The number of people in the world with some grasp of Mandarin has just gone up, as a North Ayrshire primary class took a month to learn the rudiments of the language. It's a tough one for English speakers, say the pupils, but their teacher's methods helped make it pretty painless.
"Chinese is hard at first, especially learning the different tones," says young Lauren Bell. "But it gets easier as you get more used to it. We were doing the one-minute podcasts that Mark made."
A language teacher whose interest in educational technology led to spare- time production of podcasts, Mark Pentleton eventually "gave up the day- job to concentrate full-time on Radio Lingua", he says. "The podcasts often top the iTunes charts in the education category. They're popular worldwide and have won awards, most recently European Professional Podcast of the Year."
So why is Mark back in the classroom, and why has he got the P5 pupils at Glebe Primary in Irvine working with clay models and goose-necked webcams? "I'm a teacher," he says. "It's where I want to be. We're increasingly working in primary and secondary schools. We've got our one-minute podcasts in 19 languages online, free. But for schools, we also do a teacher's guide and we deliver workshops."
During today's workshop - the culmination of four weeks' Mandarin classwork - the pupils are creating stories using only the words and phrases they learned through the introductory podcasts. "Then they're bringing it to life by creating clay characters, animating the stories and filming them," he explains.
There's a lot to learn, says Reece Jamieson. "But if you like languages, Chinese isn't too hard. We're used to working in groups, so deciding who does what for the animations was somewhere between hard and easy."
That's also a good description of what it's like to teach Mandarin using the podcasts, says teacher Kelly Russell. "The hard part was that I knew nothing about the language. It takes time to pick up the four different tones. If you use the wrong one, for instance, you could get `horse' instead of `mother'. The kids pick it up faster than adults."
A follow-up workshop will put the children's dialogue on to their animated films, says Mark. "They're using I Can Animate today to create stop-motion movies, frame by frame. They'll then import the footage into iMovie to add titles and transitions, and then export to Garageband to record their dialogue - in Mandarin, of course."
The finished products will then be uploaded to the Radio Lingua Schools website for the whole world to see, and there will be a presentation to parents, says Miss Kelly. "We'll also be getting them to demonstrate the skills they've been learning to the P6s and P7s."
While the language course is relaxed and spread over a month, its culmination in the two-day animation workshop takes concentrated learning and teaching, with Mark circulating, demonstrating and dispensing advice.
As lumpy, colourful characters move jerkily against a painted backdrop, he points out the biggest problem for apprentice animators. "You've moved them too far between shots, which is why you're getting that jerkiness. You need to think in millimetres. Who knows how big a millimetre is?" Thumbs and forefingers, variously spaced, are held up for inspection.
"Take a look at your rulers," Mark says. "It's only this big. To get good animation, you need to move your characters just a few millimetres. Did you notice any other problems?"
A child's hand had appeared briefly in shot, so he demonstrates the simple remedy - deleting that frame during editing. But there's also a lesson to take back to the shooting stage. "Have you watched Holby City when they're trying to resuscitate somebody?" he asks. "When you've got your characters in place, the person on camera should do what they do - shout `Clear!' to tell everybody to get out of the shot."
The 10-lesson language courses could easily be used in class without the animation workshops at the end, Mark says. "But what they do is give kids something they can keep and show to parents and friends. It makes it much more memorable. You can see it's exciting for them."
The former teacher indicates the busy little groups around the room, moving their characters, taking their shots, talking, learning, laughing - then confesses something that's obvious anyway in his eyes.
"Actually, it's quite exciting for me too."
- Radio Lingua Schools: www.radiolinguaschools.cominformationintro
- One Minute Languages: www.radiolinguaschools.comproductsone-minute- languages
- Workshops: www.radiolinguaschools.comworkshops