World of work brings big lift for languages

2nd April 2010 at 01:00
German workers employed in Scotland show pupils the benefits of a second language

Late blight, the disease responsible for the Irish potato famine in the 1800s, is still a major threat to the potato. Ingo Hein, a research scientist at the Scottish Crop Research Institute, is trying to find a cure.

"It takes 20 sprays a year to keep a crop healthy," he explains. "If we could make potatoes more resistant, that would have an impact on pesticide use and carbon footprint."

Science is clearly at the core of Dr Hein's career, but English has also been key. It is the language of science, he says. And without English, Dr Hein, from Germany, would have found his move to Scotland in 1999 to study for his PhD extremely tough.

"I was rubbish at English through the whole of school," says Dr Hein, who chats effortlessly in flawless English, complete with a Scottish twang. "It was my worst subject."

But his English teacher told him one day it would be useful. And so it proved when he moved to Scotland.

"You need the basics," he says. "With my school background it took me roughly three months to get to a level where I could participate more."

Dr Hein recently told his story to S4 pupils at Menzieshill High in Dundee, where Joanne Hynie, head of modern languages, has been running a "foreign languages at work" event for several years, to demonstrate to pupils the value of speaking a second language.

"We had a big problem with pupils feeling that languages weren't a necessary part of the curriculum," she says. "This is about getting across the message that languages are an important skill, and together with other qualifications can open up huge opportunities."

Over the years it has had the desired effect. "The pupils are much more willing to think about taking their language further," she says.

As well as Dr Hein's contribution, other native Germans working in Scotland share their stories with the pupils, who then have to undertake a series of tasks.

First is the dreaded job interview. The German job pages have been trawled by teachers to find suitable positions. The pupils can choose to be interviewed to work in an ice cream shop, travel agent or as an au pair.

The native German speakers carry out the interviews. In the past, this was the job for foreign-language assistants, but Dundee no longer has any, because of budget cuts.

Pupils, who are divided into companies such as Michelin, Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen, also have to go to the tourist office to reserve train tickets and hotel accommodation for visitors to their company; make a mobile phone call arranging to meet the visitors; and work on a company poster depicting the importance of languages in work. S6 helpers assist companies as managing directors, and if pupils feel that they have given a below-par performance for an oral task, they can repeat it.

Nicole Sweenie and Sarah Dempster found speaking on the telephone in German the biggest challenge of all.

"It was difficult to understand what they were saying and translate," says Sarah.

But both feel the event was valuable. "It's good to have a language, just in case," Sarah says. "I would like to be a primary teacher, so I think I'll take the German Higher."

Getting to interact with "real" Germans was a novelty, says Reece McCabe. "I didn't like it at the start, because I was nervous, but I calmed down - they told you to breathe," he explains.

Jack Christie didn't really "rate" German before the event, but now he sees that a language could be important.

He says: "In classes you are just sitting with a partner, but to get a real German coming in and speaking to you face-to-face - that was different. It was an experience."

As for Dr Hein, he was meant to stay in Scotland for three years but has now been here for more than 10. He loves his job, likes the lifestyle and is full of praise for the people - although, inevitably, there have been a few embarrassing mistakes along the way.

"I went to a restaurant once and asked for nappies instead of napkins," he says, laughing.

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