From teenage grunts to conversations

Foreign exchange visits have their difficulties but the gains outweight the problems, writes mother Alexis Scott

My 14-year-old son recently returned from a week in Brittany as part of an exchange trip. It was the first time his school, James Young High in Livingston, had run this sort of event and it obviously took a huge amount of organising. I take my hat off to all those involved.

It cannot all have been great fun for the teachers - there were certainly some moans from the students about sitting in a coach for the 11-12 hours to Plymouth (not to mention the return journey) - but I hope they were absorbed in some of the camaraderie which the children obviously experienced.

My son has been to France on several occasions but an exchange visit must be very different from going on holiday abroad with one's parents.

As a parent I can really only speak about the week my son's exchange partner, a girl, spent in our home. I gave up my study and my son gave up a couple of his usual swimming training sessions. Overall, I believe we all benefited more. No one wants visitors all the time but we all need to be open to changes.

If one thing more than any other struck me about the significance of the exchange it was the importance of our use of language and the corollary, the lack of it. An English teacher recently remarked to me (only half joking) that teenage boys tend to communicate by grunting. Apart from one or two exceptions, I was inclined to agree with her.

Despite the privileges of some children's middle-class existence, many children today seem to lack the benefits of the oral culture in which I grew up in Ireland. Increasingly our children are growing up in a disparate society where conversation is something we take part in in order to acquire information rather than for the purpose of enjoyment or conveying emotion.

Increasingly we rely on things other than our relationships with one another (such as going to the theatre or the cinema) to develop our use of language.

Many of us have lost the art of conversation. Although e-mailing is some kind of substitute, I doubt it will ever develop use of language in the way the defunct art of letter writing did. My late mother, who entirely lacked secondary education, wrote letters all her life. Things that could not be said could be written down (although letter writing and conversation are clearly twin arts).

The foreign exchange experience will not guarantee that the students involved will get on with one another, but does anything? Some children may be shocked to find themselves sent to a family who speak little or no English while their own knowledge of their host's language is sketchy.

There can be disasters. As a 17-year-old I was one of a group of Irish schoolchildren sent to families throughout Brittany, not as part of an exchange but as beneficiaries of a charity, giving poor and not so poor children from Northern Ireland a free holiday away from the stresses of the raging Troubles in 1972. The contact was made through school and so it clearly had some responsibility in the matter.

Although the host family only took me out once in five weeks and I was generally left to my own devices, I was probably one of the lucky ones. At least I could speak French to the single parent host, if not the children, who seemed indifferent if not overtly hostile, replying in monosyllables.

Afterwards it transpired that children of primary school age (who, of course, could not speak French) had been sent to families who could not speak a word of English.

My friend was based with a married couple who were both working doctors with a baby and toddler. They lacked child care help until my friend came into the picture.

The children had no means of contacting the host organisation once we were with the families. There was no reception and no opportunity for feedback (we were the recipients of charity, after all).

Today, there is more understanding of children's rights and these sorts of scenarios are most unlikely to happen.

I am currently hosting a teenage student in my home, teaching him English. While the experience has generally been mutually beneficial (I hope), I have come to dislike the inequality of the nature of the arrangement (and not just the huge domestic burden it entails). Because my guest's parents are paying to have me teach him, the give-and-take aspect that was an integral part of the exchange visit is not there. Absurdly, I feel as if I'm imposing if I ask my guest to translate English into French.

By comparison, I was very happy to talk away to my son's exchange partner in French or French and English. This, after all, is the crux of an exchange, is it not? And is not an exchange of views, of experiences and, of course, of language, how we all learn?

I find myself unwilling to subscribe entirely to the immersion ethos whereby students are prevented from mixing with others whose mother tongue is the same as their own. This seems unnatural and forced and probably also unnecessarily stressful.

After our French visitor had gone home my son and his friends who participated in the exchange seem to be socialising more with one another. They certainly seem to be conversing more - and not just on the Internet.

So I say, three cheers for the foreign exchange!

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