We all know that starting a new school can be a scary experience.
Imagine being five years old and starting school while not being able to speak English.
At St John’s Catholic Primary School, in Horsham, one group of talented children is helping to make sure their younger peers not only feel welcome but also quickly pick up the language.
They are called the Young Interpreters and range in age from nine to 11, speaking 11 languages between them.
From Year 6 they are Georgina, Manuel and Maui, who are all 11, along with Owen, Alvin and Maylin, who are 10.
From Year 5 they are Jenni, Amelia, Stella, Aan and Ola, who are 10, and nine-year-olds Sophia and Lara. Emily, Amelie and Anike are all in Year 4 and are all nine.
The group is guided by Sophie Curtis, the school’s EAL (English as an Additional Language) leader – and her enthusiasm for the Young Interpreter scheme is catching.
Describing the children as “amazing”, Sophie explained that the scheme not only helps youngsters to learn English but also helps the entire school to celebrate each other’s cultures, while also picking up words from the 23 languages currently spoken there.
Any child wishing to be a Young Interpreter has to apply in writing to Sophie and headteacher Toria Bono, explaining why they would be good in the role, while showing they can be kind, patient, helpful and a good listener. An interview then follows before the children are selected.
Sophie said: “We make sure we feel they are up to the task. They take it very seriously because they know they have been specially selected. Then we have a special celebration assembly where their parents come in and the children are presented with their badge and certificate.”
The current batch of 16 Young Interpreters speak Malayalam, Polish, Spanish, Italian, Tagalog, German, Greek, Hindi, French, Albanian and Hungarian.
They are buddied up with a child who speaks their language and has been identified as needing help with their English; helping them to become familiar with the school, translating for them when necessary and huddling in the library on Thursdays to read together.
Some have even been called on to guide non-English speaking parents round the school – a task which left them bursting with pride.
The children’s enthusiasm for their work is as catching as Sophie’s.
Ola, who speaks Albanian, recalled a storytelling day when the children went from class to class telling different parts of a story in different languages, teaching the classes some words in those languages – and then testing them “to see if they were listening”! Ola proudly declared that the results were “quite good”.
Anika, who speaks Greek and Hindi, said: “I think being a Young Interpreter’s a really good opportunity for people to learn English and for the Young Interpreter to also see how other children are interacting in the school with their languages.
“It’s really nice to help because you feel like you’re actually doing something.”
Sophia, who speaks Tagalog, added: “I think Young Interpreters are really important because other people don’t really know English that much and you can help them. Also, if there are activities around the school we’re learning a bit more of my language by doing the activities.”
One aspect of breaking down the cultural barriers that particularly appealed to the children was the chance to try each other’s food.
The school holds international festivals which not only celebrate the traditions, dances and clothes of each culture but also allows parents set up tables of traditional food.
Emily, who speaks Hungarian, said: “The reason why I think being a Young Interpreter’s important is because at the end of every year we get to help our parents to make your own food from the country that you speak and then you get to bring it in and put it on the stall. And this year, at the end of the year, I’m going to dress up in a festival costume for Hungary.”
Sophie said she hoped more schools would take up the scheme, adding: “It would be lovely if it carried on in secondary schools.”
As for her current bunch of little language experts, she said: “I think they’re fantastic – I’m really proud of them.
“I know they’ve helped a lot of new children who’ve arrived in the school.
“They’ve raised the whole profile of languages in the school and different cultures.
“I just feel we’re celebrating this amazing cultural diversity we have in the school. So many parents have come up to me and love what we’re doing.
“It makes our school really different, really special.”
From the children:
Manuel, 11, speaks Malayalam: "I think being a Young Interpreter is a really important job as there's some children lower down the school that don't understand that much English, so you can interpret things to them."
Amelia, 10, speaks Polish: "I think Young Interpreter are important because you can help and teach other children if they don't understand English - you could help them by speaking your language to them. It's really fun because you can also meet new children and friends."
Sophia, 9, speaks Tagalog: "I think Young Interpreters are really important because other people don't really know English that much and you can help them. Also, if there are activities around the school we're learning a bit more of my language by doing the activities."
Lara, 9, speaks Italian and German: "I like being a Young Interpreter because you get to help other children who don't know English as much as you do. We have a language for focus and right now it's German and I'm teaching the class how to speak German."
Stella, 10, speaks Italian: "I think the Young Interpreters are really fun because you get to help people who don't know the language."
Aan, 10, speaks Malayalam: "I love being a Young Interpreter because we can show our language and at the end of the year we can bring our own foods in and show what we eat."
Ola, 10, speaks Albanian: "I love being a Young Interpreter because it's a good opportunity to help other people that don't know English. If they speak a different language we can get some one who speaks the same language as them and we can help them to learn English. It's a really fun job."
Emily, 9, speaks Hungarian: "The reason why I think being a Young Interpreter's important is because at the end of every year we get to help our parents if they can help make your own food from the country that you speak and then you get to bring it in and put it on the stall. And this year, at the end of the year, I'm going to dress up in a festival costume for Hungary."
Amelie, 9, speaks French: "I like being a Young Interpreter because you have the opportunity to help little children who don't know much English and I like it because you get to do your own food and bring in your costume or French clothes."
Anika, 9, speaks Greek and Hindi: "I think being a Young Interpreter's a really good opportunity for people to learn English and for the Young Interpreter to also see how other children are interacting in the school with their languages. It's really nice to help because you feel like you're actually doing something. I really like being a Young Interpreter. We had this Greek lady come to the school for a tour and I was asked to tour her round the school in Greek. It made me really proud."