YOUNGSTERS who take a gap year before starting university, college or employment are being targeted in a drive to improve language learning in the nation's schools.
Under the initiative, volunteers are twinned with primary and secondary schools to demonstrate the importance of learning a language for their trips and to promote wider cultural awareness.
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The project also involves university language students who travel overseas on study placements or work as language assistants with the British Council.
Volunteers are linked with secondary schools that are already learning the language of the country they are visiting - either in Europe or further afield, with Spanish prevalent in South America and French commonly spoken in Africa.
In primary schools the focus is on promoting language learning more generally. The volunteers visit pupils before they go, stay in touch when they are overseas and return to the schools when they finish to update them on their progress - with input from teachers throughout to ensure the work fits in with the curriculum.
The Language Linking, Global Thinking programme, a partnership between the British Council, Scotland's National Centre for Languages at Strathclyde University, NUS Scotland and Scottish-based educational charity Project Trust, has already been run as a pilot in 15 primary and secondary schools in Stirling and Falkirk.
Next year it will be extended to schools across the country as part of a wider Scottish Government drive to increase language learning.
Fhiona Fisher, acting director of Scotland's National Centre for Languages, said the project was already helping to stimulate interest in languages in the pilot schools. She said: "One of the difficulties encountered is that some pupils do not necessarily think of language learning as relevant and we are looking for a change in that attitude.
"Working with the volunteers the pupils get an immediate sense of how the language is helping to open doors for them and that is something we want to see replicated across the country."
Kate Walker, head of education at the British Council, added: "It makes great sense for Scottish organisations to work collaboratively to support the development of Scottish school pupils' language skills and global awareness.
"This initiative will benefit Scotland through developing the skills of participating school pupils, university students and volunteers, leading to stronger international links both now and in the future."
Heloise Allan, educational development officer for Project Trust, which is based on the Hebridean island of Coll, said all volunteers received dedicated language training at the beginning of their placement.
She said: "Being able to speak the language of the community they are based in allows volunteers to develop a unique understanding of the local culture they otherwise would not be able to access.
"Project Trust's intensive training of our volunteers is designed to equip them to get the most educational benefit possible out of their experience
"The Global Citizenship project helps them pass on that experience and the understanding of the importance of learning new languages to pupils."
In 2011, the Government announced ambitious plans to teach all primary pupils at least two modern languages under the 2+1 initiative.
It came after a decline in the number of pupils taking modern language Higher exams that year, with figures showing a four per cent drop in those sitting French, German and Italian, and only Spanish showing an increase. The demise in secondary has been blamed on many schools no longer seeing languages as compulsory.
There have also been problems in primary, with The Herald revealing three years ago that three- quarters of schools were missing recommended targets for the delivery of modern languages.