Languages are passport to better careers

18th June 2010 at 01:00
Reversing the decline in modern languages uptake has been a success for one Moray teacher, thanks to links with international businesses

Ever since the halcyon days when modern languages were compulsory until S4, languages uptake has dipped and, in some secondary schools, even slumped.

Jerome Lestienne, a principal teacher of modern languages at Elgin Academy, decided two years ago to take action and reverse the decline.

"I wanted to deal with some of the problems that have plagued modern languages teachers - the fact that pupils, parents and some senior managers do not see the point in learning languages," he says.

His campaign to persuade pupils of the relevance of learning a language began when he was teaching at Keith Grammar, also in Moray.

He enlisted Ludovic Ducrocq, brand ambassador of Glenfiddich distillery, to help him. The Frenchman had started at Glenfiddich as a tour guide and worked his way up the promotion ladder. Mr Ducrocq made a 10-minute video to show the Keith Grammar pupils what his job was like and the importance of languages in it.

The head of the distillery's visitor centre, Brian Robinson, organised a private tour in French and German for the Higher class, and the guides explained how language skills had made them more employable.

"Guides get paid more at Glenfiddich than other distilleries, because they have to have languages. They have to explain the complex terminology of whisky-making in the visitors' languages because it would be too much for them to understand in English," says Mr Lestienne.

He clearly hopes the old adage "money talks" works with his pupils and that they will see the financial benefits in learning languages.

But Glenfiddich's Mr Robinson had another salutary lesson: he had opted for chemistry at school, rather than languages, with the result that he has to stay at home while his bilingual or multilingual colleagues are sent on the company's foreign trips.

"That was a message the pupils remembered, when writing their `post-its' at the end of the session," says Mr Lestienne. "They wrote: `Your colleagues go away while you stay put'."

The same message was delivered at Elgin Academy by Steve Hutcheon, a senior development manager at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, who took part in an international day last October, when a number of local business people talked to pupils about the value of languages.

He told the S2 pupils he did not speak any foreign languages either and in his previous job, at the papermill in Inverurie before it closed, he had to watch his colleagues travel abroad for their jobs, while he was left behind. "He also explained that if you get two people with the same skills applying for a job, but one has one or two languages, that will make the difference," says Mr Lestienne

Hilary Anderson, a retired languages teacher, runs an animal charity to save horses and donkeys in France and Italy - she buys former racehorses or working animals which are going to be sold to make dog food. She told the pupils that speaking the language enabled her to negotiate resasonable prices.

Other speakers were Lorna MacLeod, who works on international sales for the shortbread firm Walkers, a German butcher who set up shop in Fochabers, and a representative from Johnstons of Elgin woollen mill.

The international firms stressed that speaking their client's language can make or break a deal - and their contracts can be worth millions.

Making learning relevant is one of the underlying principles of Curriculum for Excellence, and Mr Lestienne believes that any school can do what he has done, even if they are not in the heart of a tourist area like Moray. The key is to ask colleagues, parents and anyone else for suggestions - and to network.

"I used to think the schools in Glasgow and Edinburgh had an advantage because of their proximity to big companies like IBM or foreign consulates. I thought that up here it would be more difficult to find companies with links abroad, but once you start looking, you find a lot very quickly," he says.

So did exposure to local businesses using languages in their daily work make a difference to pupil uptake of modern languages?

Two years ago, 10 pupils at Keith Grammar continued with languages into S4; last year, after Mr Lestienne's campaign, 17 did so. At his new school, Elgin Academy, 95 S3 pupils opted for French or German this year; 110 plan to do languages next year. "I have not had any S2s asking why they should learn a modern language," he said. "I don't know what the impact will be on attainment, but if pupils see the relevance of a subject, the results will follow."

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