Living a foreign language


Total immersion among native speakers is the best way to learn a language, but parents need to choose wisely before sending teens off for long stretches abroad, writes SHEILA WAYMAN

NOBODY PRETENDS it is easy for an Irish teenager plonked in a boarding school in a foreign country where nobody is speaking English. Tears and homesickness are to be expected as they struggle to find their tongue in a language which they write much more than they speak back home.

Michael John Murphy admits that on his first day alone aged 15 in a French boarding school in Le Mans, “I was in the toilets crying, calling my parents” on a mobile phone he had smuggled in. Like his two sisters before him, he was spending transition year in France because their mother, Barbara Murphy, believed it was beneficial not only for their language skills but also for their personal development.

He enrolled as a weekly boarder and spent the weekends in Paris with the family of another boy at the school. The daily regime involved lessons – all through French – from 8.30am to 5pm and then at least two hours of evening study before going to the dorms at 9pm and lights out at 10.30pm.

Barbara persuaded Michael John to persevere and, sure enough, after four weeks, he found the French began to click. “You start to understand what they say.” At that point he reckoned he could stick it until Christmas – “but when Christmas came I thought, ‘I am fine here’,” says Michael John, who is now in sixth year back home at Rockwell College in Co Tipperary.

“At the start it was tough,” he adds, “it got better as it went along and looking back, I had a great time!”

For teenagers like him, total immersion among native speakers of a language is invaluable at a time when the ability to speak at least one other foreign language has never been more important for job-seekers. Graduates increasingly need to have a command of at least one other language, beyond English and Irish, not only to secure employment abroad but also to compete for jobs at home where the global nature of business is developing all the time.

Parents are well used to the idea of packing their children off to the Gaeltacht for weeks or even a year at a time, but similar trips to the Continent look equally – or, dare we say, even more – worthwhile. Of course, stretching the apron strings to another country, as opposed to just a few hours’ car drive away, brings additional worries, logistical challenges and, not least, increased expense.

In the 2010 Leaving Certificate, just under half (47.7 per cent) of students sat French; for German it was 12.6 per cent; Spanish 6.3 per cent, but rising, while only 0.5 per cent of students took Italian.

Transition year is an ideal time for secondary students to go abroad – whether it is on programmes organised by their school or by parents through private companies. They are not going to miss much academically and they are old enough to have a good chance of being able to cope on their own.

Living Language in Dublin organises school placements for transition year students primarily in France but also in Spain and Germany, ranging from one term lasting five or six weeks up to the full academic year. Director Jean-Marc Bourguignon stresses that preparation is key for success.

There is an enrolment test to determine abilities, briefing of parents and child, and then a language crash course before leaving Ireland. On arrival, there is a four-day preparatory course for the small group of teenagers who have travelled with Bourguignon from Ireland before they are placed individually in different, usually private schools, where they either board or live with a family vetted by the school.

He gets pressure from parents and students to allow friends to pair up in the same school, but he is adamant that just one Irish child per school is essential, so that they have to speak the language. However, there is the option of two-week programmes for small groups which are run in French schools after Irish schools close for the summer.

Out of every 100 students, one or two would not work out. “The failure rate is very low if only because there is a test on enrolment,” Bourguignon explains. “I will not take anybody who I feel is being pushed by the parents. Some parents have the means, but that is not sufficient for me because if the boy or girl is pushed it will be a disaster – not only will I get a bad name in Ireland but I will lose the French school – there is a limit to what they will tolerate.”

Much comes down to the teenager’s personality and upbringing – “I cannot change in six weeks, 16 years of being spoiled!” says Bourguignon, a native French speaker who first came to Ireland to study sociology at Trinity College, Dublin, before setting up Living Language in 1979.

Fluency is the aim for these students, rather than the niceties of grammar. “As long as they learn to pick up the sound on the spot and lose their inhibition to speak back, I consider the contract is fulfilled,” he explains.

“Once you have some degree of fluency, it makes access to grammar easier and it raises the interest. Here they are getting in love with the language – and they mature.”

Bourguignon recalls one mother asking him what he did to her son. “I said: ‘What do you mean?’ She said: ‘I don’t recognise him, he now makes his bed’.”

Sending her first daughter, Alix, off to France was “a leap of faith”, says Barbara, but she was pleased how it worked out for both her and her sister after her. They both got A1s in French in the Leaving (so no pressure Michael John!) and are now in UCD, studying medicine and business and law respectively, and speak fluent French.

Anna Kelly (17), from Co Wexford, who is a boarder at Rathdown School in Glenageary, Co Dublin, went to Montpellier for a four-week intensive transition year course. In hindsight, she wishes she had gone for six months or a year. “If I was to do it all again I would definitely go for longer.”

Some of her friends did go to France for the year and she reckons they “are almost guaranteed an A1. It is like a subject off your chest; one you can just put aside whereas I am definitely not even close to that.”

Initially, Anna had wanted to go to France with a few friends, but her father, hotelier Bill Kelly of Rosslare, says for him that “just diluted the possibility of whatever she would learn”. So he and his French wife, Isabelle, decided Anna should go on her own and organised the trip for her through Stein Study Abroad.

The Kellys’ aspirations to raise bi- lingual children at home had unravelled as their family grew, life got busier and Isabelle began to use more English. Their first three children speak fairly good French, Bill explains, but the next three missed out.

They could have sent Anna, child number four, over to Isabelle’s family, but they thought it was better she stay with a French family who would not speak English to her.

Were they worried about sending her off on her own? “Not really,” replies Bill. Being able to communicate with the host in advance and go over the ground rules reassured them. “The biggest concern for me would be giving them too much liberty.”

In addition to the daily classes at the language school, Anna says that conversations with the woman she was staying with – along with one other, German student – were very beneficial.

“Dinner would be a good hour to hour-and-a-half and I would explain my day only in French and she would help me – and that was like a class of its own.”

When she returned to school in September, she realised how much her French had improved during the trip in May. “On the first day we had to write an essay on our summer – before I would have always been on Google translate or at the dictionary.” She sat down, took up a pen and had written two pages before she knew it.

She has become much more confident in speaking her mother’s native tongue. “When Anna was growing up as a child she used to say to us all the time, ‘Stop speaking that language to me’,” says Bill. “She just didn’t want to speak French. That has totally gone. She is quite happy to talk French to her granny now – but she still won’t talk to her mother!”

Transition year programmes abroad are an investment in a child’s education but the costs are prohibitive for many parents.

For example, with Living Language, one French term (40-plus days) costs about €3,500 and a full year €14,800. That includes not only the preparation, school fees and board and lodging, but also a Living Language tutor who meets the teenager for a couple of hours each week to reinforce the foundations of the vocabulary they are picking up and is available if any problems arise.

“It is not a matter of dumping a child and saying, ‘See you when it’s over’,” Bourguignon stresses.

Stein Study Abroad offers three options to transition year students, ranging from a term abroad in France or Spain, to attending intensive classes at a language school as an individual and staying with a host family, to what founder Michael Stein calls “the Gaeltacht in the sun” – where groups ranging in size from 10 to 25 go for a programme of classes and cultural activities at a language school, staying with French families and with Stein reps in the resort to supervise them. The basic cost of a six-week school term in France organised by Stein starts at €2,399 and the language school programmes start from €1,449 for two weeks.

Stein set up the company three years ago after watching his youngest daughter, Mandy, organise a transition year trip to France for herself and a number of friends. She found a place in Nice on the internet where they wanted to go. It ticked all the boxes, but as parents, he says, you would prefer to be dealing with somebody in Ireland.

Having sold a travel agency some years earlier, Stein saw the business opportunity in developing language programmes abroad for Irish students.

“Yes, we are a commercial enterprise, but as a parent and having done it for my own child, I understand exactly what the parent and the child are looking for – which is two slightly different things,” he suggests. “We have to try and bridge a happy gap between them.”

Getting the point valuable lessons

Rachel Fitzpatrick describes a three-week language study trip to Rome last summer as one of the best experiences of her 17-year-old life.

The teachers were “brilliant”, the excursions “excellent” and conversing with international students in the common language of Italian hugely beneficial.

She had taken up Italian for the Leaving Cert just three months previously, towards the end of fifth year, as an additional eighth subject outside school. Keen on languages, she was already doing French and Latin at Alexandra College in Dublin, and felt that Italian would boost her points tally.

Her mother, Patricia Delaney, did have reservations about her eldest child heading off to Italy on her own for the course.

She had gone to France the previous summer with the same company – but that time it was with a friend and both of them stayed with a host family. “We had to agree on a curfew because they were under 16.”

In Italy, Rachel was attending a language school in a seaside resort near Rome and staying in an apartment on her own. There was no question of curfews.

“We had to give her the trust and hope for the best,” says Patricia. There were beach parties and pool parties. “She seemed to enjoy it, but still got up in the morning and did her classes and she was safe.”

Neither of the trips was cheap, says Patricia, but she feels they got their money’s worth. As a former language teacher herself, of Spanish – “the only one Rachel is not doing!” – Patricia is well aware of the limitations of the Irish education system when it comes to teaching languages and recognises the value of being able to spend time in a country where the language being studied is the native tongue.

“The only way to really get it is to go there and spend whatever time you can manage to afford.”

Schools vary widely in what opportunities they can offer students in terms of exchanges or cultural tours.

Newpark Comprehensive School in Blackrock, Co Dublin, for example, has a European section which gives 20-plus students in each year up to four extra French classes a week and a range of cultural activities. The highlight is the exchange they do to Lyon in second year, which often results in lasting friendships that can facilitate return visits in years to come.

“When they come back, they are more confident and they see the point of the language,” says Daisy Berteloot, French teacher and co-ordinator of the European section. “They try a bit more.”

Gorey Community School in Co Wexford organises annual trips to Italy for its transition year students, but the emphasis is very much on the cultural and enhancement of social skills through staying with host families, as Italian is not taught at the school – French, German, Spanish and Japanese being the languages on offer there.

It also takes in a few students from abroad on “English immersion” programmes who, says principal Michael Finn, are “very beneficial for the school”.