Time is running out and the conference suite in the Reading Renaissance Hotel is buzzing. Papers lie strewn across tables and all over the floor; while some sixth-formers pore over them deep in discussion, others huddle in corners in a last frantic burst of rehearsal. Tension mounts as the deadline approaches. "Where's the script?" cries one girl.
"Where's the budget?" wails another. Then silence falls as they bundle up their scattered documents and presentations begin.
First up is "Taste of Africa", which is preparing to hit France with its fair trade drinks. Although the five "business consultants" come from several different schools, they have successfully collaborated to produce a marketing plan, sample promotional materials and a breakdown of expenditure - all in French. They treat their audience to a brief resume before launching into a snappy television advertisement, concluding in jaunty chorus: Le Gout d'Afrique! (glasses clink) A la sante de la qualite! Five more presentations follow, each promoting a different company, while in adjoining rooms the scene is repeated in German and Spanish.
This unusual event has been developed by Central Berkshire Education Business Partnership (CBEBP) in conjunction with the Willink School, a specialist language college in Reading. "Last year we designed a similar activity in the context of tourism but students complained it was too easy," explains Willink's language co-ordinator, Chantal Fox. "This time we decided to give them a taste of the business world and approached CBEBP for help."
The venue of an international hotel sets the tone, and participants have abandoned their usual jeans and t-shirts for more businesslike attire. Like real business people they also work through lunch, as time is of the essence, the case studies, based on real examples, demand not only linguistic expertise but commercial understanding and a host of entrepreneurial skills.
"From September 2005 enterprise will be part of the school curriculum," explains Beverley Graves, manager of CBEBP employers' division. "Teamwork, communication, problem solving - these are the sort of qualities employers look for and they will prove crucial today." She opens proceedings with an address on this theme before handing over to the hotel's general manager, Paul Davies, who puts the business case for languages in today's global economy.
"In the lobby this morning, I spoke to 40 customers and only two were English," says Paul. "We have 28 nationalities working here and some of our frontline staff speak four languages. We don't recruit many people from Reading any more because we can't find them. It's very sad."
His experiences in a previous post in the Middle East provide further food for thought, both in terms of the cultural implications and the problems of communicating through an interpreter. "As a native of the country, an interpreter may not be impartial," he explains. "How do you know he is relaying the same message you gave him? The answer is, you don't."
Preliminaries over, each team settles down to work, supported by a facilitator, someone from a local business who uses languages at work. They take some time to digest the brief before splitting into sub-groups, with some people taking care of market analysis and finance while others develop promotional materials. Collaboration is paramount, however, as all must participate in the final presentation and all will play a role in the 30-second television or radio advertisement.
"What would the name City Hopper mean to a French person?" The team preparing a budget airline for expansion into France has no idea and the dictionary does not help. In real life, they might conduct some market research and, as they have a native speaker on hand in the person of Stephanie Windal of the Millennium Madejski Hotel, they ask her, instead.
"If I didn't speak English, nothing," she replies, and the search for alternatives begins. "What about grenouille?" suggests one student. "Would that not cause offence?" responds another. When Stephanie admits she hadn't spotted the connection between frogs and hopping, they abandon the idea and start again.
As the day unfolds, Voyager Vite takes shape and sets outs to woo not only cash-strapped leisure and business travellers but sophisticated, fashion-conscious women who might enjoy a quick shopping spree to Paris.
Elsewhere in the room similar strategic decisions are made. Pet food manufacturer Hungry Paws must design an effective campaign at minimum cost, as company policy is to concentrate resources on the product rather than promotion. Trading as Minou et Rex, they put forward a remarkable plan of action, which includes offering free samples at selected outlets, and even find time to compose a little ditty for their advertisement.
The team presenting Browns confectionery also combines impressive analytical skills with creative flair, adding a hint of mystery with the name Le Secret de l'Hexagone for the chocolate box assortment and a touch of humour with Menage ... Trois for the multi-packs.
Chantal Fox and Beverley Graves are delighted and teachers from participating schools share their enthusiasm. Helga Majorossy, head of German at Denefield School, hopes it will improve uptake at A-level. "A lot of people drop out after AS because they find it hard," she explains. "What they have achieved today has boosted their confidence and hearing professionals from the 'real' world saying that languages matter brings the message home."
Forest School head of modern languages, Delyth Preston, agrees, adding that it is important to grasp every opportunity to give students interesting, stimulating experiences.
The students themselves are equally positive and written feedback is universally upbeat. In response to the question, "What did you learn?" one girl writes in Spanish "How to work under pressure," while another comments in French on the importance of pulling together as a team. Others mention experimenting with language, working with new people, putting their language skills to practical use and learning not to hold back when your input might be useful. Perhaps the last word should rest with a satisfied customer from Kendrick School: "Es hat Spa' gemacht" - It was fun.