhile progress. Even where teachers felt that particular pupils were not coping well with the programme, the language tests we used still showed that these pupils were actually making significant progress. The Project has shown that the teaching of modern languages at primary level can be successfully extended to types of schools and pupils which previously had relatively limited access to them. Overall, 60% of the modern-language teachers said that, were it not for the Project, none of their pupils would have studied the language at primary level. It has made a particular difference to rural schools and disadvantaged schools. In general, pupils in disadvantaged schools have made as much progress in learning the modern languages as pupils in other schools.

Attitudes of pupils

Questionnaire data show that the majority of pupils have developed positive attitudes to learning the target language itself (mean = 3.8 on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 is equivalent to a strong negative attitude and 5 a strong positive attitude); to speakers of the target language (mean = 3.5 on same scale as above); and to the European country in which the language is spoken (mean = 4.2 on same scale as above). Eighty-one percent of pupils agreed, slightly or strongly, that 'learning another language, besides English, can be very enjoyable'; 73% agreed that they 'really enjoy learning French'.

Most notably, the vast majority (84%) agreed with the statement 'I am glad that I began learning French in primary school rather than leaving it until later'. Only 7% disagree. (French in all these cases stands for whichever of the four languages pupils were studying.) The majority of pupils reported enjoying the modern language lesson, particularly the emphasis on games, songs and poems. They also like developing communicative competence in the language and cultural awareness activities.

Reaction of the modern language teachers

The vast majority (93%) of the modern-language teachers feel that they personally have benefited from participation. Similarly high percentages feel that the school itself (93%) and the pupils (98%) benefit from participation.

Teachers were very satisfied with the implementation of the Project, particularly the support and in-service training provided by Project Leaders. While substantial numbers of the modern language teachers began with no previous experience of teaching the language, their feelings of preparedness to teach improved substantially during the first year. Eighty-nine percent of teachers report a favourable parental reaction and only 2% report a neutral or unfavourable parental reaction.

Most frequently used and most popular classroom activities

One of the issues of particular interest is what kind of activities, techniques and teaching materials are used in primary modern language classes. First, we asked the teacher to read a detailed list of activities, techniques and materials and to indicate how frequently (e.g. once or more per class, once or more per month) each was used. Later we asked the teacher which of these same activities, techniques and materials their pupils actually enjoyed.

The five activities which are reported by the greatest proportion of teachers as being enjoyed by pupils are 'Wordgames', 'Raps/songs', 'Language awareness activities', 'Action games/sports' and 'Drama'. But these same five activities are only used by teachers moderately often. In a rank ordering of percentages, the five most enjoyable activities are only listed sixth, eighth, ninth, 11th and 16th out of a total of 18 in terms of frequency of use by teachers.

It is also notable that in the case of the most frequently used activities, relatively small percentages of teachers say that they are enjoyed by pupils. In fact, the most frequently used, 'Whole class repetition of sentences/phrases', is actually ranked last of all in the list of 18 activities in terms of the percentage of teachers reporting it as being enjoyable for pupils (only 29% of teachers feel 'Whole class repetition of words or phrases' is enjoyed by pupils).

Achievement of Project aims

The overall assessment of Harris and Conway (2002) is that the Project has succeeded in installing a teaching programme which has a significant emphasis on communication, an experiential orientation to learning and a focus on pupil enjoyment of the learning process.

• Only 42% of teachers felt that the aim of 'using as much of the target language as possible as the normal language of the classroom' was successfully promoted. Thirty-seven percent reported that they conducted less than half the lesson through the modern language.

• There is scope for greater emphasis than at present however on (a) communicative/experiential activities and (b) learning activities which are enjoyable for pupils. As noted just above, some traditional approaches, such as whole class repetition, which children do not like, are still widely used.

• There is also a need for a greater emphasis on the development of cultural awareness.

• Thirty-seven percent of teachers failed to achieve the time allocation specified by Project Management (1.5 hours tuition each week). These teachers most often provided one hour of tuition instead. Staff members were much more likely (46%) to fail to provide the prescribed 1.5 hours than visiting teachers (20%). An overcrowded curriculum and timetabling problems were cited as the main reasons for this failure.

• A significant minority of pupils experience some degree of difficulty in understanding the lesson or teacher – general difficulty in understanding or learning the language, not understanding some words, the teacher going too fast, or specific difficulties with the language.

Phase 2: Principals and the Regular Class Teacher

The need to investigate the conditions and possibilities for extending the Project nationally provided the context for gathering information from Principals and Class teachers in Phase 2 of the evaluation. Principals and regular Class teachers are central to any plans to expand the Project nationally, and prior to this, little was known about their views. Findings from the two surveys are grouped under various thematic categories below and linked to findings from the earlier survey of modern-language teachers.

The shifting balance between staff and non-staff teachers

The profile of the modern-language teacher has changed dramatically over the time course of the Project. At the end of Year 1, 63% of modern-language teachers were staff members and 37% were non-staff (Harris & Conway, 2002: 28). At the end of Year 5, only 14.6% of Class teachers report that another staff member teaches the modern language to their class, 83.6% report that a non-staff (visiting) teacher does, while 1.8% report that both staff and non-staff teachers teach it. Even though the earlier data is at teacher level and the latter is at class level, the change in the proportion of staff to non-staff teachers is clear.

General reaction to modern languages

A high level of enthusiasm and approval for the teaching of modern languages in primary school exists among both Principals and Class teachers. Of Principals, 93.2% report a 'very positive/positive' reaction among staff to the teaching of modern languages. Less than 1% report a negative reaction. Of Class teachers, 89.6% hold 'very favourable/favourable' attitudes to the teaching of modern languages and 87.9% feel that it is 'very important/important' to start learning a modern language in primary. Of Class teachers, 77.5% also report a 'very positive/positive' reaction from parents. Only one Class teacher reported a negative reaction.

Programme impact on pupils

Virtually all Principals (99.4%) perceive benefits for pupils. When asked to list pupil benefits, four main categories of response emerged:

(1) Improved pupil self-esteem, attitude and enjoyment of the learning process (43.5%).

(2) Improved learning, awareness and use of different languages among pupils (36.3%).

(3) Preparation/Head Start for second level (23.9%).

(4) Increased cultural awareness (18.6%).

Class teachers also overwhelmingly (89.2%) see the impact on pupils as being 'very positive/positive'. Those who perceived a positive effect mention increased language (86.6%) and cultural (83.5%) awareness, preparation for second-level language learning (84.4%) and more positive attitudes to language learning in general (65.9%). Other benefits include increased awareness of language as a communication tool (54.8%), increased pupil-self-esteem/self-confidence (51%) and enhanced learning in other subjects (25.8%).


Excerpted from Early Learning of Modern Foreign Languages by Marianne Nikolov. Copyright © 2009 Marianne Nikolov and the authors of individual chapters. Excerpted by permission of Multilingual Matters.
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Table of Contents

A Third Language at Primary Level in Ireland: An Independent Evaluation of the Modern Languages in Primary Schools Initiative - John Harris and Denise O Leary

Can Today’s Early Language Learners in England Become Tomorrow’s Plurilingual European Citizens? - Janet Enever

Young Learners of Croatian as a Second Language: Minority Language Speakers and their Croatian Competence - Zrinka Jelaska and Lidija Cvikić

Cognitive Skills in Young Learners and their Implications for Foreign Language Learning - Thomaï Alexiou

An Investigation into the Relationship of L2 Motivation and Cross-Cultural Contact Among Elementary-School Students - Kata Csizér and Judit Kormos

The Impact of Learning Conditions on Young FL Learners’ Motivation - Jelena Mihaljević Djigunović

Early Modern Foreign Language Programmes and Outcomes: Factors Contributing to Hungarian Learners’ Proficiency - Marianne Nikolov

Using the Early Years Literacy Programme in Primary EFL Norwegian Classrooms - Ion Drew

The Age Factor and L2 Reading Strategies - Renata Šamo

A Study of FL Composing Process and Writing Strategies Employed by Young Learners - Eleni Griva, Helen Tsakiridou and Ioanna Nihoritou

How do 9-11-Year-Old Croatians Perceive Sounds and Read Aloud in French? - Vanda Marijanović, Nathalie Panissal and Michel Billières

Differences Between the Processes and Outcomes in 3rd Graders’ Learning English and Ukrainian in Hungarian Schools in Beregszász - Ilona Huszti, Márta Fábián and Erzsébet Bárányné Komári

The Growth of Young Learners’ English Vocabulary Size - Andrea Orosz

Factors Influencing Young Learners’ Vocabulary Acquisition - Magdalena Szpotowicz

An Eye on Target Language Use in Elementary English Classrooms in China - Jing Peng and Lily Zhang

What Primary-School Pupils Think About Learning English - Krisztina Nagy

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