It's good to talk - but hard with a 50-plus alphabet;Subject of the week;Modern Languages

5th March 1999 at 00:00
Two 15-year-olds shot to fame last year when they became the first non-Asian pupils to sit a GCSE in Bengali. Chris Fautley asks them why they chose the subject

National and local press, television coverage - not what you expect when choosing GCSE subjects. Hayley Pack and Hannah Moxon, Year 11 students at the City of Portsmouth Girls' School, confess to being surprised at the media attention they attracted last September when they decided to study for a GCSE in Bengali.

While many non-Bengalis before them have learned the language, they are the first to opt to take the exam. They have chosen to do so, they say, because they have lots of Bengali friends and want to be able to converse with them. In the longer term Hayley wishes to be an interpreter, while Hannah wants to be a lawyer. "The Bengali language is good to have," she says, explaining that it will be helpful to be able to communicate in a language spoken by many UK residents. She has already registered her interest in pursuing the subject at A-level.

Friends, Bengali speakers Shopna and Nurun Begun, who are also studying for their GCSE, think that what Hannah and Hayley are doing is normal and that the publicity is blown out of all proportion. Fair enough - it isn't as if they're splitting the atom. "It feels like it, though!" says Nurun.

The media interest, says headteacher Judith Kilpatrick, has encouraged students to question their own motives and friendships. "It's actually brought a pride in the school," she says, adding that she hopes it has encouraged girls to talk about different cultures.

Twice a week after school all four girls join about 30 other students of all ages for an hour-long lesson. Only a dozen or so will sit the exam, which Hayley and Hannah will take "as soon as we know enough". For the time being, they are focusing on the oral side. English may be one of the most difficult languages to learn but, say Shopna and Nurun, Bengali is even harder, not least because there are more than 50 letters in the alphabet.

Hayley and Hannah wish the language could be offered in school time - timetable constraints mean it isn't. Indeed, were it possible, all four believe that more of their peers would study it. "It's something different," says Nurun.

French or German are compulsory for GCSE - which poses an interesting question. Could it be that in general - not just in inner-city schools - linguistic tunnel-vision has set in? Britain is part of a United States of Europe. We also live in a multicultural society. Yet when it comes to the crunch, how many of us use our school French, Spanish or German? Conversely, how many people work with colleagues from ethnic minorities and would relish the opportunity of integrating more into their society and culture?

all the girls think there is a better chance of using Bengali or Punjabi than a European language. "There are not many French people in England," says one.

So what are the chances of using Bengali in the big, post-school world? "It's difficult to say because we have only a 5 per cent ethnic minority population," says Mrs Kilpatrick. "Who can say whether you are going to use a language afterwards or not? If you are talking in terms of future life chances, then I wouldn't differentiate between Bengali, French or German." She adds that her job is to look at the opportunities for young people and maximise them. "I believe here we've got the balance right but we constantly review it."

Nor does Mrs Kilpatrick believe more students (10 per cent on her roll are from ethnic minorities) would take the subject in school hours. With 200 girls in each year group, she says she could not offer it in competition with French or German, given the current take-up rate of about 3 per cent across the school. Thus, for five years Bengali, like Punjabi, has been offered as an after-school option. Her advice to heads contemplating offering Asian languages is to try it in the knowledge that students will respond. "It's horses for courses - and environments - to be honest," she says. "The important thing is you constantly review the needs of the young people you've got."

Meanwhile, the efforts of Hayley and Hannah are not lost on their friends. "I'm really impressed," says Nurun, a witness, perhaps, to a new dawn for modern languages.

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