Having at one time worked for the British Council and the (as it was then) Bell Educational Trust, I know from first-hand experience that it is entirely possible to teach young children to speak, read and write foreign languages.
Michael Gove’s suggestion that language teaching should start at five is by no means radical. In countries, such as Luxembourg for example, where several languages are spoken, children grow up acquiring or being taught as many as four different languages. In other countries, teaching foreign languages from an early age is taken for granted. For example, when I visited a school in Vallecas in Madrid in 2002, children as young as five were already spending part of their day learning English through a variety of different activities.
In Italy, the children I saw who had started learning English at five with the British Council had already by the age of eleven and twelve attained a high degree of proficiency. This means that they were able not only to cope with the more formal aspects of speaking, reading and writing in English but also they were able to use it when pursuing their particular pastimes – watching films, playing computer games, listening to music, etc.
The idea of teaching ‘English through ...’ is not a new one. It is based on the simple idea that learning a subject of interest through the medium of a foreign language presents a much more powerful purpose than learning the language out of context. At the Bell in the eighties we were already teaching youngsters from all parts of the world English through science, art, and sport.
While I’d be more cautious about making claims that learning languages improves an individuals’s brain power, as Gove is quoted as saying, he is almost certainly right in saying that, ‘learning a foreign language, and the culture that goes with it, is one of the most useful things we can do to broaden the empathy and imaginative sympathy and cultural outlook of children’.
As Suzanne Romaine, in her book Bilingualism, put it: ‘What distinguishes bilinguals from monolinguals is that bilinguals usually have greater resources...’.