At Katharine Lady Berkeley's School, in Wotton-under-Edge in Gloucestershire, a group of Year 8 students are singing Japanese pop songs, some shyly, others with gusto. The songs and poems, composed by the 19 boys and two girls, are part of preparations for a Eurovision-style song contest. The competition has attracted entries in Italian, French, Spanish, Latin, Italian, Japanese and Mandarin, most entries involving singing in duos or bands, from around 400 children.
Teacher Michelle Tate says 8Z1, who have been learning Japanese for a year, can be a naughty group but "you would not think so to see them so focused now. Up until now they have just learned bits of vocabulary, so this is the first time they have put sentences together to get a structure. It's a way to show language study isn't just about sitting down taking notes, that it can be fun".
The motivation, however, can be serious; a boy who wants to be an industrial designer has realised that he'll stand a far better chance of being employed by Mitsubishi or Sony if he speaks Japanese. And there he is, singing "I love pizza" in Japanese to the tune of "Fr re Jacques". All the boys are in groups, having borrowed guitars from the music department, while two girls write poems.
There are three alphabets in Japanese and hundreds of symbols, of which children must know 200 by GCSE. "We're not being judged just on our singing, are we?" asks one boy with a flat voice. He's safe; they will be judged on grammar and composition, Michelle assures him. "Arigato (thank you)," he replies.
Many of the songs are about food, and while some tunes are original, others are borrowed from 1970s rock music. Students don't seem shy of voicing their work in Japanese. Sam, a high achiever, reads her poem about a sheep called Naomi. "When you sing things or write poems in a foreign language, you can remember them better because the tune or the rhyme goes with it and it helps."
NQT Stephanie Byrne, a lifelong fan of Eurovision, had the idea during her PGCE year while at a city learning centre. "It had a recording studio and state-of-the-art computers with E-Jay songwriting software."
Stephanie has drafted all 15 language teachers and two music teachers, and the school's 1,450 pupils are all invited to participate. "It uses all four skills, and they end up with lots of vocabulary they wouldn't normally have that relates to modern music," she says. "Some wanted the German translation for 'in the house' for house music, or 'Yo', for which I gave 'im der Haus' and 'Ya'. They end up using the grammar without realising it, and they are motivated because they want to show off and perform cool songs in front of their mates."
Although joint lessons with music and language teachers were ruled out by timetable pressures, and the project is language-led, Stephanie says: "I'm lucky the music staff have been so keen and excited, explaining what world music is, and talking about how a country's culture affects the music produced, and helping with songs during lunchtimes."
In her German class with Year 7s, Stephanie plays sample "contest" songs to show how to rhyme words such as "Tag" and "Mag", "flau"' and "blau", and also the value of repetition in songs and poems, a clear advantage in language-learning. The children do a gap-fill exercise on a song about a "Skoolbus" for the benefit of low attainers, then work in groups on the use of colours to create a musical mood, for example "the sky was as black as death".
A group of girls start banging on a desk in what appears to be an episode of unruly behaviour, before it becomes clear they are tapping out a "threatening" rhythm to go with their dark poem. Stephanie says: "We put up with a lot more noise and out-of-seat time than in normal classes, which has natural appeal to the children." Stephanie plays "Schnappi", a chirpy little German number with lots of repetition. It is so wearisome that one pupil is moved to put his head in his school bag, groaning "Turn it off, it's awful". Now that's a really authentic Eurovision reaction.
Baciare Ancora (Kiss Again)
Mi piace, la mattina (I like, the morning)
Il sole e la speranza (The sun and the hope)
Vorrei vedere, la sua vista (I would like to see what you see, your view)
Mi piace, buone notte (I like good nights)
In campagna, sotto le stelle
(In the countryside, under the stars)
Qualche volta, penso c'
amore (Sometimes, I think there's love)
Amore amore amore (Love love love)
Mi piace, bel tempo
(I like nice weather)
Il sole e fa caldo (The sun and it's hot)
Ho la febbre, perche sei vicino (I have a fever because you're near)
Mi piace, la passione (I like passion)
E amore, vicino (And love, is near)
Baciamo, penso c'
amore (We kiss, I think there's love)
Amore amore amore
(Love love love)
La sera bella. Le stelle, sono gialle (The evening is beautiful, the stars are yellow)
Sei cara, bella. Vorrei baciare ancora (You're sweet, and beautiful. I would like to kiss again)
Baciare ancora, baciare ancora (To kiss again, to kiss again)
Amore amore amore (Love love love).
"Baciare Ancora" is by a musical boy in the sixth-form learning Italian Rap Francais
Yo Yo Yo Je m'apelle Joe (Yo yo yo, my name is Joe)
J'aime le rugby (I love rugby)
J'ai-un fr re et deux soeurs, c'est cool. (I have a brother and two sisters. It's cool)
J'aime le battre (I love boxing)
J'habite a Yate (I live in Yate)
Le tennis est nul (The tennis is awful)
Yo yo yo J'Alors Cool (Yo yo yo, that's cool)
"Rap Francais" is by a Year 7 boy with special needs