Wie hei't du? Wie alt bist du?" High on a mountain in the Alps a Swiss army officer is being grilled by a 12-year-old boy from the Castle School in Thornbury, Gloucestershire. The questions may be highly personal and the use of the informal "du" inappropriate, but he is only too happy to respond. As for his young interrogator, he is thrilled to discover that the language he has practised in the classroom actually works.
Running key stage 3 study trips abroad involves a lot of hard work and moments like this make it all worthwhile. "Before they arrive their greatest fear is that they won't understand anything and the people will be strange," says former head of German Sue Hill. "It's great to watch their faces light up when they hear a word they recognise or read a sign and work out for themselves what it means. I think it's a big motivating factor."
The Alpine interview happened spontaneously because a resourceful lad spotted an opportunity. But how do you encourage less enterprising individuals to engage with their surroundings and the people they meet?
The Castle School's solution is to focus activities around a booklet that pupils complete during the course of their stay. Some tasks require them to find out information about their new environment, others are of a linguistic nature. They take part in treasure hunts with clues in English and the target language and visit the supermarket to make price comparisons and identify items of vocabulary. "We try to contrive situations where they have to use their initiative and speak the language," says Sue Hill. "One day they may conduct short interviews with local people, on another they will be expected to buy their own lunch. It is interesting to watch them tackle this. Some opt for the easy way out and buy ready-prepared baguettes, others take it very seriously and plan it all with care. Nobody starves. Hunger is a great incentive."
The trip is structured to combine educational activities with straightforward fun, such as an excursion to an adventure park or open-air swimming pool. "Our pupils are still in Year 7 and you have to be realistic about what 12-year-olds are ready for and what they will enjoy," she says.
Marcus Waltl, language project co-ordinator of Elliott School, a language college in London, endorses her approach. "If it's all war cemeteries and Bayeux tapestry, they come back seriously underwhelmed, which does nothing for their interest in the language. It is a question of striking a balance. You want them to have a positive experience."
His strategies are similar to those of the Castle School and every evening pupils gather together to write up their diaries and reflect on the day's events. He also exploits bus journeys to set short competitions and sets money aside for lots of small prizes. "It is informal and light-hearted and we make sure there is something for all levels of ability," he says. "Not everyone is a talented linguist."
So does their first brush with a foreign culture broaden their minds and break down national stereotypes? Marcus Waltl believes that it helps, in conjunction with the school's current Comenius project, which focuses on this very theme. Sue Hill is more sceptical. "While they are there they see people as individuals and discover that they are friendly human beings. But as they get older, they are influenced by their peers and stereotypes harden."
One institution that has tackled this issue head on is the University of Durham, where trainee modern languages teachers get involved in school trips as part of their PGCE course. "We use the model of the language learner as ethnographer, someone who goes to another place to discover how other people live and think," explains professor of education Michael Byram. "With this age group it usually revolves around a project which includes a comparative element. The point is to make them think about their own home town and culture as well as the place they are visiting."
As part of the preparation, pupils may be asked to jot down words or images that they associate with the country concerned and these are reviewed as the week goes by.
Another strategy is to draw up a list based on their preconceptions and ask them to tick each one as they spot it. How many berets and striped T-shirts did they actually see?
Throughout their stay they engage in a variety of activities designed to heighten their awareness of their surroundings. One technique is to ask them to sketch a building, perhaps from a distance and then at close quarters to help them see it in context. Another is to take them to the market and get them to close their eyes and focus on sounds and smells. "We want them to use all their senses," he says. "But above all we want them to look."
Ian Gathercole of the Graduate School of Education, University of Bristol, would agree. One activity he recommends for the first day is to send pupils out on a short walk and ask them to note down five things that strike them. These are discussed back at base. "You are not just setting them loose, you are giving them a purpose and a framework," he says. "Observation is very important. They need to get a sense of place."
Town trails and photo quizzes also encourage them to use their eyes and if some of the questions are difficult it is a great excuse to ask a passer-by for help. Another way of promoting interaction with the locals is to organise recorded interviews as part of a survey on a given topic. Pupils could, for example, interview shoppers as they leave the supermarket to find out what they buy, how often they come here and how far they have to travel. Another suitable theme is housing. Do the interviewees live in a house or a flat? How many rooms do they have? Do they have a garden? For one of the Durham University projects, pupils interviewed people at the market to find out what food they were purchasing and what they would expect a British person to buy. The results illustrated not only that the French do not live on a diet of frogs' legs and snails, but that they too have preconceived images of foreigners.
Interviewing a total stranger in a foreign language can be a daunting prospect and the ground must be carefully prepared. Ian Gathercole advocates starting even before you leave home by practising techniques in English on family and friends and analysing what works and what does not. Even if you omit this stage, it is essential that the questions and possible answers are thoroughly rehearsed in advance if pupils are to have the confidence they need. "Keep it short and simple," he advises. "And tell them not to worry if the first one is a disaster. It is all part of the learning process and if they evaluate what went wrong, the next one will be better." He has devised a range of materials to support interviews and other activities for Equity School Travel. While these are useful, he is keen to emphasise that they serve only as a springboard and teachers need to put their own mark on whatever resources they use. He also believes that you can never have too many. "A well-organised teacher comes armed with a bank of activities and gives pupils an element of choice. It is counter-productive to expect learning to be too regimented."
Whatever strategies you employ, the ultimate aim is to inspire curiosity and enhance understanding. "Pupils are not just there for the language," he says. "Coming to a new environment gives them a unique opportunity to gain insight into themselves and others. They should return home enthused and enriched. " Alison Thomas is a former languages teacher
Before you go
* If you are travelling independently, your trip will be much more successful if you already know the area. Even if you use a commercial organisation, it is still worth going on an inspection visit to familiarise yourself with the surroundings and develop activities for your specific group. It also allows you to check that there is a suitable venue for classroom work and adequate leisure facilities. Boys in particular need somewhere to let off steam, sometimes a problem in the steep river valleys of the Rhine and Mosel.
* Make sure parents understand that pupils will be given an element of freedom in controlled circumstances. The surest way of stopping them from making discoveries or trying out the language is to stand over them 24 hours a day.
Preparing the ground
* Elliott School spends two or three weeks practising relevant transactional language in class. Not everyone takes part in the trip, but the revision is beneficial to all. Pupils also compile their own little phrase books, which they carry with them on their travels.
* Michael Byram of Durham School of Education believes in getting the group together several times to foster group identity, introduce them to the approach of the young ethnographer and decide on a coherent plan.
During the visit
Diaries need a clear focus, or they will be cluttered with observations on who has just dumped her boyfriend or what someone said on the bus. Offer plenty of scope for comparisons and evaluation. Does a can of Coke or a CD cost more or less than in the UK? What would they like to take home and what would they definitely leave behind? Encourage them too to expand their vocabulary. They could collect shop names, keep a list of the presents they buy and choose some new words to learn because they are commonly used or just because they like them. Town trails and photo quizzes Encourage pupils to "cheat" by asking the locals for help - you never know where it might lead. A couple of railway enthusiasts befriended the stationmaster in Dieppe and came back with their arms full of railway magazines. Another group in Rennes asked a policeman to help them locate the law courts and were invited inside to watch a trial in progress.
Surveys and Interviews Michael Byram believes that interacting with local inhabitants is the most valuable experience pupils take away with them. "They are anxious at first, but once they discover that they can communicate, there is no stopping them.
I remember one group who bounded up to us full of enthusiasm with tales of how kind people had been. There have been many like that. I'm sure it is one of the first things they tell their parents when they go home."
Tasks are more motivating if they have a clearly-defined purpose culminating in a specific end product, such as a newspaper article or giant poster. Pupils could make presentations to their peers at the end of the week and again to parents on their return home. There is nothing like an audience for focusing the mind.
For detailed advice on practicalities and case studies of the University of Durham School of Education projects, see CILT Pathfinder 30 'Crossing Frontiers' by David Snow and Michael Byram. pound;6 from booksellers and through CILT's distributor: Central Books Ltd, 99 Wallis Road, London E9 5LN. Tel: 020 8525 8840