Language learning in Scotland: a 1 + 2 approach

Report and recommendations from the Languages Working Group on Scotland's language education policy.


Starting early - introducing an additional language (L2) at Primary 1

1. There is a considerable body of evidence which indicates that young children learn languages more easily than older learners in terms of mental flexibility and the ability to focus on the input they receive. It is also true that children need to be exposed to sufficient quantities of 'engaging' input in order to learn (and maintain) another language. In general, this will be easier to deliver from the primary stage, although it is recognised that as the experience with many languages including GME indicates, it is possible for effective language learning to take place in pre-school contexts. This means that it is important to be realistic about what can be achieved in a situation of limited resources and limited exposure to the target language. However, there is a substantial body of evidence to indicate that lowering the age of access to other languages can have beneficial effects on monolingual children's awareness of languages and enhance their natural curiosity. Such 'priming' can then lead to an enhanced readiness to learn other languages at a later stage and can help foster positive attitudes towards other languages and cultures. This is especially important in the UK because of the lack of incentives and motivation to learn other languages due to the perceived status of English as a worldwide language.

2. In recent years learning of the first foreign language in many European countries has begun at an increasingly early age. In the majority of countries teaching at least one foreign language is compulsory, and the trend for the starting age is now between six and nine years old. Together with European countries outwith the EU, and many other countries worldwide, these countries introduce a first additional language at the early stages of primary school (and sometimes pre-school). The language for most schools where the policy applies is English - but not inevitably so. Further languages are introduced at various stages of the primary school or early secondary. There is no reason why Scotland should not offer children the same opportunities as children in other European countries and many other countries worldwide. Indeed, if Scotland is to be a leading competitive nation of the future the case in support of young people learning an additional language from an early age is irrefutable.

Recommendation 1: The Working Group recommends that schools offer children access to an additional language from Primary 1.

Choosing a language

3. The Working Group considered the rationale for promoting specific languages but decided not to set a hierarchy of languages to be learned by pupils in Scotland. This is a matter for schools and local authorities to decide, taking account of the local context. The Working Group nonetheless believes that continuing to engage with our nearest neighbours in Europe will remain a priority for young people in Scotland. Learning French, German, Italian and Spanish will continue to have an important place. There is, however, also a case to be made for taking account of new economies of the future, as Scotland has already started to do by encouraging the promotion of Chinese. The Working Group noted the strong case to be made for other languages, such as Portuguese (Brazil), Arabic and Russian, as well as other eastern European languages, including Slavonic languages.

4. The Working Group noted that Gaelic education is a key element of Scotland's National Plan for Gaelic which aims to secure a sustainable future for the language. Therefore, for some local authorities Gaelic will be a substantive element of their languages provision. It welcomes the development of Gaelic learning and teaching within such local authorities as Comhairle nan Eilean Siar ( CNES), Highland, Glasgow, Edinburgh or elsewhere through GME or Gaelic Learner Education ( GLE). As part of 1+2 development, Gaelic will be the L2 language for some pupils.

5. The Working Group acknowledged the work being done to encourage the use of Scots language at all levels of the school. It welcomes the recommendations of the Scottish Studies Working Group that all learners should have an understanding of the unique contribution of Scots as part of Scotland's historic language diversity.

6. For an increasing number of Scottish young people the mother tongue will be from a range of community languages. The most significant of these are (in numeric descending order) Polish, Punjabi, Urdu and Arabic. Some pupils in Scottish schools are native speakers of western European languages, the most prevalent of which is French. For those young Scots for whom the first language is not English, it is inevitable that the first additional language (L2) should be English.

7. A genuine mother tongue + 1 approach from the earliest stages of education will send powerful messages to very young children and their families on language acquisition in a diverse, multilingual, multicultural society. Supporting the continuation of the variety of mother tongues found within Scotland's school population is a challenging task and is not one that schools meet currently through teaching of the language formally in school. However, schools should celebrate the variety of languages that children bring with them and, as far as possible, seek to encourage them to maintain and develop their mother tongue. The development of a local authority languages strategy should consider how schools can encourage continuation of mother tongue learning and how this might be resourced.

8. Local language strategies should consider the place of an enhanced role for the teaching of English as an Additional Language ( EAL) within schools. For some young people also, the first language will be British Sign Language ( BSL) and the status of BSL as a language must also be fully acknowledged as part of a local authority's languages strategy.

9. As implementation of the 1+2 policy develops, local authorities should review their provision of languages and develop strategies for languages that will allow for a range of options for learners within and across their own area. Within that framework, schools will make informed decisions about the additional languages to introduce.

Recommendation 2: The Working Group recommends that Local Authorities and schools develop a 1+2 strategy for language learning within which schools can determine which additional languages to offer. As part of this strategy, consideration should be given to teaching modern European languages, languages of the strong economies of the future, Gaelic, and community languages of pupils in schools.


10. The delivery of an earlier start to language learning in primary school will be challenging for schools and teachers. In making its recommendation on earlier access to language learning the Working Group is aware of issues surrounding the learning and teaching of modern languages in primary. Although all pupils are entitled to learn a language from P6, there are concerns that some primary children do not have access to an additional language due to staffing, training or funding issues, or other perceived curricular priorities. There are also particular issues in very small primary schools, especially in rural areas, where there will only be a small number of teachers with responsibility for delivery of the whole curriculum. Without ongoing training, many primary teachers do not feel confident in teaching a modern language and some do not volunteer despite training. Nevertheless, there is evidence of staff in some primary schools working successfully with children on language learning from the beginning of primary or earlier.

11. There is a considerable variety of methods which teachers can use to engage children and young people in early language learning. Effective learning experiences build on children's natural curiosity and allow them to explore sounds, using songs and rhyme. The best lessons include a variety of approaches such as songs, games, direct teaching, paired and group activities. In best practice, primary teachers reinforce the additional language across the curriculum and not just during the due time allocated to formal language teaching. A whole school approach to language learning reinforces the skills involved and helps children to learn better. Notwithstanding the longer term issues of teachers' language skills and qualifications, which are taken up later in this report, the Working Group considers that early access to language learning, together with effective and stimulating approaches, should be piloted in schools, with a view to demonstrating the impact and feasibility of an earlier start to language learning.

12. Current modern language experiences and outcomes begin at second level but these can be applied from early primary school. However, some work is required to establish, through time, a broad framework for learning an additional language from an earlier age. This should be developed in such a way as to capture the imagination and interest of pupils, whilst giving them a real sense of progress. This work should be led by Education Scotland and should provide a basis for initial teacher education and CPD associated with earlier access to language learning. It should also assist others involved in supporting language teaching, such as Foreign Language Assistants and other appropriately skilled other native speakers of language. Crucial to the process must be clear progression in language learning throughout the primary school and beyond, consistent with the experiences and outcomes set out within the framework of Curriculum for Excellence.

Recommendation 3: The Working Group recommends that the Scottish Government fund a number of pilot projects in 2012-13 on introducing access to language learning in primary schools from Primary 1 on a phased basis from 2013-14.

Introducing a second additional language - L3

13. The Government's commitment is to create the conditions in which every child will learn two languages in addition to their mother tongue. The Working Group believes that schools and local authorities should work towards introducing a second additional language (L3) at a later stage of primary education. The Working Group believes that this will be a challenge for many schools, but one which must be met if a 1+2 policy is to become a reality. While the Working Group believes that this second language should be introduced in a way that allows for genuine progression in language acquisition, this does not necessarily mean to the same degree of depth as the first language. It is important that the introduction of a second additional language does not undermine pupil progress in the L2 language.

14. The Working Group noted that practice exists in some local authority areas for some primary schools to introduce two, or in some cases more than two languages, sometimes on a taster or "carousel" model. While this approach has led to positive developments in some schools, in many schools there have been problems with quality or depth of delivery and continuity.

15. Learning about the culture of a country frequently arouses enthusiasm for learning the language. This has been evident in the recent rise in the teaching of Chinese language and culture in Scotland. Young people who learn about the culture of China become interested in learning the language. While traditional language teaching often begins with the language and builds in study of the culture of the foreign country, this inverse methodology does appear to be motivating pupils initially to learn more. The use of a planned interdisciplinary approach and aspects of citizenship and international education would be one way of introducing the L3 language.

16. Increasing use of planned interdisciplinary learning (one of the four contexts for learning within CfE) can facilitate learning about aspects of other countries across the curriculum. In primary schools for example, projects about other countries can involve aspects of language, geography, history, environmental studies and the expressive arts, together with health and wellbeing. The other country can become a focus for learning across the school. Similarly, a focus on Scotland can be a pathway to Gaelic and Scots. The new online Scottish Studies resource demonstrates how learning about the interconnected nature of Scotland's languages, culture, history, literature and place can be a natural and normal part of the learning experience from early years to the senior phase.

17. In following such an approach, it would be important to establish how and when language skills will be developed. The ability to take part in a few simple transactions, enjoy listening to a song in another language and understand some personal information, for example, would be meaningful and achievable. While the depth of L3 language learning will be less than that relating to L2, it is important that the quality of the language experience for pupils should be high with appropriate progression for the learner.

18. The challenges for the introduction of the L3 language are similar to those for the introduction of the L2 language. There are issues of staffing, training and funding and the claims of other areas of the curriculum. However, there is much good work underway in many primary schools, and examples of good practice, together with new approaches to practice, should be developed. Schools will be best placed to decide upon the most practicable way for them to introduce a second modern language at this stage. Consideration of practical challenges should be a key feature of the piloting and trialling proposed in Recommendation 3 above.

Recommendation 4: The Working Group recommends that a second additional language (L3) be introduced for pupils at a later stage in the primary school. The time for introduction of the L3 language would be a matter for schools and Local Authorities to determine but no later than P5.

Developing the learning of L2 and L3

19. A great deal of high quality curricular material has already been developed in many schools in relation to languages. There is considerable support from cultural organisations. Within the context of a 1 + 2 policy it is of central importance, however, that there be real progression across the stages in terms of all language development. Education Scotland, cultural organisations, Scotland's National Centre for Languages, universities, other agencies with a proven track record in the area and very importantly individual teachers often working in collaboration, will have a significant role to play in developing curriculum advice, support and exemplar materials for earlier and additional language learning.

20. Considerable work has already been undertaken in many primary schools on interdisciplinary working involving additional languages. This work should continue to be developed. Using language as part of an interdisciplinary approach is one of the most effective ways of emphasising the relevance the additional language has for other areas of study and work. Education Scotland and Scotland's National Centre for Languages should support this work. It has already been suggested that the trialling of interdisciplinary working should take place in the early stages of a 1 + 2 implementation programme.

Recommendation 5: The Working Group recommends that Education Scotland and Scotland's National Centre for Languages provide support for approaches to the introduction of the 1+2 policy including interdisciplinary working initially through support for piloting and trialling in schools.

Time allocation

21. The Working Group does not propose a fixed number of hours for the learning of language in primary schools. In the past recommendations have been made about the amount of time within the week during which pupils should be learning a language. There is considerable doubt about the extent to which such recommendations have been implemented. However, good practice indicates that there needs to be regular timetabled commitments to language learning. For example, there may be advantages in short blocks of language learning on several occasions throughout the week at the early and primary stages. Building such blocks of language learning into the daily routine of learners, plus the use of the target language across other aspects of learning can avoid the danger that a language 'hour' is the first to go when responding to the pressure of holidays or other pressures on the timetable.

Recommendation 6: The Working Group recommends that there should be regular planned exposure to L2 and L3 languages.

Organisational issues

22. There will be significant organisational, resource and staffing issues from Primary 1 onwards as the result of introducing a L2 language with progression built in. There will need to be sufficient numbers of primary teachers, appropriately trained, confident and competent in language teaching. Some of that training will be of teachers in post resulting in issues of absence cover and related issues of teacher supply. This challenge is addressed in Part 6. Teachers may also be supported by appropriately skilled native or fluent speakers of other languages, both from overseas and already living and working in communities in Scotland. Issues surrounding this are addressed in Part 7. It is important that the introduction of the L2 and L3 languages be seen holistically within the school's development of the curriculum, and not as an 'add on', which is how the introduction of language teaching at the primary stages has sometimes been seen in the past. This recommendation will have clear pedagogical and organisational implications for the whole school curriculum

Recommendation 7: The Working Group recommends that local authorities work with their schools to address the organisational and curricular issues arising from earlier access of learners to language learning.


Email: Pam Semple

Phone: 0300 244 4000 – Central Enquiry Unit

The Scottish Government
St Andrew's House
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