Different tastes catered for

6th April 2007 at 01:00
Adult education students, aged 23 to 80, came from Europe and the UK on a learning project

WITH FINE French cheeses for tasting, German speciality sausage on display and Spanish olives to sample, it was like any other continental market in one of Scotland's cities. A crucial difference, however, was that culture and language took as big a role as the food.

The event, hosted at Edin-burgh's Drummond High School, was part of an international project to help people learn languages. Unusually, despite its location, it was not laid on for pupils.

Drummond High places great emphasis on adult learning, with up to 1,000 students taking classes in a range of subjects, from languages to camcorder filming, each year. Adult education classes run parallel to the school's pupil provision. Last month, 62 adult education students came from across Europe and the UK for the latest meeting of the Tandem Plus Learning project. Thirty-six of the visitors stayed in homes of Scottish adult learners.

Birgit Harris, the project co-ordinator who organises adult education at Drummond, says Tandem grew out of contacts she made on a trip with students to Berlin three years ago. "I believe in breaking down barriers between people and bringing people of different backgrounds together," she says.

At the first event, in 2005, 30 people gathered in Toledo, Spain.

Subsequent gatherings in Vesoul in France, Wicklow in Ireland, and Belfast last November, grew until last month's event saw the original numbers more than double.

The food fair was an ice-breaker on the first evening. Visitors brought delicacies from their countries as well as cultural items to spur conversation, such as national dress. Scotland had its own stall with haggis, tartan and information about art and culture.

Key to the project is expanding language learning beyond vocabulary by relating it to real life. During the five days in Edinburgh the students went on tours of the city, including art galleries and the Scottish Parliament. These created opportunities to make friends and practise language skills. Work-shops were more focused on promoting conversation.

"We tried to choose subjects acceptable to everyone," says Mrs Harris. "We asked 'which modern conveniences did you have when you were growing up, and what did you not have?' Because the age range was from 23 to 80, they were really diverse."

The idea has extended to a website where people can be matched up to converse in different languages, in real time.

One aim is to help flesh out what it means to be from a particular country.

For example, Scottish students could look at Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his influence on the art and architecture of Scotland. But the website is also an informal forum where people can swap recipes or give tips on places to visit.

The idea is that language and culture are crucial to national identity, and understanding one can help understanding of the other, and create insight into nations.

Drummond High has received around pound;6,000 each year for the past two years from the British Council to run the project and Mrs Harris believes the latest event was a huge success.

Jon Reid, the headteacher, says the school has been at the forefront of community and adult education, and hosting the Tandem event fitted in with its philosophy of lifelong learning. "Our young people are used to seeing adult learners, and we feel this brings an added dimension to what learning and school is all about," he says.

"It shows our students the importance of being able to communicate in different languages and the importance of breaking down cultural and language barriers."

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