As schools await an action group report on modern languages next week, Eleanor Caldwell finds out how Inverclyde is encouraging pupils, from nursery to post-16, to speak in foreign tongues.
Inverclyde's uptake in languages at post-16 bucks the national trend, showing an almost three-fold increase in Higher presentation since the authority made concerted moves in 1998 to modernise language teaching. Now pupils benefit from regular sessions on a language department computer, timetabled classes in their school's information and communications technology room and links with IBM.
The authority's development officer, Mary Larkin, says: "Two years ago the director of education, Bernard McLeary, took the decision to make languages a priority. All departments were given their own PC. Through Learning and Teaching Scotland's ICT training scheme, we are going have two language teachers who are competent in ICT in each of our eight secondary schools by the start of next year."
To upgrade the language teachers' fluency in specialist IT vocabulary, they have attended total immersion day courses in IT and languages at the University of Paisley, Ms Larkin says.
Foreign language assistants, she adds, have also been reinstated throughout Inverclyde.
The renaissance in learning languages has been influenced by the Certificate in Languages for IT and Work run by Inverclyde in collaboration with IBM and validated by the Scottish Qualifications Authority, The course, now in its second year, is pitched at S6 pupils who already have a Higher award and gives a sharply focused e-commerce approach to language learning. This year a Spanish course is being offered in addition to the original French one, which was set up by Ms Larkin.
Now, in seven out of eight schools, pupils in fifth year are opting for the Higher Still "Languages in Work" module in preference to the more traditional literature course, and languages from the IT and Work certificate course has been brought into this. The course work focuses on practical elements of business language, extending from office paperwork and telephone vocabulary to customer care and e-commerce.
Fortnightly, 16 Inverclyde S6 pupils, from Greenock Academy, St Columba's High, St Stephen's High and Notre Dame High, are joined by three S6 pupils from Lourdes Secondary in Glasgow on a visit to IBM at Greenock. The pupils work with their own French or Spanish mentor at the extensive IBM call centre, listening in on incoming enquiries about computers and the advice given, making occasional notes for follow-up work and waiting until the call is over before chatting to their mentor about it.
The pupils can also use their mentor in their owntime, e-mailing queries about homework or general points of language.
The five pupils from Notre Dame, St Columba's and St Stephen' s who started the new certificate course in Spanish this year are being taught jointly by teachers Anne Knox and Patricia McLoughlin at Notre Dame High. Mrs McLoughlin is positive about the certificate course. "It's given them a real insight into business and they can see a practical use for their languages," she says.
The contact between the pupils and their mentors has been extremely valuable, as much for the casual chat in Spanish as for the more specialised conversations, she says.
The French teacher at Lourdes, Paul Middleton, says his pupils are very enthusiastic about their journey to "work" every two weeks. The youthful atmosphere of the call centre clearly appeals to all the pupils. S6 girls from Greenock Academy are surprised at how young and dynamic the workforce is.
Ms Larkin is hopeful that other companies in Inverclyde will become involved in the certificate work and the uptake of German could be given a similar boost.
As part of the certificate course, the students will attend a five-day intensive language course in Paris or Barcelona in April. They will stay in college accommodation, go to college ICT classes and have an opportunity to work-shadow, rather as they do at IBM.
Ms Larkin is justifiably proud of the progress made in languages in Inverclyde. "Of the 14 students on last year's Certificate in Languages for IT and Work, 12 are now doing combined degrees with languages, such as European law and French, geography and French and psychology with Spanish," she says. She also admits to having been "totally impressed" by the first cohort of certificate students' presentations, delivered in French to an audience of parents, teachers and IBM employees.
Other language initiatives are now underway in Inverclyde nursery and primary schools; particularly use of ICT with languages is being encouraged.
At Aileymill Nursery in Greenock, children are learning Italian through counting, singing, games and puppets, and they hope to e-mail new friends in Italy.
At St Kenneth's Primary, Spanish is going down very well with P1 and P2 pupils, says Ms Larkin. Primary teachers are keen to attend regular refresher courses run by Inverclyde, she adds.
Encouragement is now also being given to secondary teachers to take up work placement opportunites at IBM.
Thinking of other opportunities, Ms Larkin says: "The Greenock coastguard is absolutely desperate to have a Spanish speaker. He deals with a lot of Spanish-speaking crews and he can apparently sometimes have real breakdowns in communication."