A language-teaching initiative in the Black Country is capitalising on the region's cultural diversity, writes Rachel Pugh
In hesitant Punjabi, nurse cadet James Rochelle asks the little Asian boy he is looking after whether he likes vegetables. He is rewarded by a giant grin and a torrent of words.
The 18-year-old nursing trainee, who is on the children's ward at Walsall Manor hospital in the Black Country, sits down and asks the sick child a few more questions about his food likes and dislikes, and announces triumphantly (again in Punjabi): "He is vegetarian - I wondered why he was ticking the menu boxes randomly. But neither he nor his mother speaks English."
No one else on the ward has the language skills to do what James did, but now he and seven other cadets at the hospital can speak to patients in basic Punjabi after volunteering to take a 12-week course at Walsall college of art and technology alongside their NVQ level 2 in nursing studies. Another 16 students will take up the course in March. New Cross hospital in Wolverhampton will also be running the course.
The sense in running this scheme in a hospital in which some 50 per cent of patients are Asian people who often speak little English is not lost on James, whose only previous language experience was a GCSE in French.
He says: "You don't get many French people in hospital round here. In an area like this, the fact that I have this on my CV will give me a step up with employers."
The Black Country's cultural diversity offers rich linguistic potential.
This, coupled with the fact that 60 per cent of small businesses here say they have missed out on contracts because of a shortage of staff with languages, has been the catalyst for the ground-breaking 14-19 Pathfinder Network. It focuses principally on vocational language learning; indeed, it is the only one of 39 Pathfinders for 14 to 19-year-olds in England and Wales to do so.
The aim is to boost aspirations and attainment in an area which came 45th out of 47 in terms of the number of 16 to 18-year-olds staying on in post-16 education, according to Learning and Skills Council figures.
Dr Henriette Harnisch, director of the Black Country's Pathfinder 14-19 Networks For Excellence, says: "This is about career enrichment, where languages are seen to be a key skill for advancement."
Since the initiative began in September 2002, led by the Black Country learning and skills council, more than 60 projects have been set up. These have involved schools, further education colleges, specialist language colleges, training providers, and Wolverhampton university.
Those involved have looked at a number of key areas: community languages in vocational settings, curriculum development using interactive IT, and collaborative models of working and vocational activities.
In terms of community language work, this scheme is not just about white youngsters learning Asian languages. Links have also been established with private training providers to offer specialist training for the childcare industry. The aim is to set up courses for young Asian women - to train them to be nursery nurses and, in many cases, capitalise on their knowledge of two or three languages.
Work is also underway to set up a formal accreditation scheme to recognise community languages. Mark Bremner, who runs Platinum Training in Dudley, says: "Is it right that you can do a certificate in business language competence in French, German, Spanish and a host of other languages, but not in Urdu or Punjabi?"
Suitable work placements are important here. Projects include taking a group of young people from Stourbridge to Spain. These students have just completed a BTec in travel and tourism with Spanish. They went on the trip abroad to boost their confidence and their job prospects.
Teachers and businesses are being brought together to get a better understanding of each others' needs. Visits to Manchester's Ringway airport by teachers from the Black Country have underlined the need for staff at information desks to be able to speak three or four languages, and locally based firms such as Peugeot have stated their unwillingness to take on young people even for work experience unless they have studied French.
Game technology is also being used in a partnership with several European secondary schools in order to create a language-learning computer game called Shoot Me Up. The package is designed to draw in younger learners, particularly because languages will no longer be compulsory at key stage 4 after 2004.
Elsewhere, fashion students on a national diploma run by Walsall college of art and technology have been enthusiastic about an intensive course in French taken prior to their study trips to France. And plans are now underway to encourage modern apprentices in engineering to learn German.
Jan Roman, director of the Black Country Schools Improvement Partnership, who set up the Black Country's languages Pathfinder, says: "Languages have been regarded as academic subjects, but we see them as skills with practical applications. That is liberating, but we also see this as a model that can be replicated with other subjects."
The Black Country Pathfinder 14-19 Networks for Excellence will hold a conference entitled 'Talking Business: language skills for work' on November 13 at the International Convention Centre in Birmingham. Speakers include Dr Lid King, national director for languages, and Isabella Moore, president of the British Chamber of Commerce. For further information about this event contact CILT Conferences: telephone 020 7379 5101