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Open house welcomes willing ears after hours

An open-access alternative to the classroom for adults learning new languages

When Brighton, Hove and Sussex Sixth-Form College unveiled expensive new language facilities in April 1995, it stressed to students that they must expect to share them with people from outside the college.

By charging non-students a Pounds 210 annual membership fee to use the open language centre's impressive range of audio and video equipment, the college hopes to improve linguistic skills in the community as well as recoup some of its Pounds 100,000 investment.

Eighteen months later, about 200 people have become members while a further 110 adult education students also use the centre's CD-Roms and other information technology for the price of the normal course fee charged by the sixth-form college. Members, who can alternatively join at reduced rates for three or six months, range from employees of local businesses to adults wanting to learn a foreign language for pleasure.

There is no need to study for any qualification. By using open learning materials, members aged from 15 to 80 may spend as little or as much time as they choose brushing up skills in 13 different languages, including English for visitors from abroad.

A typical member might book two 90-minute sessions per week. "We wanted to increase self-access learning," said centre co-ordinator Christina Pepper. "People with a short membership tend to use it more intensely, but it's a question of how they want to pace themselves."

While the centre is used exclusively by college students until lunchtime, outside users can come in at any time between midday and 8pm. It is also open on Saturday mornings. Although there are 23 workstations, members must book in advance as some of the equipment is in heavy demand.

New members are shown how to use equipment and introduced to the range of materials available for the language they have chosen to learn. People studying French and Spanish may also attend drop-in workshops, run by an adult education tutor, at no extra charge.

Although college students are encouraged to use the centre in their own time, prospective members are assured they will be able to study in a reasonably quiet atmosphere. "We wanted people to be clear that they were not coming to sit among a group of 16-year-olds," said Ms Pepper.

Business users include local engineering firm Hosiden and Besson, which wants its employees to speak German, and Brighton Transport, which wants drivers to be able to understand foreign visitors. "It's more convenient for the drivers to use the centre, rather than have a tutor, because they work different shifts," she added.

Kathy Lee, a Hong Kong national whose main language is Cantonese, joined the centre for three months to improve her English so that she can try to find a better job in the Brighton area.

After giving up her last job as a typist and receptionist, she enjoys the flexibility of coming in during the day and learning at her own pace. "You don't have to sit and listen to a tutor talking all the time. If you don't understand something, you can go back and listen again."

Masami Morita and his wife Masue, who come from Japan, are also learning English but at vastly different speeds. While Masami follows an advanced business course on a CD-Rom, his wife is working through an intermediate programme on a computer alongside him.

The couple, who arrived in the UK four months ago, normally visit the language centre up to four times a week. "I must improve my English so that I can express myself more freely," said Mr Morita, who is taking an English literature degree at Sussex University.

Learners normally attend a review session after two months. Although most studying is done alone, members also have the opportunity to practice their skills with foreign students learning English at a private language school in Brighton.

One-to-one meetings are held in a cafe or bar, where 30 minutes is spent holding a conversation in each language. "It helps to be in a real-life situation and provides them with cultural information about the other person's country," said Christina Pepper.

One Russian man started coming into the centre for three hours every day, although she acknowledged many people might find that rather excessive. "Some people have done a course elsewhere and want to try something different, " she added. "They may they have found a private course too demanding or they feel intimidated hearing their own voice in front of others. Here they can record themselves."

Ian Grace, who is taking an adult education course in Beginner's French, welcomed the fact that he could supplement the tuition in his class on Wednesday evenings by spending up to three hours a week in the open language centre. "If I stopped the course, I would definitely take out a membership because it's a brilliant way of learning," he said.

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