Why English language should not be taught in first form

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Recently, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili declared that English should be taught to students from the 1st form in schools. He reasoned that the importance of the English language in global communications and commerce makes learning it crucial for Georgia’s students. On this latter point, we cannot disagree.

At present, the English language is not a mandatory subject in Georgian schools. Instead, students are obligated to learn three foreign languages during their 12 years in school. However, the school administration decides which languages are to be taught. According to the national teaching plan, the first foreign language teaching begins in the 3rd form, the second from the 7th form, and the third language from the 10th form.

The president’s suggestion is to implement two major changes to this process. First, English would become a mandatory foreign language in every school for every student; and second, that the teaching of English should begin from the 1st form. While the first point is logical, the second point is unlikely to be particularly helpful.

What is the reason that Georgian schoolchildren do not know English well? Is it because they do not begin learning the language from the 1st form? Or is it because of poor instruction? Most people will agree that it is most certainly because of poor instruction – and if this is the case, then beginning earlier will do little to change things.

Currently, efforts are underway to bring 1000 foreign English teachers to Georgia. It will be interesting to find out just how many of them will have proper teaching experience. I think many would agree that in foreign schools, only highly skilled teachers get good results. The same is true in Georgia.

Of course, any such initiatives can only be implemented if they are matched with the requisite amount of financial and operational resources. For example, starting English from 1st form in public schools will result in changes to the national curriculum. Are the resources there to put these changes into effect? How much will it cost to get there?

And even if these resources do exist to put a plan into action, what will be the realistic result and how effective will those expenditures be? Some people believe that beginning formal learning in English earlier will automatically yield better results.

The Council of Europe’s committee for education has created a common framework for member countries to define language knowledge qualifications and supports the coordinated movement of teachers, curricula, and program managers as well as certificate-issuing and foreign language teaching organizations.

According to the common European definitions, there are six basic language levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. A level denotes elementary understanding. B level suggests independent proficiency. C level suggests advanced understanding. Each level is divided into two sub-levels. 

To reach each level, there is a basis of how many hours should be required. For example, if our aim is to reach level B1, there are a certain number of learning hours that are distributed over a number of years to get to that point.

The national teaching plan aims to bring students to the B level. If we were to aim for a C level, however, it would require additional teaching hours and increasing the qualifications of English teachers (the majority of English teachers do not themselves have C1 level proficiency).

It is not as important when you begin learning so much as how intensively it is done.

I think it is interesting to compare the age in which students from other countries begin learning a foreign language. Remember that most Georgian children begin when they are 8 years old.          

Country Age when starting to learn a foreign language
Denmark 9
Germany 8
Lithuania 10
Holland 10
Poland 10
France 7
Italy 6
Iceland 10

If we look at the list, we see that both Italy and France begin foreign language teaching earlier than in other countries – but these countries have the worst results.

Children can easily learn a foreign language if they learn it in a foreign-language environment. Unfortunately, creating such an environment is not possible in schools (teachers should not speak any other language but English and should have enough teaching manners to make children understand them). That is why children learn separate words and meanings of phrases. Knowing words does not necessarily mean knowing a language. Language is a means of communication and, accordingly, if a child cannot speak and understand the language, it means that s/he does not know it.

I have talked to some English teachers and all of them note that the child which begins learning a language when s/he is 11-12 years old very often catches up to those who began a few years earlier.

The idea that English should be a mandatory subject in school is a good one, but to learn English it is not necessary for them to start in the 1st form. Teacher qualifications should be higher.

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