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Alive . . . with the sound of German

The former East and the current East are demonstrating that German is not losing its place altogether. They are also proving that alternatives to home-stay exchanges can be popular.

With the language under pressure from French across Scottish schools, East Ayrshire is attempting to reverse the trend by linking with partners in Saxony - in the former East Germany.

Jean Nisbet, a quality improvement officer in East Ayrshire, believes there are innovative ways to make German attractive to young people by devising alternatives to the traditional home-to-home exchange programmes.

Ms Nisbet was responding to concerns expressed through the pages of The TES Scotland last week that cross-channel trips are sinking because of exam pressures and lack of parental support.

She considers East Ayrshire's strategy of intensive summer schools, involving young people from both countries, is one way to preserve the interest in German.

"We had no difficulty recruiting our group. The selling point wasn't the language at all but the opportunity to take part in a concentrated programme of physical activities youngsters were unlikely to be able to enjoy at home and certainly not in the first week of the school year last August. They tried windsurfing, swimming, abseiling, hillwalking, jazz dancing and jogging."

East Ayrshire sent a group of 18 - half third-year and half fifth-year - to team up with German students on a 10-day activity programme, run from a hostel in the mountains near Bautzen.

"The languages used were German and English at the same time and sometimes all mixed up in the same sentence. There is a shortage of English teachers in Saxony and the German students and teachers appreciated the opportunity to practise their English.

"The Scottish youngsters were initially intimidated by just how good the young Germans' English was but they were happy to try their German, especially since the language was the key to proficiency in the outdoor activities," Ms Nisbet said.

She added: "Youngsters were secure and they had language back-up from teachers and each other. They were fairly anonymous in a group of 36 but they got to know everyone pretty fast in a non-threatening atmosphere where the activities were new to all."

Ms Nisbet acknowledges that home-to-home exchanges often have little support from families. "Working parents felt they could shove a pizza in the oven for their own kids but not for visiting French kids. Our Scottish pupils felt very scared at the possibility of not understanding the French they encountered, not to mention being alarmed at the prospect of living with a French family they didn't know," she said.

"Most of our young people had rarely been away from their parents and both parents and youngsters were very nervous."

There had always been anxieties about potential abuse and how to vouch for the families in a foreign country.

East Ayrshire will host a return visit in May - again hostel-based - while a group of up to 15 primary teachers will be heading the other way at Easter. Eight primaries are doing German, some bringing it down to P4.

Seven of the council's nine secondaries run German courses and one that dropped the language has restarted. They have email links with Saxony schools.

Like other language teachers, Ms Nisbet believes pupils learn best in context. In East Ayrshire, that could be at the end of a climbing rope.

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