When and why do Languages lose their ‘spark’ for students?

This morning I had the pleasure of observing a Year 4/5 Italian class at a local primary school. It was fascinating to witness such a different environment from the language classrooms in a high school.

The lesson began with the students’ class teacher accompanying them to the shared Italian and Science room (perhaps a seemingly odd combination to some but what an opportunity for bilingual learning!). As the children entered the room they immediately greeted their teacher and myself in Italian, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. They also responded immediately to questions with ‘Si” or ‘No.’

The class was beginning work on an information report about Australian animals, constructing language using the functional grammar concepts of participants and processes. They are to be introduced to circumstances next week. I found it fascinating to observe the students’ knowledge of -are verbs in the present tense, and their eagerness to participate in the class discussion and respond to the teacher’s questioning. They were patient and genuinely willing to support each other. Even when they were fidgeting, they were engaged with the lesson activities and a pleasure to talk to about their language learning individually.

The students I observed today were lapping up every word they were able to write or say in Italian. They spoke with beautiful Italian accents when asked to read and were so proud of their achievements in the short lesson. Watching this class made me wonder, where do so many children lose this enthusiasm for language learning? Is it in the late primary school years, or early in high school? When do they become so hesitant to take positive risks with their learning? I know this has a lot to do with the age-group I teach, rather than simply the subject…but it is a challenge for teachers of Languages at high school. Where are the gaps, and how can we better foster this love for learning languages in more of our older students?

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