Powered by language: Students catch the L-train

The Prague Post

Multilingual study program rewards work with travel
With the increasing importance of being multilingual — the Czech Republic’s membership in the European Union is just one new reason — a unique program out of the Netherlands is demonstrating to youths that learning another language can be not only fun but also a true adventure.

Called the L-Train, as in ‘L’ for language, the program takes a group of students ages 16 to 21 through Europe on an exploratory rail trip. On it they must use their language skills to communicate with others and learn in depth about the cities, cultures and history of the places they visit. This year, the L-Train rolled through Prague, and included a student from the Czech Republic.

The L-Train, run by Talenacademie Nederland, is dedicated to demonstrating that learning and speaking languages can be useful and fun. “We are a private foundation whose main task is to coordinate and initiate actions to improve language learning,” says project coordinator Derk Sassen.

The program, which started in 2001 (“the European Year of the Languages,” points out Sassen), is supported by the European Commission, as well as private donors, primarily media outlets such as television, radio stations and newspapers. The train set off for the first time that year and was such a success it rolled out again in 2004 and 2005.

The L-Train competition begins online as students participate in a language game that tests their ability and cultural knowledge of either English, French, German Italian or Dutch. Seventy questions later, the top five students from each EU member state are invited to participate in the second round. This round tests the students’ communication abilities in a different way, assessing potential journalistic skills as students must demonstrate their ability to write, use a digital camera and speak in front of a camera.

From this group 20 lucky participants are invited to take the trip. Since 2001, says Sassen, “More than 1,000 students have participated in the Web game, and about 200 in the second round.”

This year’s trip began in Prague, with the group headquartered at the Goethe Institute, a worldwide German cultural organization that arranged accommodation and activities during the group’s stay.

The first day, students arrived in Prague and spent the evening getting to know one another, says Barbara Bresslau, pedagogical consultant at the Goethe Institute. “The second day, we arranged workshops and an assignment for them.” The morning was spent learning the basics of journalism from a local Czech newspaper reporter and how to produce video from an English journalist.

In the afternoon the students were divided into four groups and each given a topic: Prague as a Jewish town; Prague as a tourist city; political changes in Prague; and the house emblems on buildings in Prague.

The institute also prepared handouts for each group with information on where to go and with whom to speak to learn more about their topic. But they had to talk with the locals and tourists as well. “The students learned how tourists and citizens differed in their view of the topics,” says Bresslau. “They also got to reflect personally on what they know about their hometowns.”

On their last evening in Prague, each group did a Powerpoint presentation they had designed based on their topic.

Ludek Mohr, an 18-year-old student from Opava, represented the Czech Republic on this year’s L-Train. He heard about the program from his English teacher and decided to give it a try. “It seemed interesting, so I tried it just for fun,” he says. “I didn’t expect to win, just wanted to increase my languages knowledge.” But win he did, and as a reward, participated in the 13-day trip.

After Prague, the group went to Dresden, Germany; Maastricht, the Netherlands; Liege, Belgium; Canterbury and London, England; and ended in Cork, Ireland, the EU Cultural Capital for 2005. Each city had different activities for the students. “In Dresden, we learned about the bridge and some famous people and in Canterbury we learned about the famous cathedral,” says Mohr. “We did some sightseeing in every city, and had to produce a rap song.”

While in Liege, the students were spilt into groups of four. Two groups had to produce rap songs, while two groups had to make a video. Nineteen-year-old Eva Marunová from Havírov participated in last year’s L-Train and assisted this year with the current group’s stay in Prague.

Both Mohr and Marunová agree that the trip is a great opportunity for youth. “It is a great chance to travel across Europe with great young people,” says Marunová. “Meeting people from different parts of Europe makes you more open-minded and broadens your scope,” she adds.

Mohr thinks the program offers youth many different things. “New friends, lots of fun, improving your languages,” he says. “You visit interesting cities, see different cultures and can see the differences.”

The dedication and desire to learn is evident. “It was very interesting to observe their intensity and how hard they were working,” says Bresslau. “They were really into the job and took their role as possible future journalists seriously.”

Marunová brought something different back from her journey. “The highlight of my trip wasn’t any place we visited,” she says. “I met many interesting people and made new friends. We are still in touch by e-mail and it’s amazing every time I hear from them, since everyone is experiencing lots of exciting things.”

Which is something Sassen probably likes to hear. “The 20 youngsters of the final round experience the multilingual and multicultural Europe during the journey,” he says. “And they tell the news to people of the same age, like EU ambassadors.”