Sunday, December 14, 2014

Should we have English in the primary/elementary school here in Switzerland?

There are just my rough thoughts on English in the Primary / Elementary Schools in relation to the age and acquisition discussions going on. I add no references, will do so later.
The question about there being a critical age (or not) for the acquisition of a foreign language has long been discussed and we will leave this discussion to the true experts (Birdsong, Singleton, Pfenninger, etc…). So let us assume that they are right and that English for the sake of English has no place in Swiss elementary schools. I can agree with this. It is clear to me that there is no point in having English at the elementary school level for the sake of language competence in English itself.

However, there are reasons for having English at the primary school which might make sense. These reasons could be that:
  • a child’s metalinguistic awareness is augmented (proof ?) by having an early language;
  • a child knows German or his or her mother tongue in a different way than a child who has no access to early foreign languages;
  • the ‘click’ for wanting to use English or trying to use English outside the classroom comes earlier than in children not having an early language;
  • children are less afraid to try in any language they attempt when they are older due to having had English earlier;
  • learners and parents want it;
  • teachers like teaching it. 
So there are reasons for having English at the primary school if we can find proof of the above statements (I will have to go and look, I think there is, I have read some articles about the first few points, I’ll just have to go back through and find it).

However, if we agree that English for the sake of English is not the purpose of English, then the curriculum and HOW English is taught will have to be changed. In the report cards here in Zurich, reading, writing, speaking and listening skills are measured. These are on the one hand skills, but on the other hand knowledge. If the larger aim of public education is to teach children how to learn, then these curricular aims will have to be changed. I provide a few examples here from my own children’s experiences:

1) Knowing how to use a dictionary. I have to tell my daughters at home all the time that I am not a walking dictionary - that they have to get off their butts and look it up. So as a teacher you have 4 English-German dictionaries in the classroom, 4 computers and 3 English-English dictionaries. A child wants to know how to spell “who”. She googles ‘huu’ and gets nowhere. She gives up. You tell her to think and try something else. She looks under “h” in the English-English dictionary. She can’t find it. She goes to the German-English and looks up “wer” – aha, there’s ‘who’!! She goes back to the computer (because someone else needed it, so she couldn’t stay on it) and she finds out how to say it properly (Mirriam-Webster had a sound file as do many other online dictionaries) and then finds an example sentence with it. She notes it down in her English booklet with another question so she can remember how it’s used.
Curricular standard: “I know how to use a dictionary and I don’t give up.” Do we care that she knows the word ‘who’ in English? Not really. Do we care that she could solve this issue herself. Yes.

2) Knowing how to get your message across if you can’t remember the word. My daughters say “Yes, you know what I mean. That thing-a-ma-jiggy”. And they get a blank stare. So why not in the classroom have them practice saying the word in German with an English (or Indian or South African, whatever) accent, have them practice talking AROUND the word in the target language; have them describe it or show it with their bodies.
Curricular standard: “I can get my message across even if I don’t know a word”.

So I could list more examples of these instances. And the point I’d like to make is that we are measuring the WRONG things. And if we change what we measure, then we might still find that English has NO PLACE in the local primary school curriculum. With handicrafts, wood shop or other subjects if you challenge children enough, the very same skills could be tested. Perseverance. Using a dictionary. Getting your message across. And so on.

And this would then be an argument for keeping English as well, but we’d have to change the report card system. And so I’d like to suggest that we change the system!! Like in some of the English schools I’ve seen, have German, Math and Sport on Monday-Friday every morning. Have Handicrafts and French on Monday afternoons. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons can be “clubs” or 4 week “mini projects” with some subject-specific goals but with more general goals. The Chess Club. The Singing Club. The English Club. Kids learn: Perseverance, to use a dictionary, to get their message across. And so on.

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