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Buoyancy aid for bilingualism

Youngsters who arrive in Scotland unable to speak English, blossom on an outdoors visit with their bilingual support unit

BETWEEN THE tall trees and all-terrain clothing shops at Loch Lo-mond Shores, two smiling youngsters from different countries are pedalling a little boat across the sunlit waters of the bay. It's turning out a better day for Glody Ntumba, 12, than the previous one, when he fell off a mountain bike.

"I pulled the second brake and went... " He sketches a parabola in the air with his good hand.

One of 40 pupils from Glasgow's bilingual support unit on a two-day outdoors activities trip, Glody came from Congo and has been in Scotland for 11 months. "It's good." He smiles. "We get rain in Congo too."

The other half of the crew is an older girl from Poland who hadn't previously talked to Glody, but volunteered to accompany him on the pedallo when his sore hand excluded kayaking with the class.

It's a cameo of what the ex-pedition is about, says teacher Shakuntala Datta. "Some children come to this country alone, with no one to look after them. This is about developing their social skills, help-ing them learn to be patient and organised, to take care of themselves and to be kind to each other."

It is also about having fun. A straw poll of the youngsters reveals that mountain biking and kayaking are the most enjoyable activities. Highland dancing and tossing the caber are interesting. Team-building is fun in parts, but puzzling too. And trying to play the bagpipes is... well, no one's English is up to describing that experience.

This is the second year of the outdoor activities expedition, explains Ishbel Drysdale, head of the secondary bilingual support unit, which is attached to Shawlands Academy but serves the whole of Glasgow. "Last year, we took them to the Highlands and that went well. But Loch Lomond is better because it's so close. Many of the kids won't have seen anything of Scotland but the city."

Children with no English when they come to Glasgow spend an average of nine months in the bilingual support unit, where the teachers prepare them for mainstream, gradually feeding them into classes as their English improves.

The unit has youngsters from Congo, Slovakia, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, France, Afghanistan, Burundi and Hungary. Most have no common language until they start learning English in the unit.

Outdoors activities encourage learning in a meaningful context. It also extends the scope of the children's socialising, says Linda Gunn, the school secretary.

On shore, a team of boys are integrated enough in their efforts to assemble a raft from planks and drums, but a little too confident in their knots. "You might want to tie some of those again," Stewart Mitchell, the activity leader, suggests.

Back from a life-jacketed trip in a kayak, Stefani Cicova, 15, watches the raft-building with interest. Having come to Scotland from Slovakia when she was 13, Stefani has more English than most of her colleagues, and attends Skills for Work college courses on childcare and beauty from school. English, she says, is tough to learn. "It is different when you read it and write it. The same sounds have different spellings."

Learning any new language is a major undertaking, says Carmel Burman-Roy, a teacher. "It takes five to 11 years to become fluent in a second language. So these kids will continue to be developing bilinguals, and need support, throughout school."

Indeed, for those coming to Scotland without parents, support is about more than learning. "We provide pastoral care, and work closely with psychologists and social and health workers," she says.

But learning needs challenge as well as support. As the raft drifts from the shore, knots unravel, planks detach and the boys perched on the drums are faced with a hard choice. Cintis Coba, 12, from Po-land, abandons ship before it abandons him, and wades through the water.

"Your feet are all wet," Glody says. "Ha ha."

"But I didn't fall off my bike," Cintis replies, and the two boys from different continents wander along the shore, trading friendly insults in English.

Scottish Youth Hostels: SiteGUABgiveusabreak.asp

Activities by Can You Experience: www.canyou

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