A trip to the British Museum

"I have lived in this country for 16 years, but never been to the museum. I always wanted to go, just been afraid to go on my own.”

As a part of TimeBank's Talking Together programme, offering informal English language classes to UK residents with very little or no English,  I taught a class at an Islington Primary School in co-operation with one of our delivery partners Renaisi, an award winning social enterprise.Ten mothers completed the course and they were truly exceptional learners with great drive and a keen interest in learning. One had just moved to the UK and didn’t speak a word of English; she spoke three other languages, but not this one.

In the beginning we communicated through miming, and let’s face it, me looking like an idiot most of the time, but in the end we could actually have a small conversation (almost without reverting to comical moves). After a class covering public services I found out that none of the mothers had ever been to a museum in the UK. They didn’t know it was free and some of them were afraid to travel alone.

An idea started to form in my head and I spoke to Emma Brech, head of schools and communities at Renaisi, and together with their bilingual advisers we organised a class field trip to the British Museum.  I joined the mums after they had dropped off their kids at school and gave them each a printout of a map, directions and bus information and they guided us from the school all the way there.

As we reached the Museum one said: “I am taking my kids here, it’s so easy. Just one bus and you’re there!”  It’s all about helping people take that little step outside their comfort zone. Here was a lady who had not even entered the Museum yet, but had felt empowered by being able to direct us and had crossed an internal boundary doing so.

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We checked out the Egyptian section, Greek artefacts, South East Asia, Africa, and the Islamic world. Throughout the day we were constantly using our English vocabulary, unless some descriptions were too difficult and then the translators from Renaisi would step in and explain more complicated aspects of world history. After a long informative day I turned to one of the learners and asked what she had liked the best.  She told me that her favourite part was seeing the mummies and that she hadn’t known that they existed.

We do field trips with children all the time in school to expand their learning and to make it interactive. Why don’t we do the same with adult learners? The people I have come across have specifically enjoyed the informal nature of Talking Together which makes learning fun and less intimidating. 

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Our learners have hopes and ambitions and want to be a part of British society. They want to learn English to speak to their child’s teacher, to go to the doctor alone, to be able to get a job, to have the confidence and ability to ask for directions or travel on their own.  I have never come across people that are so dedicated to their studies and it has been a pleasure to be a part of their journey to learn the language and integrate better into their communities.