Thirteen-year-old Isaac Noble is learning Japanese so he can speak to his mother in her native tongue.
“She came over to the UK but I didn’t really speak much Japanese to her while I was growing up,” he said. “She’d actually quite like to have somebody she could talk to with no effort. That’s why I started learning.”
Sixteen-year-old Jasmin Bown, meanwhile, has reinvented the meaning of the word “gap year” to mean a mid-secondary school break – rather than filling in time before you go to university.
With the help of her school, Harrogate Grammar in North Yorkshire, she spent a year in Spain at the age of 16 – and has now slotted back into the sixth form to study for her A levels.
“I went away and studied there for a year and lived with a host family,” she said. “The school put some money towards my trip.”
Zsofia Hesketh, also aged 16, on the other hand, was not available for interview because she was on an exchange trip to South Korea – to boost her understanding of the Korean language.
Harrogate Grammar – not a selective grammar school but an academy which retained its original title after becoming a comprehensive decades ago – is very definitely not the sort of establishment Androulla Vassiliou, the European Union’s Education Commissioner, had in mind last week when she told The Independent too many people in the UK had a “why should I bother?” attitude towards learning languages because they thought everybody spoke English.
In fact, it was one of the first schools in the country to become a specialist language college – and now its students can learn a total of 24 different languages through a deal it has set up with the language experts Rosetta Stone.
It could well be the prototype for language provision in the future as ministers seek to resurrect the standing of the subjects in schools following a disastrous decade which saw take-up at GCSE level cut by half. They have already made it a compulsory feature of the new English Baccalaureate and plan to make learning a language compulsory for all seven- to 11-year-olds next September.
The 1,850-pupil school is proud of its record at both GCSE and A-level in languages. Last year saw 235 entries at GCSE, 90 per cent of which gained an A* to C grade pass. In fact, the average German point score at GCSE was higher than in any other subject – including further maths, which traditionally has the highest percentage of top grade passes in the country.
Harrogate Grammar also has one the highest scores in the country for a state school in the English Baccalaureate, with 50 per cent of pupils getting five A* to C grades at GCSE in the five qualifying subjects: English, maths, science, a language and a humanities subject (history or geography). Its sixth-form has pupils studying for four languages at A level: French, German, Italian and Spanish.
The school has just started an “enrichment class” in Chinese with the help of a native-speaker teaching assistant. The class teacher is learning the language with his pupils and hopes to move towards offering the language as a GCSE option in the near future.
Jamie Gutch, head of the school’s language faculty, praises the work of the assistants. “They bring the real world into the classroom because they live the language,” he said.
Other schools are now flocking to see how the scheme operates – one day recently as many as six schools came at the same time to see how the school worked. (The answer is iPads and online access to courses.) Meanwhile, Rosetta Stone is offering the same programme to a further 60 schools.
The school is optimistic it can improve on its record once languages become compulsory in the primary sector from next September. At present, it has 39 feeder primary schools.
“It means you have pupils who are in very different stages of learning the subject – from some who are quite fluent to others who have not learnt the subject at all, “ said Mr Gutch.
However, staff at the school pointed out that investment would be needed to appoint trained language staff to primary schools if the plan to make the subject compulsory were to succeed. A spokeswoman for the Department for Education praised Harrogate Grammar’s “innovative approach” as an example of the kind of initiatives ministers wanted to encourage in schools.
“After years of decline, this government is putting languages back at the heart of education,” she added. The numbers taking a languages GCSE had increased by 20 per cent – putting take-up at a “seven-year high”.