All aboard for a spot of French

18th April 2003 at 01:00
Foreign language posters at bus shelters might be just the thing to spark an interest among waiting passengers, says Deedee Cuddihy

JUST how beleaguered some modern language specialists feel in Scotland these days was demonstrated to me recently when I was gathering opinions for this article.

I had become very excited about the possibility of people being turned on to learning a foreign language if they happened to come across random phrases while waiting for a bus. In fact, I was waiting for one when the idea occurred to me. I hate waiting for buses because there is nothing to do. "What a waste of time," I was thinking to myself. Then my eyes lighted on an advertising poster fixed to the side of the bus shelter. Printed across the poster were the words: "Paris habille le monde entier."

I began rolling the phrase around in my mind, thinking it was rather a pleasing one. I was just beginning to get the gist of what the words meant when I noticed that there was an English translation printed up the side:

"Paris dresses the whole world."

It was an ad for a fashion magazine or something but by that time I had decided to walk home and by the time `I got back I had come up with what I thought was a brilliant idea. Why not have posters with simple foreign language phrases - and their translation and phonetic spelling - sited at bus shelters so that people can get a little taste of a language while they are waiting?

The idea just would not go away - and neither, incidentally, did the French phrase that had sparked it off in the first place. We are always being told that Scots don't want to learn languages; that kids at school say there is no point because everybody speaks English anyway. Imagine if we could be transformed into a nation of enthusiasts simply by sticking a few posters up?

I decided to put the idea to a random selection of modern language specialists, thinking they, too, would instantly recognise its potential as a learning tool (admittedly, a rather unorthodox one).

Au contraire. I am not saying the response was hostile but, in general, the reaction was guarded, suspicious. Some of the people I spoke to even sounded threatened. "What, you want posters at bus stops to replace lessons in the classroom?" they cried. "No, no!" I said, horrified that they could have thought that is what I meant.

Liam Kane, of Glasgow University's department of continuing and adult education, said there was some evidence from developing countries that posters had proved useful in literacy campaigns. And, while he was willing to concede that posters at bus stops might help people in Scotland pick up the odd word, en passent (as Liam put it), "where would it lead anybody?"

Ian Boffey, languages adviser for Glasgow, thinks the more we are exposed, the better. "Foreign language learning is particularly beneficial for less academic pupils," he said, "because research has shown that it actually helps improve the use of their first language."

The response from Carmen Dominguez, senior lecturer in Spanish at Paisley University, was warmer. But she would also like to see modern language learning at Scottish schools begin not later than P3 and believes that universities throughout the UK should follow the example of universities elsewhere in the world - including the United States - by teaching modern language courses in the target language, rather than English.

Then, a propos of the people who say foreign languages are of no practical use, Dr Dominguez mentioned a cleaner at Manchester airport who apparently had been having more fun at work since she learnt how to speak Spanish.

And it suddenly occurred to me that here was an opportunity for Glasgow (where I just happen to live). How impressed would tourists be if, thanks to a city-wide poster campaign, everyone they came into contact with could speak a few words of their language?

Deedee Cuddihy is a freelance writer.

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