Bilingual beginnings

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Short study trips across the English Channel give primary children a chance to sample the everyday realities of a foreign language, writes Carolyn O'Grady

The scene is a school hall in Boulogne. Sitting in a circle are pupils from the French school and Year 6 pupils from Saints Peter and Paul RC Primary School, in south London. The two groups eye one another nervously, but before long the scene will change and the Channel will seem narrower. With the help of worksheets full of questions that pupils can ask their partners, the two groups begin to converse. Sport, pop music, films and trainers are among the ready-made conversational bridges.

Fiona Bower, who teaches French at the London school, is pleased. "They've only been here half an hour and they're already talking," she says.

The 34 English pupils are in northern France on a four-night stay. The trip takes in an eclectic mix of cultural, historical, French language and everyday activities, including visits to a French school and the National Centre for Aquatic Life, in Boulogne. There are also visits to a Second World War museum and a First World War cemetery. Later, there is also a jaunt round a supermarket and an outdoor market.

The trip is organised by the Nottinghamshire firm La Jolie Ronde, in partnership with the European Language Service Euro-Sejours. They operate tours for some 40 school groups each year, most from UK primary schools.

This party travelled by coach through the Channel Tunnel and stayed in a youth centre overlooking the beach on the outskirts of Boulogne.

In fact, Fiona Bower made the same trip last year. "I looked for hands-on activities from the list the company gave us," she says. "At a sweet factory, for example, pupils were allowed to shape their own lollipops.

They also milked a cow at a farm and baked break in a bakery."

Pupils are accompanied by their guide, Laurence Gillard, who translates from French. He introduces pupils in a fun way to some useful vocabulary.

On the way to the farm, she asks them to make the noise of various animals she calls out in French. Later, a trip to a lemonade factory offers a chance to learn the French for various flavours, including some unusual ones - lavender, bubble gum and candy floss.

Fiona has been teaching a little conversational French at her school from the beginning of Key Stage 2, so as well as being a treat the two-day trip is also a post-SATs culmination of that work. It is the first trip abroad for many pupils and she hopes that the experience will encourage their interest in other countries and languages at an age when they are particulary receptive to new experiences and just before they move into secondary school.

For her, the highlight of the trip is the chance to meet and talk to French children in their school. Also vital is the way it opens her pupils' minds to another culture through everyday experiences, such as the drinking of tea and coffee from bowls, or witnessing the vast array of cheeses in the supermarket and eating French food. In the latter case, she worked hard to find a culinary balance: not too adventurous, but with a degree of challenge - for example, crudites, boeuf bourguignon with chips or quiche followed by a dessert of apple cake. Not surprisingly, les frites were the most popular, though many items of French cuisine also went down well.

In the evening, pupils complete worksheets provided by the tour company to practise their French and test their knowledge of the day's events.

"If I give the worksheets out during the visits, they are too busy ticking items to listen to what's going on," says Fiona.

Pupils, she says, may not have learnt a great deal of new French on the trip, but the experience has given them an opportunity to consolidate a lot of their previous learning. Importantly, it is clear that the children are much more confident than before about using the language. On occasions here, they have been thrown in at the linguistic deep end - in shops, for example. But that seems to add to the sense of pride they feel about being able to handle situations using a real foreign language in a real foreign country.

La Jolie Ronde organises tailor-made tours in northern France. Pupils stay at centres that meet European standards and have passed inspection by local French authorities. They travel by coach, usually via the Channel Tunnel.

Familiarisation tours (two days) for teachers run twice a year in March and October to allow for planning and risk assessment. These cost pound;95, which is refunded later if a booking is made. Prices vary according to activities chosen, distance travelled and pupil numbers, but typically range from around pound;160 per pupil for a two-day visit to pound;240 per pupil for seven-day visits.La Jolie Ronde: telephone 01949 839715; email:

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