The British are not known for their mastery of foreign languages. But doubters should visit the Brasshouse. Diana Hinds did
There is simply nothing else quite like it: not only is the Brasshouse Language Centre the biggest adult education language unit in the country, but it also gives the lie to conventional British wisdom that we are not a nation of language learners.
Here, every week, 3,000 students of all ages come to learn any one of 26 foreign languages, from Arabic, French and Cantonese, to Serbo-Croat, Spanish and Urdu. Here, too, managing directors and company executives rub shoulders with pensioners and refugees, for the ethos of the Brasshouse centre, championed by the city's chief education officer, is that it will seek to meet the language needs of anyone who comes through its doors.
"Status is something you leave behind when you are learning a language," says Nati Knight, acting head of Brasshouse.
Students' motives for enrolling at the centre are rich and varied, and many travel from outside the city for its specialised courses. John Fowler, for instance, a security guard, comes from Worcester to study Portuguese A-level, Japanese and advanced Spanish conversation at Brasshouse - purely for pleasure. "Learning a language makes you feel you're adopting a culture, and the way people think," he says.
Pensioner Beryl Glaze, who lives on the edge of Birmingham, has been learning French at Brasshouse for three years and, last summer, took her GCSE. "I never had a chance at school because there was a war on. But it helps keep the mind active at my age: I have to keep saying the French over to myself - it's torture!" Others may come to brush up on a language before going abroad for a holiday or work. Business executives can take advantage of the centre's customised language training for business, individually tailored and often with one-to-one tuition in short, intensive bursts.
Another 1,000 students come to the Brasshouse centre every day of the week to learn English - including young professionals from Pacific Rim countries, the Middle East and Europe, as well as older home students with backgrounds in southern and south-east Asia. The latter, says head of English Smitha Prasadam, include "parents or grandparents who relied on their children to act as interpreters" but who decide to improve their English once their children leave home.
In the past two years, large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers have joined the English programmes. Last Septeber, 250 arrived desperate to sign on but, with provision for only 120, many had to be redirected to other colleges or join waiting lists.
The Brasshouse Centre began life in the late Seventies, the brainchild of a language enthusiast, in dilapidated premises in Brasshouse Passage, where the brass fittings for canal boats had once been manufactured. Despite the fact that languages were then generally perceived as an elitist, white middle-class affair, the centre began to burst at the seams.
In 1986, taking its name with it, the Brasshouse Centre moved to its present site, the substantial and rather imposing four-storey former Severn-Trent water board headquarters, complete with its wood-panelled conference rooms.
Even here, classroom space is increasingly hard to find: the building's relative calm at midday gives way, every weekday at five, to a clamorous flood of students arriving for language lessons.
"In the evenings, it's like a Tower of Babel here," says an approving Clarice Brierley who runs Brasshouse's thriving translation and interpreting services.
Together with Birmingham City Council and Further Education Funding Council cash, and course-fees income, the centre's two trading accounts - the business contracts and the translation and interpreting work - keep it afloat. But despite the pressures of numbers and diverse needs, an inspirational atmosphere prevails.
Innovation and specialism, says Nati Knight, are what Brasshouse has always been known for, and remain its guiding principles in terms of the range of languages and qualifications on offer, and the quality of teaching.
Only this year, Henriette Harnisch, head of foreign languages at Brasshouse, was runner-up in the ICT in Practice Awards, for her efforts to enhance language teaching through interactive whiteboard technology. In essence, she brought internet resources to the heart of lessons via a large interactive screen.
She is now bidding for funding for a new project, "the language bus", which would bring Year 7 pupils to Brasshouse for an hour a week, to give them Internet-based tasters in four different languages.
"Everybody in Birmingham at some point comes to Brasshouse," sums up Lizzie Davies, studying for a Cambridge certificate in teaching English as a foreign language. "It gives you the confidence of knowing you're on a good course, and I like the cosmopolitan mix here: there is a special atmosphere engendered by people speaking other languages all around you."