Language lessons in cultural context

Going abroad and immersing yourself in a foreign society is one of the best ways to learn another language and it can be great fun. Julie Morrice reports

Every February the French department of the International School of Aberdeen flies south for the last of the winter. Two staff members and 12 to 14 pupils take a week-long language trip, usually based in Nice or Bordeaux.

"It's a lovely time of year to go," says French teacher Susan Roy. "I remember phoning the school from Arcachon, where it was 16C and sunny, to find that in Aberdeen they were snowed in."

Climatic differences aside, Ms Roy feels her students, who are studying for the International Baccalaureate, could not get the same learning and cultural experience anywhere else but France. "The students get practice in conversation and improvement of their listening skills. They stay with French families so they are forced to use the language. Whatever level they are at, it gives them a bit more fluency, a bit more of an edge."

The trip is timed for just before the aural exam for the baccalaureate and it is certainly not a holiday for the students. They go to language school every morning, and have homework to complete for all the other subjects they are missing back in Aberdeen. But there are cultural trips in the afternoons, with visits to museums and concerts and time to explore both the history and present-day life of a French town.

"Most of the time they want to eat," laughs Ms Roy. "They love the French fast food, the crepes and sandwiches and waffles."

It is an educational victory of a kind. "This year none of them wanted McDonalds," she says.

For the staff, the trip is an opportunity to seek out new teaching resources and a chance to get to know the students better. "You see them in a different light, and they see you in a different light too. It is much more intimate than an ordinary school situation. It's a very positive experience."

Ms Roy's advice to would-be school trip organisers is not to underestimate the preparation time. "There is so much to do. Risk assessment takes a huge amount of time: checking out whether the bus has seat belts and every other potential hazard."

Since her pupils are of different nationalities, a group passport is not an option, so her top tip is to make two laminated photocopies of the key pages of everyone's passport and keep the originals somewhere safe.

Jane Gandee, the head of modern languages at Queenswood School, an independent girls secondary in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, is more adventurous in her excursions. This year she is organising a Spanish and geography trip to Costa Rica. Almost two years ago she took a group of sixth-formers to Cuba after her own experiences of travelling in South America.

"These are girls from privileged backgrounds. They had all been to Spain before, so this was a way of offering them something different, a look at a different type of society.

"We prepared them quite carefully so that they knew something about the politics and the situation in Cuba and didn't make crass comments. We wanted them to be able to ask sensible questions that would give them insight into the country."

The group spent a week in Havana and five days in rural Cuba. Mornings were spent in Spanish language classes but visits to local schools and meals in paladars - simple restaurants in ordinary people's homes - gave the girls a chance to talk to local people and experience how they live.

The trip was a tremendous eye-opener for the teenagers, Ms Gandee says. "They saw some things to make them think.

"They were impressed by the fact that although Cuba is such a poor country there are no beggars and no homeless people, because the government looks after everyone."

They were also struck by the lack of retail opportunities. "These girls like to shop," says Ms Gandee, "and many of the shops in Cuba were practically empty. There is nothing you can buy."

An outbreak of dengue fever meant the group could not stay with local families as planned, but still the trip had a big impact, and several girls are planning to return to South America for their gap year.

The growing appetite for language-based holidays for teachers, gap-year students and anyone who wants to keep their brain challenged means there is now a huge range of destinations offering language classes alongside less cerebral holiday pleasures. What nicer way to sample French verbs than on a French and wine holiday in Bordeaux? Finding Italian subjunctives a bit of a mouthful? Then taste Italian and gastronomy in Tuscany.

Kath Bateman runs Caledonia Languages Abroad, an Edinburgh-based company which organises tailor-made travel based around learning or improving a foreign language. "We're trying to broaden language learning so it's not seen as an elitist study but as a fun way to spend your holiday," she says.

Latin America is the biggest growth area, with travellers starting with an intensive language course as the first step on their adventure.

"People are looking for sound advice," says Ms Bateman, "and our first-hand contacts are vital. They want adventure but they want it to be safe."

She hopes the company's range of course options will stimulate ideas and appeal to a market beyond the pure language learner. They include opera singing, Soviet films, walking in the Pyrenees, flamenco dancing, Cuban dance, even, in Bolivia, the chance to help with the rehabilitation of rainforest animals.

"It's ideal for anyone with an interest in the culture and language of a country who wants to get involved in activities intrinsic to that location," says Ms Bateman.

A school trip to Nice in October 2002 for one week, including half-board accommodation, all tuition, trips and transport, costs pound;295 per person. A trip to Cuba in October 2002 for 12 nights, including half-board accommodation, all tuition, excursions, transport and transfers, costs pound;525 per person. A similar trip to Costa Rica but for 14 nights costs pound;680 per person.Caledonia Languages Abroad, The Clockhouse, Bonnington Mill, 72 Newhaven Road, Edinburgh EH6 5QG, tel 0131 621

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