Some 45 countries are gearing up for the European Day of Languages next Tuesday. Participants will include people of all ages who have honed their language skills through immersion in the daily life of a European country, just like Esther Rantzen and Ron Atkinson, who in the recent BBC2 series Excuse My French were challenged to do their jobs in French after a month in Provence.
Even if your expectations are more modest, are immersion techniques an effective way to learn a language? Deborah Flint, mother of six-year-old twins Harry and George, would say "oui". Since January, the family has lived in a hamlet in Magnac Laval, near Poitiers, where the boys attend the village school. After their first day they came home crying because they had been unable to ask for a glass of water or some bread, but the next day they approached the teacher and said, "L'eau s'il vous plait" and "Du pain s'il vous plait". Now, they understand what the teachers say and can converse with their French pals in near-perfect accents. And they have moved up a level at school. "It's a lot easier," Harry says confidently after just one day of the new term.
The boys have done well, says Ms Flint, because pupils can be held back for up to two years if not ready to advance. "Initially they found it difficult as they have to write in italics with ink pens, do not use the phonic word-building structure and don't formulate sentences, but learn five unrelated words a day and memorise all verbs. Homework every night includes learning a poem, which they are expected to recite before the class."
Languages consultant Wendy Adeniji says you need to be exposed to a language before the age of three for a perfect accent. In 2009 in England, children will be entitled to learn a language from the age of seven, but why not start them at four, she asks. Her twins, aged four, and six-year-old spend every summer in France and speak French well. On their return, she exposes them to the language with songs and games because "it's important to keep it up".
She believes schools could benefit from using immersion techniques more.
She was impressed by a Year 7 mixed-ability class at Judgemeadow community college, Leicester, when she visited for The TES in May 2004. During the three classes a week, ICT and PSHE lessons and form-time, class teacher Claudine Mougin spoke entirely in French and after six months the pupils'
level of receptive French was high. "The disadvantage is it is hard work for teachers who are not native speakers," admits Ms Adeniji. "The incentive also needs to be high. Children in the UK think everyone speaks English, so they don't need to learn another language."
Teachers who want to immerse themselves in a European language could start with a short course run by the Centre for Languages (CILT) in France, Germany, Italy and Spain, which are funded by grants from the British Council. Lynne Trees, a higher level teaching assistant at Birkdale primary, Southport, attended CILT's one-week Spanish for primaries course in Tordesillas and French for primaries in St Omer, and says she benefited from all daily classes and excursions being in the target language. "My language and confidence improved immensely. Four years after St Omer I still use ideas I gained and adapt them to other languages."
CILT co-ordinates (and provides resources for) the UK side of the annual European Day of Languages, held in schools, village halls and city squares on September 26. Isabelle Moore, CILT's director, says: "We need to get through to young people that languages can transform their futures and give them satisfaction and success as adults."
CILT: 020 7379 5101; www.cilt.org.ukInstitut Francais, www.institut-francais.org.ukGoethe-Institut, www.goethe.deenindex.htmInstituto Cervantes, www.cervantes.org.ukgIstituto Italiano di Cultura, www.italcultur.org.uk