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How Should Schools Teach Languages to Children?

Sponsored by Swiss International School in Qatar

As an educator, I never cease to marvel at the vast changes that have happened in education since I was in school. One area where I think most schools are still lagging behind, however, is the teaching of languages. 

We have known for many years that languages are best taught before puberty because the brain of a child under 12 is a wonderful language-learning machine. Some studies suggest that 10 is the magic age before which one needs to start learning a language if they want to be perfectly fluent; other studies go down as young as five. One recent study was a little more hopeful, saying that the brain is able to absorb languages quite easily until 17, but did agree that complete fluency was much more likely if the language was learned before 10.

Whatever the exact number is, all studies seem to agree that the capacity to learn languages decreases as children get older. And yet, most schools and educational systems insist on starting formal language learning around the age of 11, when the ability to absorb a new language has already started declining. This is a deeply flawed premise, especially when we know that learning foreign languages helps children’s brains develop and therefore helps them learn in other areas.

Another issue is that primary schools who do offer foreign languages often limit classes to one or two per week. Research shows that there are certain skills that are much easier to acquire if they are practised daily, even for a few minutes. These include playing an instrument, but also speaking a new language. When children have one language class per week, they tend to forget what they’ve learned in one lesson by the time the next lesson comes. Daily exposure can produce fast and impressive results, and it is a model that should definitely be considered by any institution or parent who is serious about language learning.

One last problem is that students are often put in the wrong group when it comes to language classes. For example, they will learn a new language one year, acquire some basics, and then start from scratch again the following year because the school only offers beginner classes that need to go back to zero every year to accommodate new students. This is a very common phenomenon in international schools, where the population is transient. Some primary schools may offer native and beginner classes, but with nothing in the middle, therefore impeding proper progress and widening the gap between those who already speak the language and those who are learning it.

Being aware of these issues can make parents a lot more discerning when they choose a school for their children or when they discuss language learning with their current school. Asking the following questions will help establish whether a school is taking languages seriously: 

  • How old are students when they start learning foreign languages?
  • How often do language classes take place?
  • How many levels are available in the languages offered?
  • How does the language programme progress from one year to the next?
  • What key skills are you expecting students to acquire in each year?
  • Are the language teachers fully fluent in the languages they teach?

By engaging in such conversations with schools, parents can help shape education and make sure key skills such as language learning do not get forgotten.


Dr Nancy Le Nezet is the Director of Studies at the Swiss International School (Doha, Qatar). Nancy studied philosophy in France and in the UK and taught languages in Japan, the US and Spain before starting her career as an IB educator. Nancy is passionate about international education and the IB programme. For more information about Nancy and the school, please visit sisq.qa.

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