It's Wednesday morning, and at St Mary Radcliffe and Temple School in Bristol normal lessons are under way - except in one department. The modern languages floor has been transformed into a suite of offices, and the place is buzzing. While one group reads the mail and works out what needs to be done, another prepares a fax message. Meanwhile, a third is using computer graphics to produce some advertising material. The phone never stops ringing, and from time to time work is further interrupted as a client arrives with a query or complaint which has to be dealt with on the spot. Quite a challenge: the pupils involved are only in Year 9, and all transactions must be conducted in French or German.
This is the school's Languages and Industry Day, organised by the languages department with support from four local companies - Veale Wasbrough, Hewlett Packard, Allied Domecq and the Hilton Hotel.
"Drawing up the agenda was a collaborative effort," explains John Davis, head of languages. "We knew what we wanted to achieve, but the four firms helped to give the activities a ring of authenticity. The tasks are all based on situations which staff regularly encounter in the course of their work. For example, chasing up unpaid invoices, sorting out missing paperwork, arranging a business trip and organising the sale of property abroad."
This is very demanding, but the pupils receive the sort of back-up they could expect in a company office. As well as using dictionaries, they can refer to lists of conventional business expressions, and models of standard letters such as hotel reservations are available on computer. Language teachers and a representative from each firm are also on hand to give guidance when problems arise.
The importance of dictionary skills soon becomes evident. One group is having trouble interpreting Wir wollten, and can't track down the infinitive. Another is searching for the German equivalent of the word "who". "Which is it, Miss?" asks one boy as he gazes in despair at the entry wer, wen (acc), wem (dat. ). What he actually wants is der, but as the terms "relative pronoun" and "interrogative pronoun" mean nothing to him, he is lost. And of course, he doesn't need a relative pronoun at all. One of the most important lessons of the morning is that information should be conveyed simply and clearly.
Another prerequisite to success is good teamwork. In one group, participants duplicate tasks and there is an atmosphere of confusion mixed with animosity. But they are the exception. After their initial diffidence, most of the groups approach their tasks methodically and complete them successfully.
For situations which involve dealing with customers, the department has enlisted the help of native speakers supported by some of the school's A-level students. All the pupils agree that this is the most daunting part of the morning's activities. "Frightening" and "nervewracking" are typical comments.
Summing up their impressions afterwards, teachers and company representatives agree that the pupils have coped superbly well. All the more so when you consider that they have studied German for only two and half years, and French for a mere six months. "I was particularly impressed with their handling of the telephone," says Britta Steich of Hewlett Packard. "They were nervous at first, but their confidence grew when they discovered that they could make themselves understood. It showed them that even a very basic knowledge of the language is a valuable asset. The important thing is to convey the message."
Susan Hibberd, a languages teacher, agrees. "They spent a lot of time preparing their material, but when it all came to fruition with a telephone call or a fax, they got a tremendous sense of satisfaction."
For the morning to run so smoothly involved meticulous preparation. But first business links had to be established. Two firms were enlisted through personal contacts, and the third with help from Avon's Education Business Partnership. However, tracking down a fourth proved disappointingly difficult. Many major companies were simply not interested. One leading international bank justified their lack of enthusiasm by explaining that whenever they ring European customers, they speak English.
Fortunately, a growing number of companies are coming to realise that insular attitudes can prove costly in the increasingly competitive market place of Europe. The message that pupils took home from all four participating firms was that language skills can be important at every level. As Stephen Stratton of Veale Wasbrough put it in his introductory talk: "It's not always the people in top jobs who need foreign languages. We have two secretaries fluent in Spanish and French who frequently make phone calls abroad."
This may be what their teachers have already told them, but coming from someone who regularly uses languages in his work, the comment had much more impact. The morning gave the pupils an insight into what might be expected of them in a business context, and showed them the value of what they can already achieve.