Angela Youngman finds out what is possible if you want to introduce a modern foreign language in your setting.

Introducing foreign languages at the earliest possible age is regarded as highly desirable. The earlier children are exposed to foreign languages, the easier it is for them to assimilate that language. More and more nurseries are considering offering foreign language tuition.

It is not an easy option. Simply using someone with a holiday knowledge of a foreign language is not enough. Teaching a foreign language needs some specialist skills – pronunciation needs to be correct, likewise accurate usage of verbs and grammar.

Thought also has to be given to what happens when a child leaves the nursery. How can continuity be maintained? The child has gained some knowledge of a foreign language and it would be a shame to lose this advantage. Nurseries need to use their links with local schools to find out if they have any language provision, and if so it would be most appropriate to make sure the same language is being offered to the children.

French remains the most popular language being taught in nurseries and schools. This is closely followed by Spanish. German used to be common but is less so nowadays. Given the choice between German and Spanish, children generally choose Spanish. Italian too is growing in popularity.

If your local schools don’t offer any language teaching during or after school, you could provide parents with links to local after schools language facilities such as La Jolie Ronde (see below).

Language teachers

Many nurseries employ an experienced language teacher to come in for a few hours a week to give half-hour classes to children. These are generally regarded as an ‘extra’ for which parents pay an additional sum. If employing a teacher, it is important to ensure that they have the right approach and can work with young children. Pre-school children do not need a highly structured, grammar-led approach with lots of reading and writing. More emphasis has to be placed on verbal skills and making learning fun, with lots of games and stories.

Training your own staff

It is also possible to send nursery staff on courses to train to teach a foreign language to very young children. The Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT) offer sound advice on this subject. Teresa Tinsley of the CILT comments ‘We are getting a lot of interest and demand from this group, so are looking at putting on courses for early years teachers. In November for example, we are putting on a one-day course on Nursery French aimed at teachers, play group leaders etc. This course aims to help them include some French in what they are doing, developing listening skills, social skills through simple songs, circle games and practical activities.’ (For details see ‘What’s on’ on the last page of this issue of EYU.)

Different approaches

Approaches to teaching languages vary. Traditionally, teaching foreign languages has involved using a mixture of English and the language being taught. A specialist foreign language teacher will usually use mainly the language being taught, but give some instructions in English so as to help understanding.

Hopes & Dreams Montessori School, Islington has adopted this approach. They employ a French teacher who comes in for a short time each week. Cornelia Eminger explains: ‘About 10 to 15 children take the optional French lessons each term. They range in age from two and a half upwards. Each lesson lasts half an hour. One of our staff helps the teacher. Parents pay about £25 for the 12 lessons per term.’

Sometimes they find that a very young child finds it too hard or is not interested; the parents are then advised to drop the classes for a while, then try it again. Second time round it is generally successful. It is very much up to individual children as to when they are most able to cope with the demands of learning another language – some are fine from a very, very early age whereas others find it more suitable when aged around four years.

The Centre for Information on Language Teaching (CILT)

CILT is part of a European project looking at a new model of teaching languages to very young children – the total immersion approach. This autumn sees the publication of a new book, Magic Teacher, which is based on research carried out by a professor of child development in Rome. It looks at ways in which a suitable foreign language learning environment can be created with a child and the different layers – stories, drama, video, audio – which go with it. ‘Horcus & Lotus’ is a video/DVD system which is based on this approach. Everything is in Italian and children have to listen and try and understand what is happening to the cartoon dinosaur/crocodile creatures that are featured on the film. Teachers use mime and gesture to introduce new words and concepts, and to explain what is happening on the tape.

Jim McElwee from Cleveland & Redcar LEA is setting up a pilot scheme to encourage early years language training. He says ‘I went on a residential course a year ago to learn about the Magic Teacher and “Horcus & Lotus”. I was so excited about it, I wanted to get involved. We decided to hold an awareness raising session locally and it was very popular. We are now training nursery nurses, classroom assistants and teachers in the method so that it can be introduced into our centres this autumn. Within our area we are starting language teaching in nurseries and reception. The intention is that the schools will then follow it on in key stage 2.’

‘“Horcus & Lotus” enables non-specialists to teach a foreign language effectively,’ he continues. ‘There is sufficient material to give four years of language skills. Parents we have spoken to have been very enthusiastic.’

Bringing it alive

Stories, songs, tales and examples of how life is different in France, Italy, Spain or wherever, help to bring the culture alive.

For example, introductions to Italian can be enlivened with talk of the Passagiata – the way in which children and adults gather to show off and talk in the long summer evenings; or to French by looking at the different types of train such as the train a grande vitesse. Or you could cook some of the national food.


Lots of language resources are available suitable for nursery use.

  •  Usborne Books’ Farmyard Tales activity sets in French, Spanish, German and Italian; and Farmyard Tales Picture Word Lotto in French. There is even a game of Snap in French and a French Songbook.
  • La Jolie Ronde offers a structured language programme in conjunction with nurseries, providing both teachers or training staff to teach French to this age group. Two useful resources they offer are:
  • La Ronde des Petits, a resource pack for using with three to five year olds. It includes lesson plans for each module and photocopiable sheets for £39.95. The accompanying CD Chante en Français and transcripts of songs from the course is also available for £9.55
  • Entre dans la Ronde covers nursery, reception, and years 1 and 2, and is for those teachers who have a basic knowledge of French. The teacher’s resources pack includes a handbook, a CD of all the songs, rhymes and stories spoken by a native French speaker and a children’s tape for £39.95. You can also buy a children’s cassette of rhymes and songs for £3.85.
  • Visit the CILT website to download lists of resources available in the most popular languages. You can also join an online forum to discuss the teaching of foreign languages.

La Jolie Ronde tel: 01949 839715 Usborne Publishing tel: 020 74302800
CILT tel: 020 7379 5101