Football stars get the ball rolling for Spanish learners

8th March 2013 at 00:00
Pupils get a kick out of a visit from Manchester United players

"So," Ruth Dunleavy says to her Spanish class. "Working in groups of four, two of you pretend to be futbolistas and two periodistas. Think of questions to ask at a press conference."

So far, so routine role play. But then the two Spanish-speaking international footballers who have dropped in for the lesson start walking around the class to see how the pupils are doing. All pretence of cool is lost.

Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez is a striker for Manchester United and a member of the Mexican national team. David de Gea, a Spanish international, signed as a goalkeeper for United last season and finished with the highest saves-to-shot ratio in the Premier League.

While the men were speaking Spanish at the start of the lesson, the pupils listened attentively. But now, given a chance to meet their heroes, they reach into their bags and whip out red football shirts. Pieces of paper are shoved across tables; one boy gets his wallet (also red) signed. One girl jokes that Chicharito has signed a vow to marry her - when she's old enough. "Of course," says Chicharito, smiling.

The players are at Broadoak School in Partington, Greater Manchester, to support the work of the Manchester United Foundation. The foundation works with eight hubs, each made up of a high school and feeder primaries, with an officer assigned to each hub to support teachers, pupils, parents and the wider community. When it was suggested that United's Spanish-speaking players might be able to visit, Ms Dunleavy, head of languages, jumped at the chance.

Language learning in England is notoriously poor (see panel). At Broadoak, Spanish is the only language option, but at the start of this term just three Year 9 pupils were interested in carrying on with it in Year 10.

"Since they heard about this visit that has gone up to seven," Ms Dunleavy says. And she is hoping that more of the Manchester United glitter will stick to the subject in the weeks to come. "It is quite difficult to persuade pupils to study languages because often the more practical subjects are popular," she says. "The pupils are aware of Spanish-speaking players but seeing them here, speaking Spanish in real life, is amazing."

And so Ms Dunleavy begins. She produces a red, white and yellow football, emblazoned with a Spanish black bull, and explains to Chicharito and de Gea that when pupils raise their hands they can choose who asks a question by throwing the ball at them.

"Do you like Manchester?"

"Si, es interesante."

"What type of music do you like?"

"Metales pesados."

A boy throws the ball back at de Gea a little harder and higher than expected. He catches it easily, instinctively, hardly looking, and gives the boy a lopsided smile. A ripple of laughter breaks the awed atmosphere.

Pupil Tylor Golden, 13, had dropped Spanish because he has been picked to train with Blackburn Rovers Academy, but he wants to start again next year. "Seeing them makes people want to pick up languages, because you could get rewards like meeting the players and then you want to speak to them in their own language," he says.

De Gea does not speak much English. He was good at school but bad at English, he explains through Chicharito, who is fluent in both languages. "I did English classes for four or five years, then I stopped because I was training," Chicharito says. "I started practising again when I heard Manchester United wanted me.

"Of course, it's important to learn a language. It is about being prepared. The more things you do to be prepared in life the better. It is like sport. To be young, to study in the morning and do sport afterwards - there cannot be anything better for you."

No reign for Spain

Since studying a language was made optional for pupils aged 14-16 in England in 2004, French GCSE entries have halved to just 141,472 in 2011.

The number of pupils taking Spanish has risen slightly, but it still has far fewer entries: 60,700 pupils sat the exam in 2011.

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