Schools in North Ayrshire are putting the fun back into learning modern languages, and their success in motivating young Scots to study Spanish will hopefully boost the profile of the language across Scotland
YOUNG PEOPLE all over Scotland used to start learning a new language as soon as they went to school. Most learned it quickly and spoke it well, when they had to. But this ability gave them none of the self-assurance that fluency in a foreign language is supposed to bring. Quite the reverse in fact.
Taught to believe that standard English was the proper way to speak and that their native tongue was uncouth, Scotland's children often felt as if they were in linguistic no-man's-land. But that juvenile flair for languages can, in the right circumstances, strengthen cultural and self-confidence.
"Spanish is easy to learn," says Kyro, a P1 pupil at Lawthorn Primary in North Ayrshire. "It's got nice words in it like 'amarillo'. That means 'yellow'."
"My big brother teaches me loads of new words," says his classmate Amy.
"Like 'hola' - that's Spanish for 'hello'."
Teacher Elizabeth Kerr props her guitar - with which she has been accompanying the youngsters - against the wall, and leads them around the corner to the dance mat for more interactive Spanish activities.
"To be honest, these wee ones are picking up the language faster than I did," she says. "You wouldn't believe how quick they are.
"I give them at least two sessions a week now. I didn't speak Spanish before, but I went on a course for primary teachers, run by North Ayrshire."
Unlike some authorities, where modern languages have lost their lustre, North Ayrshire places a high priority on it, says John Travers, the director of education.
"If we were starting from scratch, we might choose to teach Spanish rather than French, which we now teach in all our primary schools. There's a greater demand from parents, many of whom visit Spain on their holidays.
"Teachers tell us they get a better response from Spanish, particularly from the boys, because Scots youngsters find it a much easier language to learn than French.
"Spanish is also a much bigger world language. So for the sake of competitiveness in international business, the CBI is keen to get more young people speaking Spanish."
North Ayrshire is currently promoting the language and the culture on a number of fronts. But when an authority is already committed to one language (namely French) in its schools, it is difficult to change to another, says Mr Travers.
"We have a new school opening later this year - St Matthew's Secondary.
That has given us the opportunity to offer Spanish to S1 and S2 pupils there. To prepare for that, we have trained teachers in the associated primaries to start teaching Spanish."
At St Andrew's Academy in Saltcoats - one of two schools whose staff and pupils will occupy the new school - Hugh McCormack, principal teacher of modern languages, explains that pupils currently encounter Spanish for the first time when they reach the second year.
"We do six weeks as a taster course. Then in the third year, when they're taking their options, they can choose to study Spanish."
A range of activities beyond the classroom introduces the St Andrew's pupils to Spanish culture, and in some cases immerses them in it. One group has been on a trip to Ecuador, where they worked and lived with the local priest, who was himself a former pupil - and the first churchman in a kilt the locals had ever seen.
"We made close friends in Nueva Prosperina, and it was hard to leave them,"
says Sarah Jane McDermott (S3). "The people there have hardly anything compared to us. They live in huts. We decorated the church and opened new classrooms in the local school, which was made of bamboo.
"Mostly we spoke Spanish when we were there. We were able to talk to the people we met about ourselves, our families and where we came from. I'll never forget it."
While the Ecuador trip was a first, other pupils have been participating in one of the more established components of Spanish courses in North Ayrshire. Immersion visits are highly motivating, says Mr Travers, and help overcome the widespread belief that most of the world speaks English, so there is no need to learn their language.
"The big problem with that, of course, is that you can buy from people in other countries by talking English - but if you want to sell, you need to speak their language."
Stephen Cavani (S6) wasn't selling on his immersion visit to Majorca, but he was speaking - to just about everybody he met. "We went around schools, spoke to the children in Spanish, and taught them Scottish dancing," he says.
He and his fellow pupils also carried out surveys in the streets, while the teachers "hovered" in the background, during which they discovered that accurate knowledge of Scotland was not widespread: "We talked in Spanish to tourists as well as local people, and got some interesting answers, like the capital of Scotland is Berlin.
"Mind you, I met some people from Belarus, and I didn't know much about their country. The whole thing was great and did a lot for my confidence."
Language teachers found that the pupils especially enjoyed talking to their own age group. "When you're speaking to adults, you feel more pressure to get things right and not make mistakes," says Melissa Young (S6).
"The younger people were more easy-going. They would just say, 'No, you're doing that wrong - you should go like this.' You gain confidence quicker that way."
Another key factor in North Ayrshire's success in motivating pupils to study Spanish is technology, says Mr Travers. "We have a virtual community of learners called Partners in Excellence, which brings together pupils and teachers in secondary schools across North Ayrshire, East Ayrshire, Argyll and Bute."
The long-term project features blogs, podcasts, the LanguageZone website and a special focus on film-making, with intensive weekends away making Spanish films.
"It was quite hard," says Emma Armstrong (S6). "There was a university student and a teacher there for support. But we still had to write the script in Spanish ourselves, then go away and act it, film it, and edit it all. Then there was a film festival and people won awards.
"We made Casa de los Espiritus and won the best screenplay award. The most memorable parts were the out-takes - they were so funny. In fact, the whole thing was a lot of fun."
From her experience, the social side is as important in motivating the boys as technology. Emma says: "Quite a lot of them who dropped French in their fourth year wished they hadn't, so they took it up again in the sixth year.
We'd all be sitting around chatting in different languages and having a laugh and they felt left out."
Boys are every bit as keen on the cultural side of languages as girls, says Norma McCrone, North Ayrshire's cultural services officer. "Putting on events, such as Spanish through dance and Spanish through opera, is a great way of raising a language's profile with the kids."
Such events are certainly easier to plan, fund and organise in North Ayrshire - which has one director for both education and culture - than they might be elsewhere.
"You need funding for costumes and sets, because kids have high standards nowadays," says Ms McCrone. "You can't just say, 'Bring in your T-shirt and a pair of plimsolls and we'll put on a show.'
"It's not just arts, culture or Spanish that we're teaching these kids.
It's transferable skills. It's confidence. Countries like Spain and France take a pride in their language.
"Not long ago we arranged for a Scots writer to come in and work with our primary pupils. He asked them how many languages they spoke, and most said just one.
"Then he said, 'Can ye get doon on yer hunkers?' and they did. He said, 'Can ye touch yer een', and they did. Then he asked them if that wasn't a language he'd been speaking. They told him it wasn't - it was just slang.
"What other country, I wondered, would teach their children that the language they speak naturally is slang?"