The college recently offered taster classes over four days in no less than 12 different languages, the culmination of a project called Languages Express. Lecturers were drawn from full and part-time college staff, teaching French, German, Italian, Spanish, Gaelic and Chinese. They were backed by James Watt students who taught Arabic, Portuguese and Swedish and guest lecturers who delivered classes in Japanese, Greek and Russian.
The one-hour classes, which were free, ran in morning, afternoon and twilight sessions, targeted at students and the public. The college is unusual in the FE sector in having a high proportion of international students, so classes were well attended.
Students from Lebanon and Israel commented that they had come to Japanese "out of interest", having originally planned to try Greek only. Participation in the class was enthusiastic and there appeared little or no hesitation about taking part in brief conversations after only half an hour of learning. Students also asked questions about the form and structure of the language. One member of the college staff said that she had opted for Japanese "out of curiosity" and intended to attend the Arabic lesson after work.
Dugald Craig, head of international and European programmes at James Watt, commented that with significant student numbers from the Middle East, Arabic classes had proved particularly popular. At the end of the session, the two Middle Eastern students offered to give lessons in French and Hebrew in future projects.
Mr Craig was encouraged by the response to Languages Express as a life-long learning experience. "We have had a lot of folk who have dropped in literally with their shopping bags in hand, to have a go at a variety of languages," he said.
One elderly lady emerging from a Portuguese class was pleased to have topped up her basic Portugese learnt in Madeira and intended to persuade her husband to try Russian the next day. One man had travelled from the outer reaches of Argyll to brush up on the five languages he already spoke to university level.
A number of celebrities also participated: Conservative MSP Annabel Goldie made a start with Gaelic and Greenock-born Herald columnist Alf Young made significant inroads into German. There was, however, no sign of Jack McConnell, Education Minister, who is making well-publicised efforts to come to grips with French.
The challenge of attracting more post-16 students to take up foreign languages is what prompted Eileen Daly, a French and Spanish lecturer at the college, to set up Languages Express. She devised a structured programme of greetings, introductions and basic communication skills to be delivered in all languages. Follow-up work was to focus on the language of food and drink - which no doubt accounted for the "very positive" response from staff. They had enjoyed the mixture of students in their classes and the challenge of distilling the basics into one hour of teaching.
The uptake of languages at James Watt is beginning to show signs of improvement. Increasing numbers of students now combine vocationally pitched HNC language courses with business, travel and tourism. Most recently, engineering and a one-year access course in French and German now offer an additional entry point for beginners.
The college hopes that Inverclyde schools' links with the local headquarters of IBM may offer this year's school-leavers encouragement to enrol in a newly developed European business languages course. The college already works closely with IBM: HND language courses for apprentices and twilight courses are regularly well attended.
In recent months new business links with Compaq have resulted in a monthly series of one-hour classes in the style of Languages Express. Spanish and Italian are now to be followed by classes in German, French and Turkish.