Schools need go no further than Essex to bring foreign language learning to life. Brendan O'Malley reports. Making foreign languages meaningful to children who have little experience of life in the target country can be a real challenge.
The obvious answer is to take classes on day trips or short stays abroad, but these are costly and don't always provide genuinely useful speaking and listening practice. Pupils may spend their time talking to each other in English, chewing gum or being bamboozled into nervous silence by the speed at which ordinary people talk. Parisian bakers do not have the patience of a Longman's tape recording when it comes to waiting for you to order a loaf of bread.
At the Europa Centre in Havering, an Essex suburb, they have come up with an ingenious solution. They have turned a former school canteen into a simulated centre-ville - with a main shopping street, market-place, petrol station and a working cafe - and employ native-speaking assistants to staff them during school visits.
The assistants are trained to speak at the right pace for the children and coach them when they stumble by repeating themselves, using gestures and giving clues.
The centre's director, Charles Whitham, says: "It's the only place of its kind. A lot of people who come could go on a day trip to France, but they think they would practise the language more here. It's good preparation for a longer stay abroad and a lot of groups come shortly before the GCSE oral exam. "
About 500 pupils visit the centre each week. More than 250 schools from outside the borough have come in the past two or three years, some from as far as Wales.
In a typical visit pupils start at the airport passport checkpoint, change money into real foreign exchange at the bank, then wander around the shops buying clothes and provisions or ordering food at the cafe, where pizzas and chips seem to be the most popular - well they are supposed to be Britons abroad.
There are usually five assistants who switch between shops to provide a wide variety of goods and services to talk about, and challenge reticent pupils in the street to a conversation about their shopping. For older groups the assistants are given a fictitious life history which pupils have to find out about by talking to them. In all sessions surprise events take place, which the visitors have to help deal with.
I was there during a visit by 33 Year 8 pupils from Camden School for Girls, in north London. Aziza, 24, dressed as a heavily pregnant woman, was suddenly gripped by contractions and Vanessa, 23, dressed as a policewoman, sent pupils rushing off for a glass of cold water and a doctor.
Before this fun and commotion, the policewoman had patrolled the streets checking the ages of pupils who had bought bottles of wine (empty) from the grocers. She tried to get those who were under age to point out the guilty shop assistant, so she could be warned that jail loomed if it happened again.
A remarkable aspect of the Europa Centre is the number of languages it caters for. Between sessions there's a 15-minute gap in which the assistants climb up and down step-ladders to change the shop signs. The Boulangerie becomes the BAckerei, the Pharmacie becomes the Apotheke Drogerie in big black gothic letters.
When pupils from Hextable secondary school in Kent arrive at the airport checkpoint, they are entering a little town in Germany. Other schools come to Havering to see a little bit of Italy, Spain, Russia or even Japan. This provides invaluable support for the borough's policy of promoting languages other than French. Havering was one of 10 local education authorities in the Government's pilot project on diversification in 1989.
The Europa Centre was set up in 1986 in a local school that eventually closed and reopened as a sixth-form college. Havering Borough Council funded the original conversion, but council money now covers only a quarter of the centre's running costs. The rest comes from sponsorship, the biggest benefactors being the finance company Save and Prosper, which is based in Romford, Havering.
In addition to simulation activities, the centre provides classes for 700 local primary pupils each week outside school hours. The cost is Pounds 36 per pupil for 12 45-minute lessons. It also provides top-up tuition for GCSE and A-level students charged on a sliding scale depending on the numbers involved, starting at Pounds 15 an hour for a one-to-one lesson.
The range of languages taught at primary level - 55 children are learning Japanese - defies the national trend where only one in four primary schools offers a language and 94 per cent of those offer only French.
A key factor is the Europa Centre's native-speaking assistants for each language. The centre uses eight or nine assistants on annual contracts, and others come in for a couple of hours at a time on a casual basis. More are trained every year and several have gone on to take up teaching posts locally or are being trained as teachers.
Maria Seeley, 33, a vivacious Austrian who married an Englishman and came to England ten years ago, is one of three assistants who work full-time at the centre. "We are actors here," she says. "The whole game is communication and the simulation and the fun can make the children talk. Though we are native speakers, we speak slower, use cognates and lots of gestures. You have got to talk with your hands."
Elaine Morton, acting head of modern languages at Camden School for Girls, says: "This brings the language to life. Though it is simulated, in some ways it is not, because the native speakers bring with them not only their language, but their culture and the way they behave. For many children here it might be their only experience of using a language in an environment that isn't totally artificial."