David Cameron’s suggestion, that we should look beyond French and German to get more children learning Mandarin, is a more realistic proposition than it might appear. The reason is that, since around 2005, Conservative ministers and shadow ministers have based their approach on evidence from brain research rather than on educational and linguistic theory.
This tells us that learning involves establishing and extending neural networks that are reinforced by practice. Brain scans show that the areas involved in handling spoken and written language are very close together and often overlap, so that each has the potential to reinforce the other, a far cry from the current GCSE idea of splitting language up into four supposedly separate skills. This illustration, from the Association for Language Learning magazine shows how closely grouped they are.
The next piece of the jigsaw concerns memory. We tend to become patriotic about Nobel prizes – the Higgs Bosun is ours, so we know about it, while Eric Kandel’s work on the physical basis of memory, for which he won in 2000, is not well enough known, and his book, In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of Mind, has not been published here. Bookfinder.com solved the problem, as it usually does, and here is Professor Kandel, with one of the key diagrams from his book.
A single stimulus makes a connection with an adjacent cell, which will usually be part of a chain or network. Repeated stimulus, though, leads to new growth in the cell, much like that from the bud on a tree, and Kandel sees this as the foundation of long-term memory. For languages, nothing could be more important. To understand someone speaking in a foreign language, we need to make sense of what they are saying in real time, so we need both the words they are using and the grammar in our long-term memory. To speak, we need to call the words up and put them together, again in real time. Both rely on memory.
Overall, this evidence gives us the basis of a new and better approach to teaching languages either than the traditional approach, which involved too little speaking, or the variety of “exposure” methods that have, unfortunately, replaced it. Put simply, whatever builds networks is good, and whatever gets in the way of this is not.
So, copying, which makes us jerk our eyes back and forth between our own version and the original, hinders the formation of networks. So does giving children language that goes too fast for them to understand, as this prevents the brain cells from making their initial connections. Almost all current textbooks contain these errors, and they were built into the QCA schemes of work for primary schools.
My late friend Michel Thomas understood much of what was wrong, and made a fortune out of teaching adults using a simple system that enabled them to move from what they knew to what they needed to know. Thomas relied heavily on European languages’ shared use of Latin, but one of his students, Harold Goodman, developed a system of linking English speakers’ experience and understanding of sounds to the sound system of Chinese, which has always been the great barrier for beginners. Thomas did not tackle the additional problem of moving into writing, either in European languages or in others. “If they can say it,” he once told me, “they can write it.”
He was, though, impressed with the approach to writing in the Toolkits that I’d developed in my primary teaching in Essex and in inner London, which enables children from about eight onwards to write accurate sentences in their new language without copying. Ulearn Chinese, developed with the co-operation of the Chinese Hanban organisation, does a similar job in Chinese, introducing the characters in a simple and enjoyable way that is clear to children and builds understanding.
At present, we have a small number of individual schools doing far better in European languages than their neighbours, and an even smaller number succeeding in Chinese. This seed corn has, however, given us a much clearer picture of how to teach languages in a way that enables far more children to succeed. Much of it has been built into the new national curriculum for languages. If we can find a way of using it as a basis for national reform, without falling into the errors of Labour’s national strategies, we will solve a problem that dates back to the middle ages, and improve the teaching of French and German as well as Mandarin and Arabic.