Study encourages early language lessons for Kiwi kids 29 Jun 2012
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A European Commission study led by a Massey University researcher has found the earlier a person starts learning a language the more proficient they will be.
Dr Karen Ashton, who was based at the University of Cambridge and joined Massey in April was the survey’s project manager, and says the four-year study shows language learning in New Zealand should start at primary school and be compulsory at high school.
The European Survey on Language Competences surveyed 55,000 school pupils across 14 European countries, testing the 14 and 15-year-olds’ listening, writing and reading skills in the two most commonly taught languages in their country from five chosen languages: English, French, German, Italian and Spanish.
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 data like this has been collected for languages,” Dr Ashton says. “Before this survey, there was no data available to support language learning policies or to enable comparisons across countries.”
The study shows 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, Dr Ashton says.
But language policy needs to improve. “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 so it doesn’t fall behind. Much more needs to be done to promote the learning of languages in schools.
“Language learning should start at primary school and be compulsory at secondary school. Although learning languages is one of eight learning areas in the New Zealand curriculum, it is currently the only one that is not mandatory,” Dr Ashton says. “Learning languages is a long-term investment and needs to be seen as such by Governments.”
The study, released last week, also found students who find learning a language useful achieve higher levels of language proficiency, and that a positive relationship exists 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 need to be taught and encouraged to treat languages as part of their everyday lives.”
Dr Ashton, who is a senior lecturer at Massey’s School of Educational Studies, says 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.”
New Zealand Association of Language Teachers senior vice-president and Massey senior lecturer in language teacher education, Adele Scott, says the report is highly relevant to teachers of languages in New Zealand.
“What we can learn from the report is that the language learning happening at New Zealand primary schools has value not only for any future learning of that language as learners progress through the school system, but that this early language benefits the learning of subsequent languages.
“Throughout their schooling pupils need to be users of languages not just learners of languages,” she says.
The study was conducted using comparable methodology to other international surveys. Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, England, Estonia, France, Greece, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden took part in the survey, which found on average 42 per cent of the pupils could express themselves clearly and effectively in their first foreign language.
England was bottom of the table with nine per cent of the teens able to communicate straightforward matters in their first foreign language, compared with 82 per cent in Sweden and Malta.
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