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Plain to see the gain in Spain;Subject of the week;Modern languages

Heathrow was buzzing. But in the middle of the throng a small group of expectant travellers stood out from the crowd. "Are you one of us?" they asked, as each new member swelled their numbers.

"Us" were 35 secondary school Spanish teachers, heading for the Universidad Publica de Navarra in Pamplona. We were to join teachers from France and Ireland for two weeks' immersion in Spanish language and culture, on a refresher course organised by the Centre for Information on Language Teaching, the Spanish Embassy and the Navarre regional government.

As we boarded the plane I wondered why I had opted for a course that would mean spending two weeks living with a family I had never met. I had not done this since I was at school, and I was scared stiff.

At the other end of the journey, we approached the meeting point like a coach-load of school children. Some joked loudly to hide their anxiety. Some sat silently and watched as others kissed their host families. I was relieved to realise I could still understand, but frustrated to find the words I wanted stuck between my brain and mouth. Of course that was why we were here.

We knew it was no holiday, but none of us realised how difficult it would be. On our first day, few managed to get to bed before 1am, a pattern set to continue. We found ourselves working from morning until late afternoon on language classes at the university, or shadowing teachers in local schools. Then, with barely time to shower and change, we were off to evening events - folk dancing, official receptions, gala dinners.

The course was so intensive that we forgot we were trying to understand and just did. The language classes became a respite from the hectic pace of events. And laughing at our inevitable mistakes - like the time Jo told her family she was about to get married (casada) rather than go to bed (cansada) - also helped ease the pressure.

Most of the Spaniards we met were embarrassingly well-informed about European matters. They wanted to know what we thought of Tony Blair, for instance. I, on the other hand, failed to recognise a photogragh of Jose Maria Aznar, Spain's prime minister. They also talked of their fears about the European agricultural policy.

The two weeks were a great success. Regular courses such as this should be a standard feature of a language teacher's career if we are serious about language learning. Why should languages teachers have to update their training by restricting holidays to times and places that suit their in-service needs?

Do those outside language teaching realise how far the United Kingdom lags behind the rest of Europe in this field and why? I asked a group of 17-year-olds what made them so keen to learn English. They said: "We must have it to work and use technology." How long will it be before British industries realise their workers should be competent in European languages if we are not to be disadvantaged partners in future?

Jeanette Petherbridge

Details of this year's course, May 24 to June 6, from CILT, tel: 0171 379 5101. Lingua grants available. There are also courses for primary teachers and on Spanish for vocational purposes. Jeanette Petherbridge is a part-time teacher and OFSTED inspector in Shropshire

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