My parents often joke that their knowledge of French doesn’t extend much beyond what they could learn on an exchange: how to order a block of cheese and a one-way, non-smoking train ticket to Paris.
But statistics published by the British Council this week suggest that British students might soon be bereft of even those few language skills. Around 30 per cent of state schools offer foreign exchange trips, the report revealed, citing parents’ worries about safety and missing lessons to be the main reasons for them being axed in the last few years.
Of course, learning a foreign language carries with it the risk of embarrassment – when asking for cheese instead of a train ticket, perhaps. But verb tables and textbooks, fascinating though they are, simply don’t mirror the experience of going to a country and talking to people there. After all, students learn languages not to pass exams, but to be able to converse with people from the other side of the world.
Which is why I’m bewildered by parents’ concerns about their kids missing school for exchanges. Because although I am now sitting in classes furiously catching up on work, just one month ago I was sat next to a six-year-old girl in Shanghai, on my school’s visit to China. She was chattering to me in Mandarin – asking me why my eyes were blue and my hair blonde, and why I was struggling to understand her. She had never seen a European person before.
So, can foreign exchange trips be mildly embarrassing? Yes, at times. Did I miss some lessons to go to China? Yes, a few. But does the pile of bygone essay deadlines bother me, after the week I had in one of the most fantastic cities in the world? No, not one bit.