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The reluctant teenage traveller

Launching their love of language learning

In this blog post (much delayed due to surgery on a broken leg), I want to explore the reasons why teenagers may be reluctant to travel alone to improve language skills. I have taken hundreds of adolescents to France and Spain over the past 20 years, and in a school group, teenagers are usually still happy to travel. However, there has been a change in attitudes towards travelling in the past few years, and it is important we try to understand why many teenagers may find the idea of spending even a short time abroad without the safety net of family, teachers, or a large group of friends daunting. Several parents and teenagers have told me recently that they are not comfortable embarking on a language experience alone, and I decided to look into the reasons further.

In particular, teenage boys are very conservative when it comes to trying new experiences alone. Why is this? Firstly, it is due to the attitude of British and American society towards adolescent boys. The media portrays them as troublemakers or delinquents. Rarely do we hear the other side of the story. From the perspective of a teenager, it is very intimidating being constantly perceived as a potential criminal! It is no wonder that they hang out in big groups or stay at home, communicating in the apparently safe space of Snapchat or Instagram. We must also consider the way they communicate with each other: teasing, being cool, physically strong and fitting in with the crowd are the lingua franca of the teenage boy. Many teenagers spend their time trying not to stand out in the crowd in order to avoid verbal abuse or bullying. By engaging with this, talking to the reluctant teenager about what they think could go wrong if they were to try something new, and what they think they could gain from stepping outside the usual routine, we can assuage their fears, build their confidence and find an experience where they will feel safe, and yet still come home with a huge sense of personal achievement and much better language skills. It will, in fact, give them kudos in their group of friends, and their holidays will have been filled with real experiences and sensations which will allow them to return refreshed to their studies and everyday life. I have seen this first hand with every student I have sent or taken abroad. Of course, I am always happy to talk to teenagers about their reservations or unwillingness to travel. I am always interested in their side of the story.

Many other cultures embrace adolescence more than we do; they are made to feel more part of the family, expected to play with or care for younger siblings and cousins, prepare food or do chores as a family team, and there is more affection, positivity and support available during adolescence, frequently from other family members. It is viewed less as a time to be endured and more as an important time of learning about adulthood and earning your stripes within society. This is important to recognise when travelling to Europe and beyond; the host families and language schools I use for Language Gaps treat teenagers with great love and affection, and seeing them blossom as a result is incredibly touching. They know that these adolescents are far from home, and may feel nervous in the unfamiliar surroundings, and they are there to reassure and help them succeed in their adventure abroad. Finding that they have the trust of strangers, and that they can find their way around a new place will give teenagers enormous self confidence and make them feel safer and happier back in their home country.

There is another reason that teenagers are in no hurry to get away from home nowadays. The bottom line is that they are just too comfortable at home, and that they believe that the power of the internet is almost a magical replacement for real life experiences. Many teenagers live in almost unbelievable luxury, even comparing it to how parents who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s lived. If they are required to help at home, many of the more tedious chores have virtually disappeared from our homes, and putting a plate in the dishwasher may be the closest they get to getting their hands dirty. They have everything they need, and so why would they voluntarily leave this comfort behind?

I travelled with a small group of 16-18 year old students on a 1 hour journey to London last year, and 2 of them had never been on a train! We owe it to our teenagers to make sure that they can function without us, and that we remember that we coped with the odd phone call home from a smelly call box or a letter posted after wranglings with the correct value of stamps when we were their age. They can, of course, be in touch with us easily from anywhere in the world now, but this is still not enough to reassure them or many parents, and it may well be a big part of the problem. They are constantly being told that the world is terribly risky. We suffer from an overload of information, and bad news makes money for the media. It also makes us cautious and less likely to try new experiences. This perception that the world is a more dangerous place must be challenged. In fact, it is safer than ever. Go and look through this website with your reluctant teenager, and they will see the data to reassure them that the world is worth exploring, and that the benefits outweigh the risks. Let’s not cave in to our teenagers’ reluctance, then. The saying that we must not prepare life for them, but instead prepare them for life is truer than ever.

I have been busy finding out about so many wonderful language learning opportunities for all ages and time scales. I am currently organising Language Gaps in Yacht Sailing and French, Skiing and French, Water Sports and French. I have recently found fantastic family language learning holidays in France, Spain and Germany, where the whole family can get stuck in to improving their language skills and immerse themselves in local culture. My favourite find, however, is the oenology (wine making) and French course in Toulouse. Now that would be a week well spent!