Oh, the places you’ll go!

“You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” Dr. Seuss

Take 33 nervous children. Put them in a room, watched by their equally anxious parents and teachers, and get them to take part in the final of a national competition using technology that may or may not decide to cooperate. If you think that sounds like a recipe for disaster, that’s because it is. It was also my Friday.

I don’t usually blog about work, but Friday was great for so many reasons I’m going to make an exception. The nervous children were finalists in the Junior Language Challenge, a competition run by the company I work for, and totally the kind of thing I’d have done when I was at primary school if I’d had the chance. This year, for reasons that are slightly unclear, I ended up as chief organiser, and it was quite an undertaking, not least because the JLC starts in March and goes on till October, so that was half my year gone. Between promoting the competition, making sure everyone knew what they were doing, finding venues for the regional semi-finals, making arrangements for the final and dealing with the inevitable technical issues (and by that I obviously mean reporting the technical issues to my colleagues, who actually know how to deal with them), it’s a wonder I got anything else done.

But despite all the stress, frustration and anxiety (I was awake at 5 a.m. on Friday morning thinking of all the things that could go wrong), I loved it. Partly because I really enjoy organising events, and there’s nothing more satisfying than seeing something you’ve worked hard on come together. And partly because I think the JLC is not only a lot of fun but really important.

According to the papers, the number of students taking languages at secondary school is declining in the UK. Everyone assumes that the whole world speaks English, so why bother? (Besides better job prospects, showing respect for other cultures, broader travel opportunities and the fact it can prevent Alzheimer’s, obviously.)

The JLC addresses this downward trend by making languages fun and competitive. The children use interactive software to learn three new languages, one for each stage of the competition. This year the languages were Spanish, Greek and Chichewa, the language of Malawi. Friday was the grand final, where the top 33 from around the country came to London to compete for the title. It was incredibly tense, and we had quite a lot of tears from the kids who didn’t do as well as they’d hoped, which wasn’t very nice, but also shows how much they cared about it.

Not only does the competition give children in the UK the opportunity to discover a skill they might not know they had, it also raises funds to do the same for children in Malawi. All the money raised (everyone who enters pays £2.50) is used to buy tablets that will be used in Malawian schools by children who might not otherwise get a chance to learn anything. I think that’s pretty cool.

Speaking of cool, our special guest at the final on Friday was Martha Payne, a ten-year-old from Scotland, who hit the headlines last year when the local council tried to shut down her blog about school dinners, NeverSeconds. Since then Martha’s gone on to use her blog to raise over £130k for Mary’s Meals, a charity in Malawi providing meals for schoolchildren. She’s also won a Pride of Britain award, and met David Cameron and the president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, as well as Jamie Oliver and – most importantly – Paul and Mary from Great British Bake Off. Jealous!

A few months back, I mentioned a talk I heard from base jumper Alastair Macartney, and his brilliant quote: “It’s not what you can do, it’s what you can do with what you can do.” Martha’s a perfect example. She didn’t set out to change the world; she just likes writing and happens to be quite good at it. But she’s managed to take that talent and do something extraordinary with it – and it just goes to show that nobody is too young to make a difference.

Martha came along to the final with her dad and her little sister to award the prizes, and I think it’s safe to say everyone found her story pretty inspiring. Who knows, maybe some of the kids in this year’s final will use their language skills to change the world (once they stop crying, that is). But even if they don’t, hopefully they’ve gone away knowing that they have the potential to do it – and that, if you ask me, is worth just as much.

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