What should pupils know in the foreign language at which point?

By Martyn Rawson, August 2019

We learn to speak a language in that we take part actively in social activities which take place in that language and are embedded in its societal and cultural framework. This is how all of us learnt our mother tongue(s). Learning a language in school is different from natural learning in that it takes place in an educational learning situation. This ideally contains regular and structures activities of the whole class community and is embedded in the target language. To this extent learning a foreign language in a Waldorf school follows the model of involvement in social activities.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

On the basis of such an understanding, the children are introduced in the early years of school to a purely oral language culture.Only once the spoken language has been “embodied” does the cultural practice of reading and writing follow, building on it. But the spoken language continues to represent the core area of teaching. We might describe it as the hand in the glove of the written language. 

Lower school: simply joining in

The first three classes are about involving the children in many different activities which can be undertaken in school and which can be accompanied by the target language. Typical activities are greeting one another, chatting, singing, reciting, playing, drawing, rearranging things and tidying up, listening to and retelling stories. All of these things in themselves are already familiar to the children and do not need much of an explanation. The children merely have to understand how to do what. What cannot be done specifically in the classroom can be supplemented with the imagination. 

Although the activities are familiar in principle (guessing games, packing a suitcase, shopping, eating, taking a bus trip, getting dressed, and much else), they are accompanied by different feelings in the various languages. This all happens without any translation, of course, because otherwise the children would associated the activities mainly with familiar mother tongue vocabulary. It is not about translating something new into something familiar but about encountering something new and developing the confidence to grasp it intuitively at a pre-linguistic level. The fact that speaking is embedded in the context of authentic situations also means, however, that the children often cannot reproduce at home what they have experienced in class. 

After only a few months the children start to speak with one another, in simple sentences at first, but soon more. Pronunciation and the rhythm of the language arise purely from copying the teacher. In order to create a rich linguistic environment, it is of course important that the lesson takes place in the target language. By the end of class 3, the pupils can name many things that are concrete, familiar and can be handled; and in the familiar environment of the lesson with a trusted teacher they can also speak whole sentences independently and have little conversations. 

Middle school: creating the basis for skills

The next learning phase begins in class 4 with the introduction of reading and writing. The abstract and symbolic nature of writing means that learning no longer just consists of joining in but increasingly represents the development of an awareness of the differences between languages and their rules. Joining in is supplemented by reflection. Since not all pupils manage the step into abstraction at the same pace, the first significant differences in learning occur. That is why it is particularly important that oral communication remains a central activity within the learning community. Listening to someone speaking and repeating it, dialogues and monologues expand the subjects and linguistic means of expression. 

But as they approach puberty, the pupils become increasingly conscious of themselves so that some become insecure and worried about not being able to say everything correctly. Some tend to react to questions with silence. But that does not mean that they cannot do anything. Rather, they don’t want to speak in that particular situation. So we have to be particularly careful with follow-up questions and corrections in order to avoid making it worse. 

When speaking, if what the pupil says contains mistakes, the teacher simply repeats it “correctly” or formulates what the pupil wanted to say. This means that the proper pronunciation, the correct sentence structure, the appropriate word have simply been spoken so that the pupils can be aware of it. When writing, it is of course necessary to make corrections but here too it is a matter of finding the right degree. 

In principle, the pupils can already do a lot even if at this age the discrepancy between what they can say, read and write in their mother tongue and what they can do in the foreign language is a particularly painful experience. The basic gesture is thus to reinforce what everyone can do and enable many positive experiences in the foreign language. 

Learning another language is not a matter of short-term memory, vocabulary tests and grammar rules. It is the development of dispositions which later enable us to communicate in another language, to slip into another existence and experience the world in a different way. That is something that grows over many years and changes the person. Skill is more than memory. Skill is what we become. 

Upper school: awakening interest

In upper school the discrepancy as described is reduced. The pupils now work on historical, literary and social subjects and, above all, subjects which personally interest them. This happens largely in the target language using texts, images, films and music. Lessons are not to begin with about learning the language but about dealing with interesting subject matter. The work on making sure that the language is precise arises because it serves to make the content comprehensible. 

Within the framework of diverse and authentic tasks, the pupils in this way increase their vocabulary and fluency. They reread and discuss literature, analyse short stories, write newspaper articles or are active in other projects. In every lesson there is oral practice and, as far as possible, only the foreign language is spoken. 

Since we are dealing with a broad spectrum of abilities in the class, it must be the goal of the teacher to create the opportunity for all pupils up to class 12 to deepen their interest in the culture which underlies the respective language and to develop their language skills to the extent that corresponds with their individual possibilities. Without fail that should also include those pupils who are not so good at languages. It has often been my experience that they also develop an interest and become involved if they are given the opportunity. The key factor here is that the tasks should be set in a differentiated way so that all can extend their boundaries, including in a Shakespeare main lesson in class 11 or in discussions about the subject of growing-up in class 12. 

The question as to what the young people have to learn in terms of formal forms of language depends on the qualifications that are aimed for. Those who are not aiming for university entrance exams, can continue to work in the foreign language in a primarily communicative way. Life shows that many Waldorf graduates are very well able to find their way about internationally if interest or necessity so require. 

Accompanying, supporting and evaluating learning

The most important thing when accompanying and evaluating the learning of foreign languages is for the teacher to know and observe their pupils so well in their learning that they can provide feedback about the concrete next step. Learning is not simple, it means effort and requires courage, interest and commitment; but, above all, a great deal of confidence. 

If we no longer learn other languages because we rely on the automatic translation of our smartphones, it will not take long before we cease to understand one another. Everyone will adhere to their view of things. Without narrative empathy, that is the ability to retell the story of the other in an empathetic way, conflict is pre-programmed. That has nothing to do with linguistic correctness but above all with tolerance and understanding. 

About the author: Martyn Rawson works as a Waldorf teacher at the Christian Morgenstern School in Hamburg as well as the Waldorf teacher training seminar in Kiel. He is the author of several books on Waldorf education and co-editor of the English language Waldorf curriculum.