New Words, New Worlds

Posted on: 05 Dec 2013

By: Dr Heather Martin, Head of Languages & Head of Enrichment at St Faith’s Independent Prep School.

For the last ten years, every pupil at St Faith’s School in Cambridge has learned Spanish from the age of four. In September 2013 the school took an ambitious step towards integrating the language into the academic curriculum. The school’s Head of Languages and Enrichment, Heather Martin, reflects on the theory and practice of the first few months.

boy drawing a pictureRight, I said to my pupils when they returned fresh-faced after a carefree summer holiday: History, Geography, Religious Studies – this year you’ll be doing them all in Spanish. It was a great moment, if only for the looks of wild surmise. But they’re a biddable lot, curious, open-minded and ready to learn. It’s two for the price of one, I tell them, flashing up images of a couple of giant pizzas on the screen. They quite like the sound of that. You’ll be learning all about the Armada and the wars of religion, but with lashings of extra Spanish on top.

The opposite is equally true, of course. They would be learning loads of Spanish, but with the added value of intellectually engaging content. And it’s this that constitutes the real strength of integrated learning (whether it goes by the industry acronyms of CLIL or FLAME – Content and Language Integrated Learning, or the Future of Language as a Medium of Education): that the foreign language is given an immediate purpose at a cognitive level appropriate to the class. The children need the language in order to learn about things they want to learn about. Interestingly enough, the focus on grappling with the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism or the almost absurd intricacies of the war between the three Henrys, seems to render the language almost transparent. The broad brushstrokes of syntax and the many cognates that are common across Indo-European languages allow the children to capture meaning without needing to account for every word, a bit like those experiments which demonstrate that you can still follow a text even when only the first and last letters of each word are correct. The brain is wired up to recognise familiar patterns and be tolerant at the level of detail. Back in the languages classroom, there’s no doubting the greater depth of the children’s knowledge.

This isn’t just an ingenious way of upping the levels of Spanish, however. It’s at least as much about seeing through another person’s eyes or putting yourself in someone else’s shoes. We’ve adjusted our curriculum to reflect what a Spanish 11-year-old might be learning at school, with the aim of briefly escaping our Anglocentric point of view and raising awareness of other people, times and places. So rather than have everything filtered through English we endeavour to go back to original sources in the original language.

On balance, I wouldn’t generally hold up the 16th-century conquistadors as role models to impressionable youngsters. But there is one respect in which they set a compelling example: the spirit of adventure. The great explorers of the Age of Discovery ventured fearlessly into unknown territory, ready for any challenge: our Year 6 pioneers in Spanish in Action Humanities have proved similarly intrepid and inspired.

Dr Heather Martin is Head of Languages & Head of Enrichment at St Faith’s Independent Prep School in Cambridge.

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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.