Learning languages through culture

Learning about other languages and cultures
Learning a language at primary school is more than just words; it’s a gateway to other cultures. Dawn Francis-Pester shares top tips for bringing languages to life for your child.

Learning a foreign language is now a compulsory part of the national curriculum for children in Key Stage 2, but it's not all about grammar and pronunciation. Primary-school language-learning places a big emphasis on learning about another culture, with children developing an appreciation of stories, songs, poems and rhymes in the foreign language. The good news is that even if you don't speak a word of the language yourself, you can still give your child's learning a big boost by helping them to find out more about the country and its culture and customs.

Stories and rhymes

These are a popular way for children to get to grips with a new language, linking spoken and written words. At Bright Books you can find foreign language and dual language books in a wide range of languages, and many will show glimpses of everyday life in another country, while www.mamalisa.com has English and foreign language versions of nursery rhymes from other countries. Reading these regularly will help children begin to learn phrases and words off by heart and even adapt lines and rhymes as they learn more words and increase their confidence.

Music and song

From a cultural perspective, rhythm and music can be as enriching as words. There's lots of free foreign music online, or go to www.live-radio.net to find foreign local radio stations. CDs and DVDs designed specifically for young children can work well too. Look out for local music events in your area, remembering to look further than the countries on your doorstep that speak the language. Don’t worry too much if you don’t understand the words of songs and are unable to find them written anywhere, as your child will still be absorbing the sounds and feeling immersed in the foreign culture.

Food

Pancakes, pizza or Italian ice cream always go down well, but again, look a little further for more unusual typical dishes in other countries where the language is spoken. Children will enjoy cooking sweet and savoury foreign recipes at home with you, perhaps practicing some food vocabulary. The Usborne Children’s World Cookbook (Usborne, £6.99) has recipes from around the world, or for a special treat, take your family to a foreign café or restaurant in your area to sample typical dishes, recognise some words on the menu and maybe use a few phrases.

History and art

You don’t have to visit the country to soak up its history and art and broaden your child’s horizons about the people who speak the foreign language. Look out for short accessible TV programs, or books and websites focused on countries in which the language is spoken, perhaps featuring a famous artist such as Goya, or a monument such as the Eiffel Tower. Visiting museums and art galleries is another great way to teach your children about key people and events from a country's history.

Penfriends

Corresponding with a penfriend can be an exciting opportunity. Children can practise asking and answering basic questions, but try to keep this activity fun, without pushing for too much writing too early. Encourage creativity, sending and exchanging photos, recipes, postcards, stamps, and if the friendship blossoms, perhaps comics, CDs or DVDs, sweets and other typical food products. For safety, ask your child’s teacher for links, perhaps with a twinned school abroad, or ask friends and family for any contacts.

Sport

This is a healthy and accessible way to interest children in foreign language and culture and children from all backgrounds can often be inspired by sport. Major football tournaments and the Olympic Games are a good way to follow world teams, perhaps learn a few phrases and watch TV coverage about the host countries. Some children also enjoy following other foreign teams, particularly those for which famous British players are playing: Real Madrid is always popular!