Mind their language and bridge the world

6th May 2005 at 01:00
Every school worth its salt arranges exchange visits to countries on the other side of La Manche: an exciting trip mixed with the holy grail of curriculum enhancement.

Even the less successful trips, those where everyone hates their host families and would rather starve than touch the food, can be beneficial.

Whatever the immediate res-ponse, horizons will have been broadened thanks to exposure to different cultures, languages and the sight, if not the taste, of food. So why do such trips involve the logistical nightmare of coaches, ferries and even planes?

Every large, and not-so-large, town can offer a glimpse into another way of life, be it Bengali, Polish, Turkish, Somali or Chinese. Even the most isolated school is just a short bus ride from such a community that can offer all the benefits of exchange and more without boosting PO's coffers.

Foreign exchanges are a legacy of days when the UK, for the most part, sat in splendid isolation from Europe, so near and yet so far away; when a trip abroad could mean the first, and sometimes, once-in-a-lifetime, exposure to such exotic fare as garlic and the Gallic shrug, to bratwurst and Teutonic orderliness. When a school trip would be the only way a child could hear a foreign language, without using headphones and listening to daleks saying "zut alors".

But now most children can expect to take a foreign holiday once, if not twice, a year. A ferry or flight, while still exciting, is not a novelty.

And, since the growth of global supermarkets and fast food chains, how different is the average European's diet to our own, give or take a vegetable or two?

The choice of languages taught, and therefore trips taken, is also a hangover from when Britons were comfortable in the knowledge they were God's chosen people, but allowed that the Continentals were probably less inferior than the rest of the world.

It is these attitudes that have led us to ignore the human resource that could be the biggest single, cheapest, boost to educational standards in this country which, if it is not actually walking into your school every day, is within a few miles of its gates.

Study after study has proved that young children have an almost endless capacity to learn languages, and that the process of learning just two can have huge benefits on their educational attainment. But bizarrely we seem to assume that the proven re-search somehow only applies to western European languages.

If the majority of children who entered our schools without English spoke French, German or Spanish, our fixation with those languages would be fair enough, but they don't. They speak Urdu, Bangla, Punjabi, Turkish, and,at least one of 300 others.

Yet how many primary schools take advantage of that when de-ciding how to introduce languages to their pupils? Even the most re-ceptive often fail to get any further than putting up welcome signs in their pupils' script. As in so many areas of the immigration debate, the negative is always assumed.

Children who do not speak English are a "challenge", a drag on league table positions, never an attribute with an in-built capacity to achieve because of that first language. Do those children ever think "why is my language not good enough to be used in school but French and German are"? Of course there is still an important place for European languages, but encouraging languages already in the classrooms, will mean that children find them easier to pick up. And, of course, it's not just the languages.

Most schools include visits to places of worship, to foster understanding and tolerance, but surely that is just assuming culture and religion are indivisible. Do any schools offer residential exchange trips this side of the Channel?

Surely a few nights in Bow from Bowness, and vice versa, could be just as an enriching experience as a trip to Brest? And some pupils would not have so far to go. A trip across town in Burnley, Oldham or Bradford should do the trick. And who knows where that might lead in terms of understanding?

Nobody doubts that travel broadens the mind, but maybe we should start to think in terms of attitudes not distances. The disturbing pre-election rhetoric about foreigners, which has pushed even the EU bogeyman into the shade, should serve as a warning. And maybe encourage schools to explore the communities on their doorsteps.

Subject focus, teacher 20

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