Primary school is about what every child needs. Generalist teachers master the content, have time to know each child well, and can make best use of time and attention by controlling the class timetable and integrating activities for motivation and effectiveness.
Primary school shows children what they can do: count, do sums, read and write, paint, jump, catch, bat, sing, play something, use a map, tell time, use another language... well, usually not that last one!
Why? We are of two minds about languages: because Chinese babies learn Cantonese, some have thought that primary school is a workable place to start teaching it but, since children take about 5000 hours to learn their own language, and have so much other vital work to fit into their limited time, maybe not.
A middle path, taking into account both the importance of experiencing early bilingualism and the pressing importance of other parts of the primary curriculum, is to teach the easiest language in primary school.
This strategy offers the huge advantage that the easiest language, Esperanto, does not require a specialist to teach it. This means both that it is modeled as a part of the “normal” curriculum anywhere in Australia and that it can be taught in frequent, integrated lessons, which uniquely turns a vague hope of bilingualism into a reliable model of provision. A new resource teaches the teacher as s/he teaches the class.
Esperanto is the easiest language because it was designed for that purpose. (To be accurate, Toki Pona is easier in that it has a smaller vocabulary . However a) it is not a complete language, b) it offers a fairly narrow range of intercultural contacts, c) it is conceptually quite difficult because there is no translation for most English words and d) it lacks the grammar markers which make Esperanto both easy to learn and a valuable support to learning of other languages, including English.)
Esperanto was launched, copyright free, about 120 years ago and was taken up quite rapidly, though there were wars and other setbacks, and it is now one of the most used language on the internet, with a few million speakers scattered over more than 100 countries. To see how it looks, choose Esperanto from the languages options at the bottom of your Facebook page!
The Apprenticeship Language Strategy
But what about Japanese? or French? or all the other 6,800 languages in the world which have value? Research in Australia and overseas, and the author’s own experience of a decade of teaching Esperanto in Australian schools, show that learning Esperanto is an unusually effective step towards learning any other language.
Just as developmentally appropriate tools like tricycles, limericks and descant recorders can teach preparatory skills, concepts and attitudes for quite different riding, writing and music challenges, learning Esperanto is a serious strategy for the long-term mastery of any target language.
Esperanto gives the young language learner experience of success, language-learning skills, general linguistic understandings, and experience of intercultural relationships. The next few paragraphs will elaborate on these elements.
Success and Skill-Building
Whereas “false starts” in language learning are strongly de-motivating (and the experience of far too many of our children due to movements of staff and students), successful mastery of one foreign language provides both confidence and transferable language-learning skills, which motivate and equip a learner to make faster progress in subsequent languages.
What do you mean by “easiest” ? Twice as quick? Three times? ...
Alex McAndrew, former director of the Sydney University Language learning unit advises that, if your native tongue is English, here are some indications about the average number of hours it takes a diligent student to reach what we call functional mastery, i.e. being able to get by in understanding, speaking, reading and writing.
French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese 600
Dutch, German, Scandinavian 600
General Linguistic Training
Learning a second language is usually a very different process from learning our first. First languages are learned one word or phrase at a time and generalities, such as “rules” and exceptions and formal grammar, are superimposed later. If a second language is taught from the general to the specific to a greater extent, this offers both valuable support for the formalization of English language competence and a very strong and complete basis for later language learning. Esperanto, as a carefully designed language, is the best illustration of the essential parts of a language as it follows its own rules without exception. The alphabet is similar, but different from, English, the spelling is absolutely phonetic and grammar markers and regular word-building are used extensively. Because of this consistency, primary children gain early experience of successful general-to-specific language learning at the same time as they are learning the general rules of English. This is very efficient use of time and reinforces the learning through application of the same principles in two subjects.
Nouns end in -o, adjectives in -a, adverbs in -e
Verbs: present tense -as, past -is, future -os, conditional -us, imperative -u, infinitive -i
So, since “kato” is a cat, then something cat-like is “kata” and something done in a cat-like manner is done “kate”. This derivation is valid for all nouns in Esperanto.
Likewise, all Esperanto verbs have the same tenses and cases, which is a very useful way of alerting children to the existence of these tenses and cases in other languages, including English, where they are less easily visible due to idiosyncratic inconsistencies in the way they are expressed.
Experience of Intercultural Relationships
Some of the most powerful moral arguments for universal LOTE education refer to acknowledgement and acceptance of cultural diversity, and a sense that tomorrow’s global citizens should gain a realistic perspective of themselves in a wider context than the two-culture model which is currently predominant (i.e. pick the dominant language of a strong economy, and compare that language and culture to ours). Esperanto offers peer-to-peer communication opportunities in over 100 extremely diverse cultures.
You can see some of the children currently communicating in Esperanto from various parts of the world on a YouTube video called “The World of Primary Esperanto”. There are several versions, so look for the most recent.
Integrating primary LOTE and intercultural studies using Esperanto, has a number of advantages including motivational success, learning skills, linguistic knowledge, understanding of English, and broad intercultural perspective.
Freedom from dependence on specialists means that continuity can be guaranteed and that best use can be made of the opportunities to integrate curricula and to create effective language-immersion environments.
A decision to implement this program means that both the teachers and the children will experience real, usable bilingualism. If the teacher goes on to apply his/her new language to international travel during the school holidays, that will strengthen the message that learning is a worthy life-long activity and Australia will finally lose the burden of its “Monolingual Mindset” when normal primary school teachers and students have two languages.
Another consequence of incorporation of LOTE into the classroom teacher’s domain is that s/he can enrich the children’s experience by choosing, as relief from face-to-face, whatever subject area specialist would be most valuable to the class at the time. A weekly Science specialist can be a lot more effective than a weekly LOTE teacher, because of the less cumulative nature of the learning and the smaller reliance on memory.
Teachers interested in getting started as a school or class can ask questions, request a presentation or order resources from the Mondeto (“small world”) website at www.mondeto.com