Where did the idea that English people are not very good at language learning come from? Is there a historical basis for the current UK languages “crisis”? Who was teaching and learning languages when Queen Elizabeth I was on the throne?
In this episode Dr John Gallagher, early modern historian and lecturer at the University of Leeds, explores how people learned languages when English itself was an emerging, marginal language in northern Europe. During the period from approximately 1450–1750, English had not yet achieved the global reach it has today. John explains that there was some anxiety about the status of English. Was it good enough for disseminating new ideas from the continent? It was a period of great creativity and innovation with writers like Shakespeare and Spenser at the peak of their careers. Towards the end of the period, Dr Johnson wrote his famous English dictionary, a milestone in English language standardisation. At the beginning of the period, however, English was much less established. You needed to learn other languages to converse with people abroad or, indeed, in busy London marketplaces.
Learning languages was both necessary and something to be celebrated in early modern England. Ready to listen? Click the buttons below or scroll to the bottom to stream Episode 25 online.
Who was teaching and learning languages?
We might assume that only the intellectual elite or the richest members of society engaged in language learning in the early modern period. Certainly, there are some fascinating examples of this but language learning was really for everyone. Merchants, tutors, nobles, lawyers, students, writers, ladies-in-waiting, children… There was a real motley crew of language learners. Language teachers are an interesting bunch too, including recent immigrants who would argue that “their” version of French was more fashionable than another’s. Rivalry between early modern teachers reminds John of today’s YouTube rivalries between teachers extolling the virtue of their particular branded methods.
Language learning materials
Teaching materials offer a fascinating insight into the process of language learning 400 years ago. It was incredibly difficult to explain pronunciation without the help of audio recordings. Teachers sometimes used physiological descriptions (e.g. put your tongue here, release air thus…) to explain tricky sounds to their readers. More rivalries surface in prefaces to teaching materials too, and it is clear that teaching languages was a competitive business!
Students noted down ballads, jokes and kept diaries in the languages they were learning. ‘Double translation’ was a popular teaching method. It seems that language learning was very sociable too. In their books, teachers invited students to seek them out in person if they required help, thus advertising their services. Plus prestige accents were just as important then as now. Teachers and students attached importance to learning the variety of French spoken in Paris or the Loire Valley, for example.
Multilingualism in early modern England
Can taking a historical perspective on multilingualism in England help us make sense of today’s “crisis” in language learning? John thinks it can help to put English’s rise as a global language into historical perspective. It is, after all, just a series of historical circumstances that gave rise to English becoming a global lingua franca. Some early modern scholars worried about English borrowing too many words from French or Italian and becoming a “mongrel” language. There was a metaphor of English getting into too much debt and going bankrupt due to its constant vocabulary borrowing. Yet English is a brilliant example of how languages encounter each other during the early modern period and how new ideas, new literature and new cultures blend to form what we now think of as ‘English’.
The history of English is the history of its encounter with all these other languages
Given how many people of all ages and backgrounds were engaged in teaching and learning languages, where does the myth that English people are terrible at learning languages come from? As John explains, not everyone was an avid language learner in early modern England. Young men went off on their Grand Tours to all the same places, meeting other English people at Blois in the Loire Valley, for example. No wonder they started complaining that everyone spoke English in France so there was little point learning French!
What motivated people to learn languages?
I love the example John gives of Anglo-Italian author, translator and teacher John Florio who wrote that English was ‘a language that wyl do you good in England, but passe Dover, it is woorth nothing’. Florio was writing this in 1578, before English became the global language we know today. There are, as we explore in the podcast, plenty of reasons to learn languages other than their utility abroad, however. Click the play bar below or one of the buttons above to hear the episode now.
Want to hear more about English in Shakespeare’s day? Listen to Episode 7 with David and Ben Crystal talking about how David reconstructed the accent of Elizabethan England using historical linguistics methods.
There are so many different terms used to describe people who speak more than one language that it can be difficult to understand what it actually means when we say someone is bilingual, multilingual, plurilingual, a polyglot, or a hyperglot.
The term ‘bilingual’ might be the most familiar, describing people who have competence of two languages, but at what point can someone claim this status? Is it an exclusive club that you are born into, growing up speaking two languages fluently, or does anyone who speaks any amount of another language count?
‘Multilingual’ tends to be reserved for those who are born in environments in which more than one language is spoken. In these environments, people may be using 3 or 4 or more languages day-to-day without giving it much thought or considering themselves as a linguist. Whereas perhaps ‘plurilingual’ can be seen as something someone becomes over time through purposeful learning of multiple languages.
Who classifies as a polyglot is also under debate, but is generally considered as someone who chooses to learn languages without having a particular need for them. The minimum number to claim this title is around 5, with hyperglots being around 7, although neither have been formally defined.
The other question is how good you need to be to collect one of these badges, whichever one you’re going for. Some will argue that only fluent speakers qualify, but this mentality often excludes anyone who isn’t multilingual by chance through family or environment. While it is possible to achieve high fluency in a language in different ways, few people can claim to be truly fluent in a second language if they don’t live in that country or use it for work or family.
This begs the question: what is the end goal of speaking a language?
If it only counts if you speak like a native, what does that even mean? Can a native speaker only be someone who was born into that language? The issue of ownership of a language becomes part of the problem too; the Spanish spoken in Peru is different to that spoken in Mexico and that of Spain… so which one is right? How can we hold English learners to ‘native’ standards when they are more likely to use it to communicate with other non-natives and may never set foot in England?
You may feel like you are not good enough, not fluent enough, to add a particular language to your bilingual or multilingual status. But, at the end of the day, how you identify yourself as a speaker of a language is all that really matters. People might try to impose their own definitions of these terms on you, but ultimately languages are personal and the concepts of ‘fluency’ or ‘native-like proficiency’ are arbitrary.
Language is about sharing not just words and grammar, but cultures, ideas and experiences. In an environment such as England, which is already struggling from a lack of motivated and successful language learners, we should be encouraging people to embrace languages in any way they can, rather than imposing rules and regulations on them. We should be inviting them to join the conversation, not excluding them from an elite club which is out of their reach.
So, allez-y and express yourself in all the languages you have and call yourself bilingual, multilingual, plurilingual, polyglot, or anything you like!
Guest blog by Rosanna Lloyd, applied linguistics postgraduate student at the University of Oxford, tutor in French and Spanish, and keen language-learner.
Join co-hosts Cate, Rosanna and Kai on Clubhouse here for #MultilingualMonday discussions at 5.30pm GMT. Topics include ‘what is multilingualism?’ and ‘is the UK really monolingual?’
There’s regularly talk of ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ English in the media and on Twitter. Some people apparently wear their bad grammar like a badge of honour or refuse to learn the ‘correct’ way of speaking because, the critics say, it makes them look cooler or ‘down with the kids’. And don’t even ask about glottal stops! In the second part of our discussion, Ian Cushing and I look at what ‘standard English’ is, and why we should question policies that insist upon it being spoken in full sentences, at all times. Why does grammar get people heckling each other and cause headline news?
Let’s talk about talking!
Following on from part one of our discussion about grammar, Ian and I talk about the idea of what ‘correct’ language is in more detail. Where does this idea that a language has a standard form come from? Why do some hold it up as the only ‘proper’ way to communicate in some classrooms?
If a student has their hand up to contribute to a discussion in class, do you:
A) insist they speak in full sentences with no fillers or conversational markers; or B) welcome their intellectual contribution to the discussion?
To what extent should we ‘police’ students’ spoken language, and encourage them to use ‘better’ English when speaking? This is a really hot topic, and has sparked lots of interesting debate recently. Ian explains that YES, of course it is important that students know and can use standard English. But it is equally important that they know *about* standard English. This is because it comes with several layers of political, social and personal oppression and has a chequered history.
What is ‘standard’ English?
The standard form of any language is a social construction, invented by powerful social groups who continue to perpetuate and promote it. It protects their interests to do so. The standard form of a language becomes a gatekeeper for access to education and employment, for example. It is definitely worth investigating the history of what we mean by ‘standard’ English, since it is bound up with notions of race and class. The standard language ideology gets upheld quite often in schools because we see lots of real-life effects of the ‘standard/non-standard’ ideology.
Ian explains how non-standard varieties can get constructed as ‘deviant or non-compliant’ or even ‘subordinate’. This leads to a hierarchy of ways of using language. The whole notion of stratified (‘better’ or ‘worse’) language is problematic as we explored in part 1. See also my conversation about accents with David and Ben Crystal here, and Michael Rosen’s question about who ‘owns’ language here.
Should we teach it, then?
The debate on social media quite often centres on whether linguists are encouraging teachers to shirk teaching standard English, when it is our duty to teach the curriculum. Teachers also seek to provide our students with the ‘best possible’ education to prepare them for their future work and further education. Sometimes it seems linguists are at odds with this when arguing against the blanket ‘standard English at all times’ policies. The debate can get quite heated! In this podcast we delve into this issue of ‘social justice’ in more detail. Let’s look at how linguists and teachers can work together to provide the best possible education for students. Linguists are not trying to stop teachers from teaching standard English. Far from it!
We really do need much more joined-up thinking in terms of language study from primary through to higher education.
Ian points teachers to several useful resources including the work of Julia Snell at the University of Leeds (language and social class, and performing different identities through language); Rob Drummond at Manchester Met University (identity, youth language and non-standard grammar); and Marcello Giovanelli at Aston University (language study in schools). There is brilliant work and support available at the English and Media Centre too. And in the US, Ian mentions work on standard language and race in schools such as the work of April Baker-Bell, Nelson Flores, Mariana Souto-Manning and Jonathan Rosa. Plenty of further reading for you to enjoy!
Listen below, or click on the buttons above, and on iTunes, Google, Amazon, Spotify etc. And do join the conversation about language on Twitter. Should we encourage our students to develop diverse linguistic repertoires and discuss attitudes to language in class? Students, how do you feel about teachers correcting the way you speak in school? Find us on @langrevolution and @ian_cushing. Let’s talk about talking!
Let’s talk about the G-word: grammar. It’s a bit of a Marmite subject. People seem to love it or hate it, and for some it is a trigger word. When I mention that I like linguistics, people can get a bit defensive and ask if I’m going to correct their apostrophes. There is, it seems to me, a conflation of linguistics with the ‘naming of parts’ and subjects, verbs and objects. Grammar can be a real bone of contention in education too, and even cause ripples in politics.
To untangle the issue of grammar teaching in school, I spoke to Dr Ian Cushing from Brunel University in London, where he is a Lecturer in Education, previously Teaching Fellow in English Linguistics at UCL and leads the English PGCE programme. He has research interests concerning language policy in schools, grammar in schools and teachers’ knowledge about language.
Let’s talk about talking!
Grammar teaching – where are we now?
When I was at school in the 80s and 90s, we didn’t really learn explicitly about grammatical terms in our English lessons. I’ve heard from other people my age that they ‘discovered’ that verbs were a thing in English once they started learning French or other foreign languages at school. And yet, grammar is now a significant part of teaching in primary schools. How do teachers feel about this? Are we feeling confident and qualified?
Before we dive in too far, Ian asks us to question what we mean when we use the word ‘grammar’, since we can define it in different ways. Do we mean the study of ‘clause level’ grammar, such as identifying parts of speech? Or are we talking about ‘discourse level’ grammar, and how linguistic patterns contribute and shape meaning? And then there are the ideologies about grammar, and the differences between spoken and written codes. It is a big subject, so we begin with some contextualising of what we mean when we say ‘grammar’ and how the cycle of grammar teaching has returned to quite a prescriptive approach.
Teacher knowledge about grammar
Rather than discussing ‘knowledge about grammar’, Ian suggests we use the phrase ‘knowledge about language’ or language awareness. There can be quite a lot of pressure on teachers to get their pupils through the SATS at the end of primary school. Pedagogies can often (not always!) be written in response to the spelling, punctuation and grammar elements of these tests. In secondary school, teachers have a little more freedom to move beyond the prescriptive approach of clause level grammar. We can investigate ‘discourse level’ approaches to language, looking at meaning, contexts, patterns and language choices. Below A Level English Language, however, there could be more space in the curriculum for talking about attitudes, linguistic variation, accents, dialects, history of language, language change, ideologies, and standardised/non-standardised Englishes. It’s all really helpful to get pupils interested in language, and the way we use it. Teachers could be supported to develop a more critical, political and sensitive approach to language teaching. Connecting linguists and teachers could be a good way forward for this kind of collaboration.
Different theories and frameworks for talking about grammar and language all come with different metalanguage (language about language). It’s not surprising that teachers can sometimes feel overwhelmed when googling a grammatical term, as different approaches explain the same things in different ways. We might clutch at the ‘rules’ because they seem solid, when in fact language is more diaphanous and vague. What we do have, however, are conventions about how we use language in different contexts and for different purposes. Thinking about grammar conventions is a bit more helpful in terms of avoiding the ‘right/wrong’ approach of talking about language.
Language is a bit messy, and doesn’t always conform to these so-called invented rules.
Ian Cushing on grammar ‘rules’
As Michael Rosen said in episode 10, language is always ‘language in use’. Talking about grammar in a very abstract way suggests that it conforms to a set of rules, but it is much messier than that. There are conventions and patterns which we apply in a context and for a purpose. To find reliable resources for teaching language in use and knowledge about language, Ian suggests looking at Deborah Myhill’s work at the University of Exeter here and to the Englicious website, which Ian worked on during his time at UCL.
Why study ‘grammar’ at all then?
Some knowledge and understanding of the metalanguage allows us to discuss language in use in a critical way, and apply ourselves to dissecting attitudes and approaches to language. Whilst knowing the names of grammatical terms does not improve pupils’ writing, if our language lessons are a rich environment for talking about talking and writing, I think this would empower pupils to think about language more critically. Language is something we do, choices we make to reach goals we want to achieve, not something that is done to us. Grammar in context is an exciting approach with a focus on the writing, and what is happening with language, rather than simple labelling and identification of grammatical features. David Crystal talked about this as well in episode 8. Linguistic possibilities, creativity and meaning and choice underpin this approach.
There’s absolutely no research that suggests that explicit knowledge of grammatical terms equates with improved writing.
Ian Cushing on whether ‘clause level’ grammar knowledge improves writing
We finish off part 1 of our discussion by thinking about some of the words we put in front of ‘English’ such as ‘better’ or ‘standard’ or ‘articulate’. Who gets to decide what is better or standard? Do teachers have a responsibility to focus on ‘correct’ notions of language when teaching? Join the discussion on Twitter by following @langrevolution and @ian_cushing. Are you a student or a teacher? What do you think about current approaches to ‘grammar’?
Listen to Ian Cushing on The Language Revolution podcast on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon etc. or here:
We don’t often understand the process of learning to talk until we need speech and language therapy. It’s something parents have little information about. We hear a lot about sleeping, eating, and walking, but talking is a bit of a mystery subject. That is, until it goes wrong. Parents might then seek advice from a speech and language therapist like my podcast guest, Weronika Ozpolat. And if your child has more than one language? It’s good to find a speech pathologist who understands how bilingualism works, and how different cultures teach children to speak in different ways.
Let’s talk about talking
What is speech and language therapy?
Let’s start with the basics because I don’t think many of us know (I certainly didn’t!) the difference between a speech problem, a language problem, or a speech delay. What’s a delay and what’s a disorder? What does a speech and language therapist do?
Ronni explains that a language delay is what parents commonly describe as a child being ‘a late talker’. A speech delay is when children are having some difficulty pronouncing certain sounds. A disorder, however, is where the difficulty delays development by more than six months. She explains that it takes a number of years for children to be able to consistently produce a new sound. This is normal. I’ve tried to show this visually in the diagram below. The earlier sounds are the easier, single sounds. The later sounds are clusters and trickier sounds like ‘r’, ‘sh’, ‘th’ and ‘zh’ (as in measure). You can read more about this here in the Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders.
Like with any journey, language-learning has a number of milestones. For parents wishing to see how their child is getting on with talking, it is not helpful to compare their development with another child. Children all develop at their own pace. Ronni suggests looking out for the key milestone at age two years when children are expected to have between fifty and two hundred words. They may have more, but fifty is the expected minimum at age two. Children will also start putting two words together at age two (‘Daddy gone!’ is one I remember my children saying every time he left the room!) Three year olds will be putting three or four words together.
About one in five children start school with speech, language and communication needs. It is pretty common for children to need some support with their speech and language. This is true across all cultures and languages; any child could need some support. If parents feel that their preschooler is not meeting the developmental milestones above, contact your health visitor or GP for a speech and language referral.
The speech and language therapist will do an assessment to gauge the child’s language development. This might involve some playing and talking, and discussion with parents. They will then work out what kind of therapy is most likely to help with your child’s specific needs. There are all sorts of ways of helping speech development, and they will advise parents how to best support the child too.
To correct or not to correct?
Back to ‘normal’ or expected speech development. Young children have a limited range of speech sounds, and often it is only their parents who can understand them! There are also lots of cute ‘mistakes’ that children make, like saying ‘tat’ instead of ‘cat’ (this is called fronting, incidentally). These are nothing to worry about. It’s all part of the process of learning to talk. If they simplify words, like saying ‘nana’ instead of ‘banana’, parents can model the correct language by repeating ‘yes banana’. But it is not helpful to try and force a child to pronounce things correctly if they are not at the right age and stage. With lots of good modelling, they will get there eventually and all in good time.
My five year old still says ‘lellow’ instead of yellow, and is teased mercilessly by his older siblings. They have already forgotten that they did exactly the same thing! They also said ‘ephalent’ instead of ‘elephant’, and ‘psgetti’ instead of ‘spaghetti’. These are really tricky words with multiple syllables, but eventually they got them all in the right order.
Bilingualism and speech delays
It is a common myth that bilingual children are more prone to speech delays. I have talked about this with Katerina Draper and Eowyn Crisfield on previous episodes, and Ronni reaffirms that bilingualism does not cause speech delays. If a child is presenting a speech and language disorder, the speech therapist will look for signs of the disorder in all of the child’s languages. If the delay or disorder is only apparent in, say, English and not Polish, it is more than likely just a normal part of the child’s developmental process.
All speech and language difficulties will affect all children. It doesn’t matter whether they are monolingual, bilingual, multilingual… all children can develop some of these speech and language delays. Bilingualism does not lead to a speech delay.
Ronni Ozpolat on why bilingualism does not cause speech delays on the podcast
I think part of the confusion about language delays and language development is that we only use one word for language in English! In French we helpfully have le langage and la langue, to distinguish between language in general, and individual languages. A language delay/disorder underlies the acquisition of individual languages, so regardless of whether you’re learning one or ten languages, the disorder will appear across them all. If you are hearing impaired, for example, you won’t hear sounds and reproduce them. It doesn’t matter how many languages you are hearing, it’s the hearing that is the cause of the problem not the languages.
Autism and language
Children with a diagnosis of autism can have a diverse range of speech, language and communication issues. Some people might have above-average language skills, learning twenty or more languages, and others may be non-verbal. Autistic children can be raised bilingual. Ronni discusses why it is really important that a child with autism is not deprived of a language that is in their family. Even if a child is non-verbal, that doesn’t mean they do not understand what is being said. As I discussed with Eowyn, bilingualism is not just about speaking a language. Languages are part of our roots, our connections to our heritage, and our emotional bonds with caregivers. This is a really important section of the podcast, I think, as I’ve heard of families being advised not to speak to their autistic child in multiple languages. Has this ever happened to you?
There’s a saying (a rather old-fashioned one, perhaps!) that children should be seen and not heard. In some cultures, adults don’t speak to children at all, leaving it to other children to converse with the under-fives. In some cultures we focus a lot on the ‘naming of objects’ with young children. “Yes, that’s the cat! Oh did you see the fire engine?” And some cultures focus more on the verbs, or the functions of objects, rather than the names of them. There is such diversity in the way we talk to our children, that this will obviously have an effect on their speech development. No one way is better than another. The children all end up talking, regardless of the route taken (unless the adults deprive the child of language input – listen here to learn about that!)
A child who has heard more nouns will learn more names of objects. And, this is the key part, if a child is being assessed by a speech and language therapist who is not aware of cultural differences and practices around language development, they may equate words with nouns. This might then lead to a misdiagnosis, if they think the child doesn’t meet a developmental milestone, but they’ve just been measuring the wrong thing. We make a lot of assumptions based on our own experiences of how we do language. There is more than one way of raising our little talkers! Some culturally nuanced understanding of language development would be a very helpful thing for us to know as we live in increasingly diverse societies. Teachers and speech therapists get little training on this, which is a shame as it’s really interesting and helpful information.
I really enjoyed chatting to Ronni about how children’s language develops, and I’m delighted that she’s joining our ‘little language revolution’, Babel Babies. She will be offering families speech and language therapy appointments, and she specialises in bilingualism. You can read more about her here, and also on her blog Multicultural Motherhood. This is where you will find links to the parenting online courses that she mentions, and also find tons of brilliant ideas for homeschooling.
The term ‘EAL’ gets more airtime in educational circles these days because our world is becoming more super diverse. This means that our schools have more children who are learning English. But does ‘EAL’, which is short for ‘English as an Additional Language’, simply mean a child doesn’t speak English yet? Actually, it is much more nuanced and complicated than that. In the second part of my conversation with EAL specialist Eowyn Crisfield, we talk about how parents and schools can work together to support multilingual learners.
Let’s talk about talking!
What is EAL?
Let’s start with some definitions. When a child has a parent at home who speaks a language other than English, the school assigns that pupil EAL status. It is often used as a catch-all term to describe children who are learners of English. However, just having a parent who speaks another language does not mean a child is an English learner! In fact, the child might only speak English and not the home language.
The designation EAL is hugely misleading and could apply to a child who is an English monolingual or, the complete opposite, a child who speaks no English yet at all. Professor Victoria Murphy, chair of EAL subject association NALDIC and applied linguistics lecturer at the University of Oxford department of education, has called EAL a ‘reckless’ definition in the TES.
What is the impact of starting school on EAL learners?
When EAL pupils start school, this may be the first time they have encountered English, or they may already be bilingual in English and another ‘home’ language. Or they may fall somewhere in between. The impact of starting school is immense. They will have less contact time, and thus input, in their home language once they spend all day in an English-speaking environment. They will also start to notice that they are perhaps different and have a language that other children do not speak. Depending on how this affects their feelings about their home language, this is sometimes when children ask their parents not to speak to them in public in their home language.
Make children partners in language development
The way to support children in fostering a positive self-identity as a multilingual person is to make them partners in their own language journey. Language is not something that is done to them, it is something they actively choose. Without a positive approach to multilingualism in school, it is highly likely that a high-status language like English will swallow up the child’s home language. This is especially true when parents feel discouraged in continuing home language support, or that English is more important. As Eowyn said in part one, English is the ‘Pacman’ of languages because it eats up all the minority languages!
It is important to talk to children from an early age about their languages. This can begin when they are very small by simply talking about how mummy says ‘cheese’ and papa says ‘fromage’ for example. Then as children grow, the conversation around languages grows in an age-appropriate way. This develops the children’s metalinguistic awareness, that is, their understanding about languages. And this awareness, in turn, makes them better at learning languages.
The school environment has a huge impact on pupils’ attitudes and motivation when it comes to languages. If a school reflects the diverse multilingualism of its pupils, they are more likely to feel encouraged and maintain their multilingualism. If a school suppresses the languages of the pupils, they will work towards conforming to the monolingual ‘norm’.
Why does this matter, you might ask? Shouldn’t we focus on teaching them English?
Great question. You will be forgiven for thinking that in order to learn English, children need to spend more time learning English and less time on their home language. It sounds like a simple equation, right? But MORE ENGLISH does not actually support children learning English if it is at the expense of supporting their development in a more dominant or well-established home language.
Imagine a stack of bricks. As the tower gets taller, it requires firmer foundations or the whole thing topples over. Languages are the same. If a child as a strong foundation in their home language, it is a more secure platform for adding further languages on top. However, if you REMOVE a foundation block from the bottom, the entire stack might tumble.
The better their home language is, the better they’ll be at English
Eowyn Crisfield on maintaining home languages
The earlier the better, right?
Erm, not quite. Listen to episode 20 (part one of this conversation with Eowyn) for a fuller analysis, but in a nutshell, this is not as simple as it sounds either. Children at age four are slower to learn a language than they are at age 10. It takes them years longer, in fact, and they will all end up at the same place eventually anyway. This is because young children are still developing their cognitive (thinking) skills. We are worse at processing things when we are young, and get more complex thinking strategies with age.
So if you add in the complication of being a learner of English, it isn’t surprising that sometimes EAL children get misdiagnosed as having special educational needs. EAL does not equal SEND! It takes between 1 and 3 years for children to learn enough English to speak it (ask for pencils, play football, etc). It takes anywhere between 3 and 9 years for them to reach academic fluency, whereby they think and process at an age-appropriate level in English. Incredible, eh?
The younger they are when they start, the longer it will take them to learn the language.
Maintaining home languages is vital
The more developed children are cognitively, the better they are at learning English. Eowyn explains in really clear detail why cognitive development is entirely dependent on having age-appropriate language skills. It is therefore vital that children who do not have an age-appropriate level of English continue to have a rich home-language environment as this scaffolds and supports their learning of English as a second language.
What this means is:
Do not stop speaking and using your home language(s) when children start school!
The strength of the children’s home languages is going to pull them up the hill of learning English and make it easier to acquire English. This message is so important, I have written in big orange letters. Schools, do not advise parents to stop speaking their languages at home. Parents, if you are advised to drop your home language ‘to help your children learn English’ it is incorrect advice and will slow down their progress in English. The same is true, incidentally, if you move abroad and the children are being schooled in a new language, say, Spanish. They’ll need home-language support to access the curriculum in Spanish too, right?
Teacher training in EAL
The PGCE course for teacher training in England is so jam packed, there is no real time to learn about EAL. And since the government does not require it, individual courses have to decide whether or not to include training on EAL, language acquisition or bilingualism for teachers. If they do include a module on it, it means they are sacrificing training on another aspect of teaching. It’s a busy year!
So where can teachers get training on EAL? How can they find out about translanguaging and using home languages as a resource or scaffolding for learning in school?
Take a look at the NALDIC website, the national subject association for EAL. The blog is called EAL Journal (also available as a termly print journal) and is full of practice-related content from real teachers. I wrote a piece for it in January 2020, here. There are regional meetings of EAL specialists and teachers too, and an annual conference that is taking place online on 21st November 2020. You might also enjoy browsing the excellent RiPL network site, where you’ll find summaries of research and lots of practice-based ideas on improving language learning in primary schools.
I hope this blog and the podcast will encourage teachers to have a look at how the school environment reflects the actual languages of their pupils. Rather than taking a superficial approach with ‘food, flags and festivals’, how about discussing how to make translanguaging a reality in your school?
Perhaps your school or colleagues are nervous about letting the children speak all kinds of languages? What on earth are they saying in that language you don’t speak? Honestly, they are probably a) relieved to find someone they can discuss Pokémon with in depth, and b) glad of the mental respite of trying to speak their second (or third, or fourth…) language all day. When adults are immersed in a new language, we are exhausted too, and grateful to find some English speakers occasionally! It’s the same with children.
Eowyn has some brilliant ideas for embedding a truly multilingual approach into your school’s ethos. The best part is that encouraging parents and children to identify with and enjoy celebrating their home languages will really support the children who are learning English. And this multilingual approach has a positive effect on your monolingual English speakers too. Everyone is a linguist!
There’s a wealth of information on the Internet about bilingual education and raising bilingual kids. But for parents or teachers navigating their way through an online search, it often feels overwhelming. Facts can get taken out of context, and statistics from research are quoted as set in stone. However, the science of bilingualism is relatively young and ever-evolving. I discussed raising bilingual children in Episode 5 with psychology lecturer Dr Katerina Draper. In Episode 20, I talk to Eowyn Crisfield in more detail about what parents need to know about bilingual education.
Let’s talk about talking!
There are some prevalent myths around bilingual education that I’ve heard time and again whilst teaching Babel Babies, or chatting to other adults about my work. A couple of favourites are that ‘children are sponges’ and ‘the earlier the better’. Eowyn explains why these statements are problematic. The metaphor of children being ‘sponges’ suggests they are inactive absorbers of languages. Babies are actually conducting scientific experiments with language from early on. They actively pursue knowledge about which contexts to use which languages in, and for what purpose.
It is not quite as simple as saying ‘the earlier the better’ either. Yes, early bilingual education can be effective but success can look different for different families and even for children within the same families. Therefore some understanding of the different processes is really helpful for parents navigating the subject. ‘Bilingual first language acquisition’ is where children learn two languages from before the age of two, and ‘sequential language acquisition’ is where they learn first one language, and then add others to their linguistic repertoire after the age of two. These are different approaches and one isn’t necessarily better than another. A lot depends on the situation and context of each individual family.
Family language planning
This is why Eowyn advocates for parents to understand more of the science of bilingualism than they perhaps imagine they need. Surely bilingualism just happens naturally, in the right context? Well yes, if there are multiple languages used regularly in a child’s home and supported in the wider family and community, as is often the case in South Africa or India for example, children can appear to acquire more than one language effortlessly. If, however, parents are raising a child away from the community where their language is dominant (eg, raising a child with Greek whilst living in London), it’s helpful to have a plan of how to make sure the child hears enough Greek to acquire it.
The family language plan involves parents, family members, teachers and the child(ren), and is a dynamic document. It flows with a family’s needs and goals, rather than being set in stone. Eowyn explains why planning ahead can also be really helpful when facing skeptics, such as family members or health professionals who do not understand bilingual education. It turns parents into advocates for their own children’s multilingualism.
How much is enough?
Coming back to the question of ‘how much language is enough input?’ Eowyn analyses a few key statistics that people often quote as fact. Do children need 20% or 30% input in a language to become bilingual? Parents are perhaps seeking certainty, or quantifiable amounts of language that can be charted, when in fact what matters is the quality of the language a child hears at home.
Quality is more important than quantity.
Eowyn Crisfield on the question of ‘how much’ language a child needs to hear to become bilingual
It’s a fairly repetitive task being a parent, and we often repeat the same basic language to our children: where are your shoes, have you brushed your teeth, it’s time to go, etc. For successful language acquisition, children need to hear a rich and varied amount of language rather than merely the same things over and over again. When there is more than one language to learn, time is divided between the languages. If we only want them to be able to understand and say those basic everyday things, that’s absolutely fine. The key thing is to measure our expectations, whether that is full literacy and spoken fluency or achieving simpler communicative levels of a language, and to plan accordingly. Higher expectations will require higher levels of quality input.
Starting school and bilingualism
‘Should I stop speaking to my child in the home language when they start school?’ is a question we often hear, and sadly many parents have been told to do this by teachers or health professionals. Even speech and language therapists might offer this advice if they do not understand how bilingualism works. It is particularly common in the UK and US where English is a dominant and ‘high status’ language. Eowyn told me she calls English the ‘Pacman’ of languages because it eats up all the minority languages. We will discuss bilingualism in school in more detail in part two. Here is one of our favourite quotes from bilingual education Professor Jim Cummins to whet your appetite!
We are faced with the bizarre scenario of schools successfully transforming fluent speakers of foreign languages into monolingual English speakers, at the same time as they struggle, largely unsuccessfully, to transform English monolingual students into foreign language speakers.
Jim Cummins, (2005). A proposal for action: Strategies for recognising heritage language competence as a learning resource within the mainstream classroom. The Modern Language Journal, 89(4), 585–591.
Cyclical bilingualism, passive bilingualism and semilingualism
Sometimes even the words we use to talk about bilingual education can sound terrifying! It’s no wonder that the topic is shrouded in mystery and parents can feel lost. Eowyn and I talk about some of the terms that we hear more frequently on social media and what they mean. We also discuss which languages parents ‘should’ pass on, and when it’s possibly better to let one language remain passive (so a child understands it but doesn’t answer you using it).
Eowyn Crisfield is an international bilingual educational consultant, senior lecturer on multilingual education at Oxford Brookes University, member of the executive committee for NALDIC (the national subject association for English as an additional language in the UK), and mother of three trilingual children. Her book, Bilingual Families, is being published by Multilingual Matters in early 2021.
Join Eowyn and Cate on the podcast by clicking below, or on iTunes, Spotify and Podbean. Let’s keep the conversation going on Twitter! You can find Eowyn on @4bilingualism and me (Cate) on @langrevolution or @lomo_linguist.
Studying languages at university might soon be a thing of the past. Over the last decade, more than ten universities in the UK have closed their modern languages departments. There is a steep decline in the uptake of languages at GCSE, A Level and at university. Are we too late to reverse this trend? How can we empower teachers to feel confident about exploring languages? Can we enthuse pupils to love learning languages from an early age? In Episode 19, I talk to Sascha Stollhans, who teaches German at the University of Lancaster. He works closely with schools through the outreach programme and the Linguistics in MFL project. Here we talk about how to join up our efforts to ‘save’ languages, and how linguistics might be the key to the sustainable future of language education.
Beginning with some statistics about the alarming decline in the study of languages at university, Sascha issues a clear call to action. We need to join up our efforts across education, from early years to higher education. Let’s start to look at languages differently and reframe how we ‘sell’ languages to teenagers at school. As I discussed with Charlotte Ryland in Episode 14, translation is a creative puzzle and builds cultural knowledge as well as language skills. Yet at A Level it can feel more like a test of grammar and vocabulary than a creative activity. The GCSE curriculum is also very transactional, as discussed at length with MFL Transform in Episodes 15 and 16. So what does Sascha propose we do?
Look at languages differently
Language is a fascinating, complex subject with links across the curriculum, and yet we tend to see it touted as a transactional tool. The ‘usefulness’ argument belies how interesting the subject is and many students do not know what to expect from a languages degree. Sascha explains how 75% of the undergraduates in one study he carried out said they chose to continue studying languages because they love the culture, politics, history and society of the countries as much as the languages themselves. This is really at odds with the constant focus on employability and usefulness, and perhaps it is time to retire that argument and focus instead on what the students might find more intrinsically motivating.
What is being done to reverse the decline in languages at university? Well, the short answer is ‘not enough’. Whilst there is an All Party Parliamentary Group for languages, and the British Academy et al published the Towards a National Languages Strategy document in July 2020, not enough is being done at a political level to promote the importance and relevance of languages. However, there are many excellent grassroots initiatives and partnerships between universities and schools, competitions, mentoring programmes, and a lot of energy and enthusiasm from the sector.
We could also genuinely value UK multilingualism and multiculturalism more visibly. Perhaps a good start would be changing the census question on languages spoken to reflect our multilingual society accurately, rather than promoting English dominance, as Thomas Bak explained in Episode 3?
What to expect from languages at university
Another issue is that studying languages at university is quite different to studying A Level or GCSE languages. University departments are made up of specialists with a broad range of interests, and lecturers teach their speciality subject, such as 19th-century novels for example. There is a broader ‘menu’ on offer at university level, with knowledge of culture, politics and critical thinking skills valued just as highly as being able to use the language(s). First year students are often surprised, Sascha says, that essays are written in English, or that there is no prescription for the number of tenses and pronouns to use in a translation. Students have more agency, creativity and freedom to experiment because universities set their own assessments, whereas school languages departments have external exam boards to answer to.
Since the curriculum at school is unlikely to change any time soon, Sascha suggests that teachers get in touch with local universities to work together to show pupils what studying languages at university is like. Outreach really matters and universities will be keen to work with schools. Lancaster has a YouTube channel, for example, with sample lectures to help students take the first steps towards imagining themselves as language students at university.
Language is a cultural, political and sociological phenomenon. It is about people and it is a fascinating subject with almost infinite angles. The ‘Mount Everest of subjects’ as David Crystal calls it. Sascha and I believe that introducing concepts from linguistics into schools, from early on, could really help build conceptual bridges between language acquisition (learning French or German etc) and the humans who use those languages. The fantastic Linguistics in MFL project is working with schools to introduce linguistics topics linked to the A Level languages topics. Pupils in the pilot studies have loved learning some linguistics, finding it really motivating to understand some of the history, etymology, phonology, und so weiter of the languages they are studying. Teachers, please get in touch with Sascha and the team if you’d like to learn more, and follow @inmfl on Twitter.
Seeing languages differently is why my own Twitter handle is @lomo_linguist, as Lomo cameras have all sorts of cool lenses to give us new perspectives. I am, like Sascha, hopeful that by joining up our efforts and continuing to talk about our passion for languages, we can help the next generation fall in love with languages too. But in a way that works in the 21st century.
Listen the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, and online below. You can also read the Multilingual is Normal anthology, sixty collected voices talking about talking that I published on 10th August, online on Kindle, Apple or Barnes and Noble, and in paperback here.
How are trolling, trust and language education linked? What have Shakespeare, Dickens and French classes got to do with GDPR or Trump’s tweets? In part two of our discussion, Dr Yin Yin Lu and I talk about the dark side of communicating on social media, whether we can trust current regulation processes (such as GDPR), and how language education is the key to feeling less manipulated and more in control of the way we consume and create our experience of talking to each other online.
In this episode of The Language Revolution podcast, we begin by looking at the regulation of our online communications. Early social media platforms did not expect to become the place where humans create and consume the most content. They are now just catching up with the fact that the vast majority of online human communication takes place on social media.
Having taken a hands-off approach at first, platforms such as Facebook are now taking more responsibility for regulating content. However, since online communication is a socio-technical phenomenon (as we discussed in episode 17), it is fairly complex and requires a range of theoretical and technical skills. Do the regulators have those skills? Or are the most up-to-date experts actually all working for the social platforms themselves?
It’s not pretty, but we cannot ignore the darker side of spending so much time communicating online. Trolling has become a tangible problem that has ramifications in real life as well as online. It can ruin people’s lives. Troll and bot networks, Yin explains, may have an economic incentive to behave very differently online to how they’d behave IRL. My own experience of being trolled after questioning a company on its sustainability policy is nothing compared to Lauren Batchelder, who questioned Trump’s attitude to women at a rally. She received sustained online abuse (explored in Trump in Tweets on BBC3).
Just look at Microsoft’s TayBot experiment to see how quickly an AI bot, set up as a teenage girl and targeted at 18-24 year olds on Twitter, descended into behaving like a racist, fascist, feminist-bashing troll. It had to be taken down within 24 hours of launching as it learned how to be a troll from conversations with followers. What is it that makes humans behave so differently online to how they would behave in a room full of people?
Then there’s the question of ‘authenticity’ online. I have studied this as a business owner because I want my brand, Babel Babies, to come across as a credible and genuinely good choice for consumers interested in exploring languages with their young children. It matters to me that people know I am a real person with a human mission to improve language education and not a huge corporation incentivised by capitalism. This kind of marketing authenticity is really interesting to look at in more detail. Social networks are, after all, where real people have conversations and so if I can have real conversations with potential customers, that is the first step in digital marketing for a small business. It’s also what Trump does, by tweeting himself and being ‘authentic’.
Social media was leveraged during the Brexit campaign and in elections our data is used to inform how parties communicate their message to win our votes. Have politics and digital marketing become the same thing? Are we just pawns in a giant game of capitalism?
Education is the answer
Rather than let ourselves be victims to data brokerage and trolls, we can educate ourselves about how ‘talking’ works online. We can look at who is speaking, what their incentive is, and what they know about us. We can look at the context of when and where they are speaking to us. Sound familiar? That’s because we do a lot of this in English literature and English language classes. There’s a case for examining ‘classic’ tweets and Reddit threads alongside the classics of English literature like Shakespeare or Dickens. The sociology of language and literature is a great place to start learning the language of the internet age. Learning new languages brings new perspectives too, and through understanding language(s) we can create and consume in a more intelligent way.
We can teach ourselves and our students how to question things critically. Trolling might seem powerful but, ultimately, language is power. And we think the earlier we start this language revolution, the better!
There’s no denying that communication has rapidly changed in the last thirty years. But are we humans keeping up with technology that we are creating? Social media platforms give us many new contexts in which to create and consume communication. How has the way we talk and behave changed since the invention of the internet? In Episode 17 I talk to Dr Yin Yin Lu, self-proclaimed ‘rhetoric doctor’, about talking in the 21st century. Is it time for a communication revolution?
How we talk, socialise and behave is shifting. We are communicating more rapidly than ever before in human history. Our devices quantify how much communication we are missing. Those little counts of unread notifications pop up to remind us that the conversation is flowing with or without us. We’ve invented terms like FOMO to describe the feeling of missing out when we are not plugged into our feeds.
The ‘feed’ is a good metaphor for how we consume communication on our devices. Yin likens Instagram to a sugar high, where everything is perfect and beautiful as we scroll through our feed. We feel great, energised. However, we can feel deflated and even depressed when confronted with our unfiltered, imperfect reality off the screen.
Everything about communication has got faster and faster in the last thirty years. It is, Yin says, like a ‘Tesla in ludicrous mode’ and there is still potential for greater speed to come.
So what is this doing to our brains, since humans evolve pretty slowly compared to all this new technology? The super fast communication that confronts us every day can trigger fight or flight responses. It can even shut down our more nuanced, empathetic responses. The new communicative contexts and expectations come with new challenges for our brains.
Algorithms vs humans?
It’s not just social media that is changing how we communicate. We are now used to having automated filters on our emails, classifying what counts as spam for example. We are arguably comfortable with automatic translations of tweets, and see Google Translate as a useful tool in addition to dictionaries. (See previous episode with Charlotte Ryland.) But have you heard about GPT-3? Would you be comfortable handing over your personal language choices to an algorithm?
Where does the technology stop before it takes over human creativity and word play? It’s a really interesting question.
There is plenty of work on ‘text speak’ and how language is changing as technology evolves. David Crystal talks about this on a previous episode. What is perhaps less well documented is not the divide in vocabulary between younger and older generations. Tech design is more intuitive to the younger generations, the digital natives. To older people, smart phones are less intuitive. This isn’t necessarily bad. However, it does mean that the regulators (the adults) may not understand the implications of communication across new tech. It’s a whole new design dialect, Yin argues. It is complex, multifaceted, and we need communication science to become a key subject in order to understand the changing face of human communication.
We are wandering into uncharted communicative territory without a map, or a guide. We cannot say that social media is categorically good or bad for our mental health. We can, however, be wary of teaching our children to shout a female name and expect an immediate response (Alexa, play The Beatles!) What ramifications does this have for future female equality? Education, law and human biology have a lot of catching up to do with technology. Sexism is currently being coded into our technological devices.
There is joy and creativity in new communicative contexts. TikTok allows us to remix videos, music and text. Theatre is embracing the new online space, as you can see in previous guest Ben Crystal’s latest work with his Shakespeare Ensemble. There is hope. But without awareness of the education gap that is widening with every new development, we could soon find ourselves lost. We need to think about communication science, and quickly.
Let’s talk about talking in the 21st century! Join me on Twitter on @langrevolution and read/listen to more of Yin’s work about communication science in her excellent Medium article here.
The MFL curriculum has not changed that much in the last thirty years. Students are voting with their feet and now under half of the GCSE cohort sits a GCSE in languages. Rather than tinkering with delivery, methodology, or pedagogy, we are discussing how to reimagine the MFL curriculum. Listen to part one of our discussion here. How can we help our students take the imaginative leap into a new culture and place? How can we get them excited about learning through the target language? What can we do to create a culturally meaningful, fairer, more purposeful, and less contrived MFL curriculum in the UK? Would these ideas also help students learn the target languages or just make teaching more difficult? In the second part of our conversation, Cate and MflTransform discuss what we could and perhaps should be including in the languages curriculum.
I’ve recently had a Year 10 and a Year 13 student working with me for some work experience, and we talked about their decision to take GCSE and A Level Spanish. They both (independently, as they don’t know each other) told me that they were the only one of their respective friendship groups taking languages. Their friends had warned them not to throw a grade away because ‘languages are marked unfairly.’ So this was my first question to MflTransform: are the GCSE language exams marked unfairly, and what effect is this having on student motivation?
He does not believe that perceived unfair grading is the problem. It’s not the ‘price’ of the meal that is putting students off the ‘MFL restaurant’, it is what we are serving up in the first place that is causing the decline in take up.
Culturally meaningful MFL
One of the key points MflTransform makes in this episode is that our MFL curriculum should be situated in the culture and mindset of the target language. It would then open up new worlds to students who need help taking the imaginative leap across the Channel to France or Germany. Many of our students are not particularly culturally aware, and indeed I have taught pupils who had not even ventured into the centre of Glasgow where I taught because they couldn’t afford the bus fare into town. Why would these students want to describe their flat in another language? Why would they want to pretend they are in Germany, and write a postcard home in German about a holiday they are struggling to imagine (having never been on one)?
What if we provided a bridge for students in the form of films, excerpts from literature, and culturally meaningful experiences that were novel to ALL of the students? Would that level the playing field and allow students to avoid the pitfalls of having to describe their own (possibly uncomfortable) family circumstances for the sake of getting a mark?
Different types of linguists
Another key point is that there are many ways to be a linguist. I’ve already discussed why linguistics would be a great resource for teachers with David Crystal here, because language is an infinitely fascinating subject. Children love playing with words, taking them apart, and having fun. They are interested in howpeople use language too, and as Michael Rosen explains here, language is always ‘language in use’. Could we do more linguistics and sociolinguistics in the MFL classroom?
What about speaking? There has been some discussion recently about maintaining the role of speaking in the MFL curriculum. Language teachers (myself and MflTransform included) have often had a ‘golden moment’ of being mistaken for a native of the language we are learning, and this is pure joy. We take that joy and want to help our students feel it too, but it’s a really long road to learn a language well enough to get pleasure from speaking it…isn’t it? (As a side note, my work with Babel Babies has shown me that we can help children love speaking languages from a really early age.)
The future of MFL
If we do nothing, surely MFL is swiftly going the way of Classics. It will be taught by a dwindling pool of teachers, and eventually become the preserve of the elite. German has declined so worryingly, that many schools have already stopped teaching it.
Does this mean we should make the MFL curriculum easier then? Would dropping the price of a bad meal make it more palatable to more people? Perhaps. We discuss whether the GCSE to A Level jump is too much. Could it be that the GCSE curriculum is at once intellectually vacuous and difficult, since students have to come up with spontaneous opinions about what they have for breakfast? And if we want students to learn 1000 words for GCSE, should we actually be more ambitious and teaching them 2000 words, in a richer, more culturally relevant, more purposeful, and less contrived way?
Tell us what you think by leaving a comment below, or joining the conversation on Twitter. Find us as @langrevolution or @lomo_linguist, and @mfltransform.
Listen to the podcast here or on iTunes (and hopefully soon on Spotify).
The MFL curriculum is not meeting students’ needs in the 21st century and needs a complete overhaul. Discuss.
Several of the podcast episodes so far have looked at alternative approaches to teaching language and languages in school, such as creative translation, multilingual poetry, and introducing concepts from the science of linguistics more explicitly from an early age. But why do we need to reform language education? Is it the rationale? The pedagogy? The policies supporting it? In this episode, I’m talking to a Head of Modern Languages in a secondary school, a blogger and activist who is calling for fundamental curriculum reform for language education. He goes by the nom de guerre ‘MFL Transform’ on Twitter.
If the GCSE languages course were a restaurant, and the teachers are the waiters, what exactly are we serving up to our students? How does the MFL curriculum ‘menu’ and price point (the grades) compare to other GCSE subjects? Why would students choose our restaurant over another?
Or to use another metaphor, if our subject is a theatre, and we are the exhausted performers trying to entice our ever-dwindling audience to stay and enjoy the show, have we stopped recently and looked at whether the show is still relevant to them?
MFL teachers sometimes feel like all-singing, all-dancing performers in five matinées a day. I know I felt exhausted teaching French to an audience of reluctant teens. It was also killing my own joy of a subject I love, teaching such a repetitive curriculum. I felt I was just distracting teens from the fact they were learning French with games and high-energy activities. Is the subject not intrinsically motivating already?
Has the curriculum changed much in the last thirty years? How did the GCSE MFL curriculum get designed? What are the policies behind it?
The world’s greatest thinkers have always been multilingual
I had a lot of questions to put to @MflTransform about how we have ended up at this place of serious decline in MFL. Under 50% of the GCSE student cohort take a GCSE in a language now, and the figures for A Level have been in decline for decades. There is also a low conversion rate from GCSE Spanish to A Level Spanish, even though numbers are more positive for Spanish than French or German. In part one of our two-part series about transforming MFL, we address some of the issues around motivating pupils, approaches to teaching languages, and why we are even teaching languages at all in the age of Google Translate and AI.
The key question is what is the value of a languages-rich curriculum? Is learning a language only for practical and transactional purposes? Since the GCSE was created to replace O Levels in the late 1980s, the Internet has happened. How we face up to that enormous change in the way we communicate is really important. Our current students have never known life without the internet. They don’t need to ask for directions: they can Google it. So MFL needs to address this digital native generation in a language they can understand.
It’s a very exciting time to be a languages teacher. Please join the conversation on Twitter by following @MflTransform and @LangRevolution – let’s talk about talking!
Wondering how translation works, or why translation is important? Won’t Google Translate and AI take over from human translators soon anyway? In Episode 14, I talk to Dr Charlotte Ryland, director of the Stephen Spender Trust and Queen’s College Translation Exchange, about what translation is, and why it just might be the answer to the UK languages ‘crisis’ in schools.
Given that both Charlotte and I studied languages at university, we were amused to learn whilst preparing this podcast that neither of us had really known what ‘translation’ was until we started our degrees. Is it just a test of whether you understand the grammar and vocabulary of the language you are learning? Or is it more creative and dynamic than that?
Spoiler alert: we think translation is a creative and dynamic process, involving a good grasp of grammar and vocabulary but not merely testing that knowledge. It is about making choices and considering your reader, as well as thinking about the choices the writer made for their readers when writing the text in the source language. Translation opens up cultures and worlds to us by removing travel and language barriers too.
Translating as a creative writing process
I ask Charlotte how we know when we’ve written a ‘good’ translation, and this opens up a discussion about the process of creative writing that we go through when taking a text that exists in one language for one audience, and transposing that text into another language for another audience. It’s incredibly exciting and nuanced. The role of the translator is to co-write the new text. It is writing with your elbows fixed to the arms of the chair. You’re not changing the plot or dreaming up the characters, but you are bringing the text into being in the language you (usually) know best. There is a lot of editing, and feeling how words sound when you come back to them after a couple of days away, just like Michael Rosen and Kate Clanchy described in earlier episodes.
Translation as outreach
The Stephen Spender Trust runs creative translation workshops in schools, bringing translators into classrooms (just as you might invite a writer in to do a poetry workshop, for example) and empowering teachers to integrate elements of translation into their everyday classroom practice. The idea is to move away from a one-off event where a visitor is parachuted in and then disappears again, and towards a model of sustainable enjoyment of languages in classrooms all the time.
This approach has much success in both primary and secondary schools, with lots of energy and excitement, ideas and suggestions buzzing around classrooms as children tackle authentic texts. Pupils get a lot of pleasure and joy from using their language skills in the moment, rather than (as Charlotte explains) in some traditional outreach models where students or language experts stand at the front and tell children about the pleasure they will get from learning languages in five or ten years.
Charlotte’s role involves organising the Stephen Spender Prize for poetry in translation, where adults and children (in four age ranges) are invited to submit a poem translated from any language into English. They can win £1000 and all winning entries are published. Running a creative translation workshop in school could be an excellent entry point for those teachers or pupils interested in the prize, as well as a good introduction to the world of literary publishing.
Along similar lines, Charlotte’s work with the Queen’s College Translation Exchange involves school workshops but the ambassadors are university languages students.
Creative vs ‘normal’ translation
As I believe Charlotte’s work in schools with both organisations shows, taking a creative approach to translating really opens up children’s linguistic repertoires. It permits them to be multilingual or plurilingual, and to use all their knowledge of ‘language in use’ as they tackle the texts together. I love the parallel with Kate Clanchy’s approach to teaching her multilingual students how to write poetry (listen to her talk about it here) and think there is real potential to bridge the gap between the ‘camps’ of EAL and MFL in schools. Every child is ALREADY a linguist, and a translator. Perhaps our role as educators is to show them the exciting possibilities that open up when they develop the skills involved even further. Could it even be the answer to the UK languages ‘crisis’ and help us break free from the shackles of teaching to a marking scheme?
Teachers do not have to be language experts to engage with the translating process either. Charlotte gives an excellent example, known as the Multilingual Monsters activity, that any teacher could use, in any classroom, with any mixture of languages present. We discuss how to empower teachers to enjoy the process too, regardless of their own language backgrounds.
Dare we mention Google Translate?
Finally, what about the future of translating? Are humans going to be redundant once Artificial Intelligence takes over the translation process completely? We discuss whether there really is any opposition between technology and humans. After all, isn’t a dictionary a kind of analogue version of Google Translate?! Discuss.
Join Charlotte Ryland and Cate Hamilton on The Language Revolution Podcast, Episode 14: Why translation is important, here:
When we begin to learn a language, we probably don’t envisage entering a poetry competition any time soon. Nonetheless, many of teacher Kate Clanchy’s EAL pupils (that’s children who are learning English as an Additional Language) are poetry champions in their second (or third) language: English. So what’s her secret?
Kate, who is herself an award-winning poet as well as teaching English, encourages teachers to develop their own writing practice. She says ‘teachers are all incredible poets’ and just need to unlock some of that creative space and nourish themselves, which brings the confidence to teach children to write down their stories.
Because the truth is, creative writing isn’t valued in our education system. We have lost touch with our oral poetry tradition in the UK. How can we begin to teach something that we don’t fully feel, let alone understand the process enough to teach it? Sure, we teach poetry. We teach poems. But do we actually write poetry ourselves? I see a parallel with teaching languages, where teachers who are not language specialists, nor especially confident linguists, are teaching primary school languages.
I wonder if poetry could teach us to learn a language. Bear with me, while I explain. I am an English and French teacher, and have always been encouraged to separate those two ‘subjects’ by the school education system. Different departments, and all that. I also specialise now in early years language acquisition. Young children learn sounds and they learn what they want to say first, before they learn verbs, nouns, adjectives or (heaven forbid) fronted adverbials. They learn the shortest route for getting their point across, in the form that will be most successful to achieve their end. Of course they will learn verbs and all the rest. But first they learn purpose and form. They desire to communicate, so they do. David Crystal explains more here.
Poetry teaches us
Now a poem, we might argue, is exactly the same. Indeed, Kate argues that the idiom is the most important thing. Stories, images, sounds and shape are vital for communication. Grammar is not. A poem is an immersion booth for language, and language comes in clumps. It is not hierarchical – it doesn’t value the verbs more than the metaphors.
There is something fundamental about the way humans pass stories down from generation to generation, through oral poetry in some cultures. The way humans learn language is to echo their elders, and with poetry teaching we can replicate the process by giving pupils a model (a poem) for the shape and rhythm. If we use call and response, and get pupils to echo what they hear, it is ‘amazing and uncanny what comes back,’ says Kate.
The beauty of poetry is that children who aren’t ‘tuned into the page’ because of dyslexia, new languages, or lost languages, can all tune into sounds, their stories, and their memories. The creative process has so much learning in it.
And there’s not a fronted adverbial in sight.
How do we even begin to mark a poem?
We know a good poem when we see one. Marking them often leads to children being switched off from the process. ‘Redrafting’ just ends up being ‘writing out in your best handwriting.’ Kate says that SPAG (spelling, punctuation, and grammar) is ‘just the way it looks on the page’ and does not hamper the process of producing incredible poems. If teachers take some of that burden away by transcribing for very young, EAL, or dyslexic pupils, and doing text-to-text marking, children invest in their story. We can talk to the children about how their writing has changed (let’s make all these verbs present tense, or turn it into rhyming couplets, and see the effect that has?) and they are motivated because they internalise the effect on their writing as a whole. They therefore take the lesson on board for next time.
Talk is also very important. Some EAL children have a strong oral poetry background and have verse in their heads that they cannot yet write down. Kate tells us how she never taught anyone how to write by pointing out their mistakes. If we encourage the composition, learning comes rapidly to the aid of the creative process.
Can not-so-diverse schools embrace multilingualism?
Yes! You do not have to be a multilingual teacher to teach multilingual pupils. And even in a very rural, seemingly monolingual, school, there are all sorts of opportunities to explore language, as Kate explains. It is not about WOW words, as Michael Rosen also argues, and you are never too young or too old.
The key thing is to focus on connection, not direct instruction, and to use your intuition. It’s not about *you* knowing ten languages, it’s about your pupils valuing their own sounds and images. You give them the space and the belief that they can do it.
Make your classroom a place where stories are valued, and where poems are not a ‘little dried up thing in a book.’ Poems are for remembering (it’s how we used to tell the news) and it is built into our system for learning language. And after all, English is a mad pidgin language full of archaic rules and rules that were coined this morning. Our sounds come from across the centuries and the globe. Having (or not having) a second language is never a disadvantage.
If someone recites a good poem, you join in. And you learn a language on the way!
Kate’s book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, is now available in paperback. It’s a must-read for all teachers! Two of the poems Kate mentions are The Table by Edip Cansever, and Look, Stranger by W H Auden.
Is poetry the preserve of the elite, or can anyone, from anywhere, write a poem worth reading? In Episode 12, Cate talks to award-winning poet, teacher, and encourager of creative writing Kate Clanchy. Her students come from diverse and sometimes difficult backgrounds, and now find themselves writing poetry in a school in Oxford, England. Listen to their life stories, their poems, and how writing poetry is helping migrant children find their voices in unexpected ways.
Their poems are disturbingly good. During Kate’s ten years at Oxford Spires Academy she established a rich, varied and multilingual practice of creative writing with the students. Poets who write in Arabic, Polish, Kiswahili, came in and worked with the pupils across all their languages. One student, Mohamed, was only 12 years old and had ‘seen a war, and left his country to strangers’ as he wrote in one of his incredible poems. Kate explains how this young boy, who had been top of his class in Syria, now had plenty to be angry about. How does writing poetry help him?
The word the West was holding for me
Mohamed Assaf, age 12
Some of Kate’s students, like Mukahang and Shukria, have gone on to study at the universities of Oxford and St Andrews. They are incredibly able pupils, and sophisticated, well-read writers. However, the UK education system often overlooks their talents. We mark them down.
Multilingual pupils and poetry
Kate has observed that very bright kids who had been top of the class in Syria or Afghanistan, for example, come to England and appear stupid due to their lack of English. These students enjoy writing poems because ‘in poems they are still clever.’ There’s a much stronger oral poetry tradition in Arabic cultures compared to England, which means poetry has been a part of the students’ lives. Even if their parents are illiterate, for example, they will have recited poetry to them.
In class, everyone speaks English together and makes cross-cultural friendships. There are so many cultural groups at Oxford Spires that children have to mix rather than split into factions. As Kate observes, ‘When you get a Mohamed at the back of the Kiswahili workshop’ interesting things happen. The children are interested in each other’s metaphors, testament, and stories. Google Translate is part of the poetic, creative translation process too. There is a collective effort to bring these poems into existence involving pupils, teachers, and technology.
Does writing poetry bring relief?
The satisfaction of writing a good poem and of being heard are their own rewards. Does Kate get her students to evaluate their creative writing? Not at all. That would make the poems less of a safe space.
The poems are a place where the pupils tell their stories. Hearing and exchanging stories allows the students to get their stories out, into a safe place. Cate asks if students have ever released any very dark emotions in the poems, and whether teachers were afraid of what they might prod into existence. Teachers shouldn’t be afraid of stories, Kate reassures us. Lean into the poem. Writing in the third person can liberate the pupils to tell a truth through fiction, which can create a safe distance if needed.
A poem is a safe place.
Does writing poetry matter?
Shouldn’t we focus on teaching these students English? Kate argues that writing poetry helps pupils learn English as quickly as possible because it gives them a space to say something that matters to them. The ‘thin tools’ of assessment are inadequate to explain the progress that students make in English as they write their poems. After all, most people have learned languages, over most of history, without writing anything down.
According to Kate, we should abolish the structures of hierarchical language learning. Verbs are not more important than idioms. In poetry, everything is attached: images, sounds and rhythms come in a clump. A poem also helps you remember. Leaning into the tradition of oral poetry, as both Kate Clanchy and Michael Rosen (in this episode) suggest, will unlock poetry for students. It might even help them find their place.
‘And my heart, I’d say is displaced
struggling to find its place.’
Shukria Rezaei (18)
Find England Poems from a Schoolhere and listen to part one of our conversation with Kate Clanchy on The Language Revolution Podcast below.
The Conversations from Calais project was started in October 2019 by London-based graphic designer Mathilda Della Torre. The aim of the project is simply to re-humanise the refugee crisis by giving a voice to migrants in Calais.
As soon as I saw the Conversations from Calais Instagram, I knew I needed to talk to the founder about talking, so I made contact with Mathilda. She calls herself a ‘good designer’ because she designs with the aim of doing good for people. In the podcast she explains that there were many ways to do this project badly, but that this simple black and white poster presentation, documenting real conversations with migrants as they are submitted by Calais volunteers, felt ‘natural, raw and simple.’
Why include Conversations from Calais on The Language Revolution Podcast, you wonder? In the first ten episodes we have looked at talking from a neuroscience, psychology, education, and linguistics perspective. Our voices matter to us, and having a voice is central to our experience as humans. As Ben Crystal explored in Episode 6, we need to speak what is in our hearts. But what if our voice is silenced, or gets taken away, or manipulated by the media?
Mathilda explains that the project grew out of her stints as a volunteer in Calais. She is not rewriting the migrants’ stories but sharing a very specific moment between the volunteer (‘I’) and the migrant (‘you’). It is important that the pronoun ‘you’ is the migrant – they are the first person we are talking to, and not the othered ‘they’ of a lot of media coverage. These are real people, like you. Mathilda doesn’t use colour or embellishment such as photographs or videos because the words speak for themselves and bear witness to the migrants’ situations, as you can see from the examples below:
How are the stories curated?
Mathilda does very little to alter the stories. Volunteers submit them in English, and most people are now submitting the conversations in the I/You format. Some are perhaps too long for one poster, so Mathilda will split them across two posters. But as for any control of the narrative, she doesn’t impose any kind of stance on the conversations. She posts them in pretty much chronological order, as they are submitted to her. The themes that emerge – there is hope and despair, resilience and (sadly) violence – are testament to the fact that every migrant has a different story, just as every human does. There is not one narrative that can be called ‘the migrant story’. The hero or victim dichotomy is a false one. Yes, there is heroism. Yes, there is victimisation. But it is far more nuanced than that.
Heard across the world
The posters are having a remarkable effect, with people posting them in 50 cities on five continents as of January 2020. It is sure to be more at the time of going to press as the following rapidly grows for this important project. In fact, I have watched the Instagram following double in the few weeks since we recorded and can see that the project resonates around the world.
If you can get the posters on billboards, or translate the posters, or would like to invite Mathilda to speak, please get in touch with her on conversationsfromcalais at gmail dot com. Follow Conversations from Calais on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and share the posts with your circle. Further ideas on how to make a positive impact are discussed in the podcast. It is available on all the usual podcast providers or by clicking the play button below this final poster.
Want to hear Michael Rosen on education, literacy and language? What does he think language is for? Who does language belong to? Listen to Episode 10 of The Language Revolution Podcast where he talks about all the F-words: footballers, fog, Farage and fronted adverbials! This is the second episode of a two-part series. You can catch part one of the conversation here.
Michael begins with a history of how Literacy has taken over from Literature in primary schools, and has become a ‘thing in itself’ rather than just a name for the making of letters. The sentence has become king. We are far removed from the purpose of language, which is to express important or trivial things. It is a normal part of human behaviour. It is not the word Literacy that’s to blame, but the abstraction of words from their purpose of communicating what children actually want to express in their writing or talking.
What are Michael Rosen’s top tips for teachers who would like to encourage a love of language and storytelling in their classes? Should we do Matilda every year because the children love it? Well, maybe not since ‘doing’ the same literature year in, year out, can result in the teacher sending subtle signals that they are bored of the book, and then the children pick up on the sense that it is boring. There is a way around this, however, which as Michael explains in the podcast involves teachers adopting a ‘permanent revolution approach to literacy’.
Rather than ‘WOW’ words on the walls in our classrooms, what Michael suggests is turning our whole classroom into a language scrapbook or language laboratory. He explains how to do this and how to foster an exploratory ethos where we go into the ‘woods of language’ in search of minibeasts with the children.
Language obeys us. We are the masters and mistresses of language.
Who owns language?
Does Shakespeare own language? Is it the ‘old white people’ like Michael Rosen, who talk a lot about language, who own it? Not at all. A new baby owns language, and a 100 year old owns language. We need to help our children see how they own language, and are all permitted to have fun with it. Language is for us. It belongs to all of us.
Helping children to see that they are all linguists might help solve the UK languages crisis, where we are seeing a rapid reduction in the number of students choosing foreign languages from GCSE onwards. Cate wonders if Literacy is siphoning off English from ‘other languages’ and creating a bizarre separation for pupils between what they say and think, what they write in school, and languages they can learn in school, such as French or German.
Grammar is the culprit, says Michael, as the way we teach it is making language abstract at the expense of understanding that language is constantly in use. It has a purpose, genre and social appropriateness. If children can see the point of language again, and enjoy using it, that might curb the trend to drop the study of language(s) in secondary school and beyond. Teachers and pupils need empowering to study and enjoy language in use.
Language in use
If listening to Michael Rosen on education doesn’t start a language revolution, we will eat our dictionaries. Language in use is how he suggests we talk about language, rather than the single word ‘language’. This would help explain to pupils about language change, dictionaries, loan words, and our interactions with languages. Language in use is what writers like Dickens, Shakespeare and Gerard Manley Hopkins did with words. It would also help bring the multilingualism of our pupils into classroom practice and celebrate the diversity of language(s) in schools.
And perhaps that would mean that Michael has no reason to mention Farage, or the xenophobic language hierarchies he extolls. Well, we can only live in hope!
And what of a certain bear? Find out what could possibly happen to the bear at the end of We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by listening to The Language Revolution Podcast on your usual podcast provider or clicking the button below!
Hearing a Michael Rosen poem for the first time in primary school was one of my ‘switch-on moments’ where a lifelong passion is born. I’ve been excited about words, talking, reading and writing ever since. So who better to ask about how to enjoy a life full of wonderful words than Michael Rosen himself?
Having grown up immersed in a languages-rich environment, with bilingual parents who spoke English and Yiddish, as well as knowing German, French, and Latin, Michael made a fatal career mistake as a teenager and switched track to study medicine after his humanities A Levels, eventually zigzagging his way into writing for a living.
He calls poems ‘great places to go’ and we talk about how DH Lawrence’s poetry influenced him, and what prompted him to start writing his own poems and stories as a teenager.
What advice does Michael Rosen give to budding writers?
If writing is a bit like composing a piece of music, with riffs, cadences, snippets of a tune that you can repeat and build up into a piece, then the more you read, the more you get a sense of the ‘whole piece’. Michael recommends ‘reading and reading and reading and reading’ to budding young writers, which might sound obvious but he explains how reading gives us a ‘set of tools in our head’ to help us compose with words, either through oral poetry or writing it down.
The creative process begins with playing with language
As David Crystal described in Episode 8, babies are rap poets from birth! Young children are naturally experimental and love the sound and feel of words. It’s a physical process, attached to our body, as Michael explains. And then writing creeps in and is a once-removed, out-of-body process that can feel alien to children who are not used to the ‘clumsy, turgid, slow thing called writing.’ In fact, many adults do not find much satisfaction in writing either. Michael explores how to continue playing with words on the page, and says that we don’t need to ‘be given permission to play’ and that we don’t have to ‘obey any rules.’
This deadly serious thing called writing
Often silly in his own writing, I ask if poetry needs to be serious or can we allow some silliness into writing too? In fact, as Michael explains, you can explore deadly serious things in a very silly way, and it can be a good method for exploring these serious issues. Playing with words and ‘making up new words out of old words’ goes right back to the origins of language, and brings us to the final section of the podcast where we really start talking about talking.
Oracy or ‘dialogic learning’
Michael’s father was a founding figure in the oracy movement, and you might say that Michael is carrying on that family tradition. (Find more on oracy in Episode 6 with Ben Crystal.) Talking is hugely important and talking about stories, talking about our knowledge or lack of it, talking as a method of helping ourselves get to grips with a subject, it all helps us to ‘take possession’ of what we are doing. Talking can even prevent dangerously incorrect medical diagnoses!
What’s all this got to do with the Second Law of Thermodynamics, neon signs, and plastic noses? Listen to the podcast to find out!
Language is ‘the Mount Everest of subjects’, according to linguistics expert Professor David Crystal (A Little Book of Language, p253). It runs right through our experience as humans, and is naturally cross-curricular. So, Cate asks, what if we put linguistics at the heart of our school curriculum? How could we introduce linguistics in schools and would it help teachers with teaching literacy, or is ‘linguistics’ too abstract for children?
Babies are rap poets from birth
Our instinct to play with language is universal, according to Professor Crystal, and playing is one of the main drivers for learning language in babies. In the podcast he explains that we have three main drivers: understanding, identity and playfulness. The instinct is there from birth, and continues into childhood, with children delighting in word play and having fun with language. So what goes wrong? And can linguistics help us retain this playfulness as we grow?
What grammar should we teach?
Drawing circles around adjectives in school doesn’t necessarily translate into children including more adjectives in their writing. David explains how we need to mirror the children’s language acquisition process when teaching them how to do better writing. We must ‘begin at the beginning,’ and with children this means letting them hear the language we expect them to use first, then giving them time to speak it and have fun with it. Children all have ‘an instinct for eloquence’ and enjoy retelling stories. Do we give them enough time to go through this process of listening, speaking, and reading, before expecting them to use new structures in their writing?
With grammar, jumping straight to the cold intellectual dissection and analysis of words doesn’t mean very much without context and passion. Yes, children need to know the rules but ‘it’s the breaking of rules that’s the fun bit,’ David explains. And what about the dreaded fronted adverbials, I wonder? You’ll have to listen to hear what he has to say about those.
It’s the breaking of rules that’s the fun bit
David Crystal on grammar
The future of language
In the fast-paced world of modern technology, how is human communication changing? Text messaging and ‘text speak’ have had some bad press, but should we really be worried about our teens texting? In fact, as David explains, the fashion for ‘text speak’ peaked around 2009 and has already died out, with adolescents distancing themselves from it. Why is that? And what of emojis? Listen to hear the discussion about teenagers and their written communication, and what teachers should be doing about it (if anything).
The best texters are the best spellers
David Crystal on ‘text speak’
With all the advances in technology and more opportunities than ever to write, such as blogs, texting, and social media platforms, what role does the teacher have in helping students navigate their way to clear communication? The discussion turns to ‘appropriateness’ versus ‘correctness’, and ideas for classroom practice to encourage children to know what is appropriate for different occasions. It is about building an effective ‘linguistic wardrobe’, as David’s metaphor goes.
Teacher training in linguistics
A common theme emerges when David has spoken to teachers, who often tell him, ‘I have to teach grammar. Where do I start?’ In this podcast, David advocates following the children’s process of language acquisition when studying grammar. ‘How do one year olds do it? You can learn about grammar by following the way they do it, bit by bit.’ So what of the traditional approach of ‘subject-verb-object’ and the naming of parts? Is this approach, in fact, pointless? David argues that yes, it is pointless to approach grammar as separate from meaning.
Grammar has no purpose without reference to meaning
David Crystal on teaching grammar
The exciting thing about grammar, it turns out, is all the places you can go to with it. A bit like driving a car, and David explains why.
A different mindset is needed to put language back in the centre of the curriculum, and to put children in the driving seat with their own language acquisition. It’s hard to predict the future of language, but I’d say that with this kind of approach, children might feel more empowered and excited about words and what they can do with them.
Listen to Episode 8 of The Language Revolution Podcast with David Crystal below or on iTunes.
And if you’d like to hear David discussing language and accents with his son, actor Ben Crystal, head over to Episode 7 afterwards.
Scouse? Cockney? Received Pronunciation? Do you speak with an accent? Why does our accent change when we speak to someone with a different accent to us? Have British accents always been the same or does the English accent change over time? How do we know what people sounded like in London hundreds of years ago, and what will a London accent sound like in the future?
It was my great pleasure to be able to ask renowned linguist Professor David Crystal and his son, actor, author and producer Ben Crystal, some of these questions for episode 7 of The Language Revolution Podcast. Accents have always intrigued me as at different periods in my life my own accent has been a source of shame, pride, or bemusement. I don’t exactly sound like the people I grew up around, nor the people I went to university with, nor my first teaching colleagues and students. I have collected a bit of each place (Redditch, Oxford, Glasgow), and wound up with a sort of hybrid accent that misbehaves and sometimes sounds more Welsh, or more Scottish, or posher. It just won’t sit still.
Apparently this phenomenon is called accommodation, and as David explains, if you like someone you talk like them. Great news, fellow accent chameleons: we’re not being fake, just friendly! But politicians be warned. It is not always acceptable to slip into the same accent as your interlocutors.
What kind of accent did Shakespeare have?
Since I first heard David and Ben talking about the accent of Shakespeare’s London, original pronunciation or OP, at Cheltenham Literature Festival a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the way it opens up the plays and sonnets in new ways to me, and to audiences around the world. I also wanted to know how they know what Shakespeare sounded like. How did they make this linguistic time machine and travel back 400 years to declare, with 80-90% accuracy, what Elizabethan accents were like? Their answer is a fascinating insight into what historical linguistics is, and as an added bonus David does his ‘party trick’ of speaking in Old English, Middle English and Early Modern English, like a true linguistic time-traveller.
What is the point of accents though? Did cavemen have accents? Indeed they did, and accents served quite an important purpose in protecting our ancestors from enemies or intruders to the cave. We can still observe this in linguistically diverse cities (rather than caves) today, as we explore in the podcast.
Sometimes accents are a source of amusement for one group at the expense of another. Have we always told jokes that mock (not always that gently) a particular accent? Apparently we have, and even Shakespeare did it. Listen to find out which accent Shakespeare mocked the most often!
Accent of the future
Then on to the future. Will English accents eventually merge into one ‘standard’ accent? How did Received Pronunciation arise and how did it gain so much momentum around the world? Will teenagers be disadvantaged if they speak in a non-standard variation of English, and will adults ever keep up with teenagers’ accents?
Come and join us (and some seagulls flying past us on the coast of Wales) as I talk about talking with David and Ben Crystal.
This is the second episode in a three-part series with Ben and David Crystal. Listen to Ben talking in more depth about Shakespeare and oracy in Episode 6.
If Shakespeare were alive today, would he be a public speaking coach helping business leaders and professionals ‘talk like TED’? Certainly the art of public speaking and speaking with confidence are subjects that he could advise on. It’s not uncommon to find entrepreneurs who experience fear of public speaking or anxiety about speaking in front of an audience. In the sixth episode of The Language Revolution Podcast, Cate talks to actor, author and producer Ben Crystal about oracy and the art of speaking in public, and whether the works of Shakespeare could be a route into helping us reconnect with the very human activity of storytelling and speaking to each other from the heart.
Where do we even begin to find the words to express our thoughts and opinions, let alone our feelings, about the subjects we care about? Should public speaking be taught in schools? With budget cuts and the arts in general being slowly squeezed out of the curriculum, there are fewer opportunities for children to stand up and speak from the heart, and this leads to adults who are subject experts feeling inhibited when we need to explain our findings, or declare our feelings, to an audience large or small.
Whether that is an entrepreneur explaining a change of direction to their team, or a scientist explaining vital research findings to an audience of non-scientists, we need to be able to find the words to bring people with us on the journey, to create empathy through storytelling so that not only can our audience hear our words, they can relate to the feelings behind them. The speaker is not hiding behind a lectern and notes, but taking the audience with them.
For many, this moment of speaking aloud in front of an audience can feel, as Ben explains, like we are standing on a cliff edge, getting ready to jump. We have a physiological reaction to speaking, testified by our sweaty palms, dry mouth, and sudden need to visit the nearest bathroom. It takes a lot of practice to feel comfortable standing up and speaking, and having the opportunity to practice in a safe environment when we are young might make for a much happier generation of adults. A lack of space for self expression leads to increased mental health problems as we ‘bottle up’ our feelings. Oracy is a skill for life, both professional and personal, but how can we encourage schools to prioritise it when there is so much competing demand for timetable space and budget constrictions?
Are we losing touch?
The world would be a different place if we started earlier with genuinely talking and listening to each other. We discuss what the effect of talking to each other online or through texting might be having on people – are we at risk of losing out on making true connections if we chat in a chat room, rather than a physical common room? Ben’s experience of working with younger actors suggests that our emotional repertoire is at risk of being limited by lack of experience in face-to-face communication and, coupled with the lack of oracy in education, young actors may lack the weaponry too. Has ‘emoji acting’ started to seep into our theatres?
Can Shakespeare help us?
Cate posits that Shakespeare might be a route into learning to speak to each other from the heart, and in the second half of this episode we explore how Ben got into acting and producing Shakespeare plays and why he has spent the last decade peeling back the layers of the theatrical onion to discover the original practices of Elizabethan theatre.
With his father, Professor David Crystal, Ben has worked on reconstructing the original pronunciation (OP) of Shakespeare’s London, and we discuss how performing and speaking Shakespeare’s lines in OP can really open up the plays in new ways, and to new audiences who might otherwise feel alienated from big words like ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘iambic pentameter’. Shakespeare has been claimed by ‘Literature with a capital L,’ leaving generations of children feeling uncomfortable in classrooms with Shakespeare, as if they do not have permission to speak his words. Is it time to reclaim Shakespeare from the few, and how do we do it?
‘Your voice is the right voice for Shakespeare’ – Ben Crystal
Ben is quite clear that, ‘Your voice is the right voice for Shakespeare’ and by tuning Shakespeare’s language back a few hundred years, removing the influence of Received Pronunciation productions and Literature, it’s as if you’re tuning in a radio correctly and getting rid of the ‘fuzziness’, hearing the plays as they are supposed to be heard.
What effect does original pronunciation have on the actors? Well, Ben explains how it changes how the actors move, how they use their voices, and even how they feel and access the emotions of the characters they are playing. OP has been known to change the overall performance time because it is faster, and perhaps more dynamic than declaiming the lines in RP.
Do we need a time machine?
Ben describes the fascinating journey that OP takes you on as an ensemble of actors, but does this mean that we should be focusing on performing plays or exploring the works of Shakespeare only in OP in our classrooms? Is original pronunciation and practice a time machine or bridge back to the past to help students cross over several centuries? Can OP make the plays ‘more accessible’? How does working with OP crack open the plays in new and interesting ways, in particular making sense of famously enigmatic speeches in Hamlet that have puzzled many an actor or director?
Ultimately, is Shakespeare the answer to our ever-increasing aversion to speaking in public, which is at odds with our human predisposition to feel empathy (as proven by the discovery of mirror neurons, of which more in the podcast) and to connect with each other through oral tradition?
Because talking and storytelling are, after all, just what humans do.
Why do humans have an emotional and social predisposition to learn to speak? Listen to Episode 5 of The Language Revolution Podcast with psychologist and language acquisition expert Dr Katerina Draper to explore the subject in more detail.
Listen to Episode 6 of The Language Revolution Podcast to hear Ben Crystal talking about talking:
Is there a recipe for raising bilingual children? In Episode 5 of The Language Revolution Podcast we discuss the prevalent myths around bilingualism, such as whether children will get confused learning two or more languages. We explore different methods of introducing languages at home even if parents are not themselves multilingual. What role does language acquisition have to play in a child’s overall development? And can technology be a useful part of the process?
Not only is Dr Kat Draper (Kantartzis) a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Gloucestershire, she grew up speaking Greek and English and is now raising her family with both languages. We discuss whether there is a ‘right way’ to introducing our babies and toddlers to languages, or whether sticking to a strict One Parent, One Language method is essential for raising multilingual children. In Episode 4 we explored how children learn to speak. Catch up here if you haven’t listened to part one of our discussion yet.
Kat explains that interaction is the key to learning languages, and we discuss how we can harness the opportunities offered by technology (such as videos and apps) when raising our children with languages. It is important to label and reestablish vocabulary learned from TV shows, for example, when we see a word we have learned in a new context such as a book or in daily life.
There are many myths about multilingualism, and we discuss whether it is problematic to mix up languages when speaking to children. This might be when one parent speaks two languages or when we mix our languages within sentences or even words. Is this ‘normal’?
And what about parents who would like raise a bilingual child in a monolingual household? How can parents support language acquisition and create a language-rich environment at home, including a new language for everyone? We look at the top methods for raising bilingual children, even for parents who are not fluent in a second language. Sometimes parents worry about making mistakes, especially if they are not a native speaker, and if this is you then do listen and see why making mistakes is part of the learning process. Being comfortable with making mistakes is good for our children to see too!
Playing with languages
Kat advocates playing with languages and having fun in the process. We chat about animals noises and why sound symbolism and onomatopoeia could be a helpful route into learning a language for young children.
Finally, we talk about families who have moved to the UK and who are learning English or helping their children learn English as an additional language (EAL). You may hear negative advice about stopping speaking your native tongue in order to focus on learning English. Is it better to speak English or continue speaking your usual language at home?
Language acquisition is important, but it is only one part of the jigsaw of child development. Listen to Episode 5 and discover how to create a balanced approach to raising bilingual children.
Talking. It’s easy right? But how does a baby learn to speak? What are the stages? And how can parents support the process of language acquisition? In this fourth episode of The Language Revolution Podcast, I talk to Dr Katerina Kantartzis about tuning into a baby’s conversational cues, what is ‘normal’ and signs to look out for in speech development, why singing is so special to humans, and whether or not you can stop humans from communicating.
What can you expect from Episode 4 of The Language Revolution Podcast?
The whole process of learning to speak is shrouded in mystery, and science is only just beginning to untangle the magical process of language acquisition. We’ve always been fascinated by it though, and no wonder: how do the sounds coming out of our mouths signify something that another human can understand? It’s amazing! No surprise that songs and stories have us enthralled from birth.
In this episode, I talk to Dr Katerina Kantarzis, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Gloucestershire, about the sensitive periods in the language acquisition process, and how parents can encourage and support their child to help them learn to speak. We look at the cues babies make and how parents can tune into them.
We also look at what to do if you think the process isn’t working – where to find support if you’re worried about your baby’s language development.
TV chefs and tantrums!
Finally, after deciding that toddlers are always right and that parenting is much like being a TV chef, we discuss what would happen if we did not interact with our children. Can you stop humans from communicating?
Find out by clicking the link below or downloading the podcast on iTunes, Podbean or your favourite podcast provider.
And if you haven’t already listened, you might be interested in the previous episodes of the podcast where I talk to Dr Thomas Bak about the neuroscience behind learning languages, and why the UK needs to change our approach to learning them.
If you read the news yesterday you may have seen some distressing headlines that suggest learning languages causes mental health problems. GCSE students are being excused from language lessons ‘because language lessons apparently damage their mental health.’ Top prize for bigotry and linguaphobia goes to the Daily Mail for the following headline:
‘Doctors give pupils sick notes to duck French and German lessons amid fears the stress of learning a second language is harming their mental health’
The article goes on to explain exactly how learning languages will harm your child’s mental health, referring several times to ‘the mental health threat’ posed by language lessons, and saying that these sick notes ‘often mention a range of stresses, not just languages.’ Ouch.
Not far behind with second prize is the Telegraph:
Children find foreign languages so stressful they are being signed off by a GP, headteachers told
Apparently children ‘must be excused from learning languages because it is causing them extreme anxiety.’
Both papers are at pains to point out that languages are irrelevant, pointless, and not part of our culture. There is also some suggestion that languages are a waste of money, since they adversely affect children’s mental health, meaning that mental health services will be strained.
STOP WHERE YOU ARE.
Learning languages does not pose a ‘mental health threat’. Yes, our teenagers are increasingly stressed about GCSEs and social media is causing more anxiety than ever for our young people, but languages are the scapegoat here, and not the root of this growing problem.
There is plenty of scientific evidence that, far from ‘harming’ mental health, learning languages has a positive and beneficial effect on mental health and indeed on long-term physical brain health. If the NHS prescribed learning languages, it could save billions on dementia care and depression medication.
Languages are an easy target because, as my first The Language Revolution Podcast guest Thomas Bak points out, we routinely undervalue languages in the UK and indeed the census promotes a monoglottist view of the state of languages in this country. If we continue to phrase the census question on languages as ‘What is your main language?’ we imply that only one ‘national’ language has importance, and this smacks of the kind of linguistic stamping out, or linguicide, that has been seen in extremis in Australia, where of the 250 native languages that existed before colonial settlers arrived, only 13 are not highly endangered today.
I read with interest the studies of Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann in Australia, as reported by Alex Rawlings in this BBC Future article. Zuckermann has shown that since reintroducing ancestral languages to indigenous people who were subject to the imperialistic policies of the Australian government in the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries (namely separating children from their families and forcing them to speak English instead of their mother tongue), a clear trend has emerged of improved mental and physical wellbeing. Alcholism, addiction, diabetes, depression and suicide rates have fallen amongst Aboriginal people whose languages are resurrected through Zuckermann’s work, suggesting that far from causing mental health problems, languages are a source of improved mental wellbeing. The studies are ongoing and I await further results with interest.
Through my work with Babel Babies I regularly hear from families who have been advised by well-meaning (I hope) professionals to stop speaking their own language to their own children, in order to improve their child’s chances of learning English or to help improve a suspected speech delay that they claim is caused by bilingualism. This is a totally incorrect and false piece of advice, and not only proven to have the opposite effect (as Thomas Bak explains in Episode 3 of The Language Revolution Podcast) but I suspect it also causes untold psychological trauma.
Imagine if your mother suddenly stopped singing, reading stories and saying all the comforting and loving words of your first few months or years, and fell silent or became emotionally distant all of a sudden because she felt unable to speak in her own language of mothering, your shared language, and was only ‘allowed’ to speak in faltering English to you. Awful!
I was moved to tears at the Languages Symposium in November 2017 by Dina Mehmedbegovic’s stories about teenagers in London who were cut off from their ‘home’ language and felt that it was a sin to speak it, or even to think of an answer in school in a language other than English. The long-term damage this monoglot culture is causing to our young people, to our families and communities, is breathtakingly sad.
And surely it is easy to change this by stating the scientific facts about bilingualism CORRECTLY:
1 – You will NOT IMPROVE your child’s English outcomes by switching to only speaking English at home;
2 – You will merely SLOW DOWN their progress with English, and SPEED UP the deterioration and eventual loss of their first language, disconnecting them from their relatives and history at the same time (and leading to long-term negative effects, as Zuckermann’s research shows).
3 – Children will learn English through school and the environment, and by continuing to speak your family’s language(s) at home you IMPROVE their acquisition of English too. The two languages do NOT COMPETE with each other, they support each other, as Thomas and I discuss in the first episode of the podcast.
Fear of Languages
So why are we so darn afraid of languages in the UK, to the point that it is reportedly causing ‘damage to mental health’ in our children to study languages at school?
I believe quite strongly that our whole approach to language education needs to change. There are gaping wounds to heal in the adults who went through school hating language lessons, fearful of appearing stupid, who in order to protect their self esteem now tell me they are ‘rubbish at languages’ rather than that ‘languages were not taught in a way that felt natural to me’. If we look at the natural language acquisition process, we don’t sit babies down with a verb table and get them conjugating or parsing, nor do we ask them to repeat lists of vocabulary or expect them to speak in full sentences just because we have read the same story to them every night for a week.
If we taught science with the same preposterous expectations, the science curriculum would be:
Early Years/KS1 – no mention of science, but a playground full of children whose parents are biochemists, vets, doctors, astrophysicists, engineers etc. One or two parents may come into class to read a story about saving lives or space exploration. Teachers, keep it light – it’s not of central importance.
KS2 – up to one hour per week (unless there is something more important happening like an assembly) with a different teacher (preferably a science graduate if you can find one because only experts can teach this) where children repeat five or six elements of the periodic table, colour in some pictures of rockets, or label a diagram of a plant. Also a ‘science week’ to be organised for year six pupils in the summer term, after all the important (actual) work has been covered in primary school.
KS3 – disregard primary curriculum. Children choose a specialist science and learn it up to a high standard ready for examinations.
Teaching notes – Drop in the odd comment about ‘doing your bit’ for the economy (heaven knows, we need scientists in order to to thrive as a country!) and also point out at careers fairs and parents’ evenings how useful science is for long-term development, getting jobs, appearing ‘well-rounded’ and you could go as far as saying that it’s fun even if you don’t really believe that it is. That’s okay because adults know that science is the hardest subject, with unfair exams, but we need our children to value it anyway or the country is doomed.
Change the languages curriculum
Yes, I am being facetious here, but do we really expect our children to want to learn languages, to feel equipped with the skills and metacognitive awareness to explore the vast and colourful subject of languages and feel in control of doing it, and to enjoy the process of learning languages (not just hope the outcome is useful in adulthood) under the current floundering system? Languages are central to our understanding of humankind, and a central part of being human. But ‘learning languages’ at school is far removed from that reality.
A tough-nut pupil in a Glasgow secondary school summed it up for me when he asked, after our third lesson on ER verbs where we’d been making up raps about the verb tables and partaking in all sorts of linguistic acrobatics to make it palatable, ‘Miss, how are we doing verbs in French when we dinnae use them in English?’ In case you don’t know, how roughly equates to WHY THE HECK, and he’s right! He was completely unaware that English is a language with all the same grammatical intricacies and systems, historical vocabulary sources and overlapping sound systems as French, or that we actually SPOKE FRENCH in the UK for 600 years. The disconnect between English being a language and ‘other languages’ is astounding and extremely damaging. In class his friends included children who spoke additional languages, but as the curriculum ignored these it didn’t help much because languages your friends speak and languages in school are not the same thing.
Let’s start by putting languages back at the heart of our human experience, our history and knowledge of how we have got to where we are today as an ever-evolving species, and let’s educate our children from birth or as soon as possible about how they fit into the linguistic landscape in the UK. No, they may not speak other languages at home or ever visit France, or even venture further than McDonalds on the high street, but those are not the only reasons to learn another language.
Health benefits of languages
Let’s also educate ourselves about and continue researching the enormous health benefits, both physical and mental, of learning languages. Neuroscientists are only just beginning to understand the incredible effects of languages on our brain. Knowing more than one language doubles your cognitive recovery rate within a year of suffering a stroke, and buys you another four or five years of symptom-free life if you suffer from Alzheimer’s. The best drugs on the market don’t even come close! As Thomas Bak says in our interviews, monolingualism is an epidemic that speeds up the ageing process, but it is reversible if we learn languages.
Furthermore, a 2018 study proved that singing lullabies and songs from around the world in mother-and-baby groups decreases the symptoms of post-natal depression by 35% within six weeks of giving birth, as reported by the BBC. This was a much faster recovery rate than the mothers taking part in creative play sessions or receiving their usual care and support, medication, or mindfulness interventions.
If there is a prejudice against learning languages in the UK, we need to take action now to enlighten people. Languages are not the cause of the problem, and they might just be the cure.
We face a UK languages crisis as GCSE numbers plummet and our confidence in learning languages crumbles. In episode 3 of The Language Revolution Podcast, I ask Thomas Bak why, and what we can do about it. We Brits have a terrible reputation for learning languages these days, yet this hasn’t always been the case. The problem is that everybody speaks English now so we have reached a period of ‘linguistic inertia’. Can we find our way out of it again and embrace our linguistically diverse society and history?
Did you know that we spoke French in Britain for 600 years, and before that we spoke German? The grammar and spelling of English are pretty bonkers sometimes, aren’t they? Why is light not spelled as lite? And why is there a silent ‘b’ in debt? The history of our language explains the origins of ‘unspellable’ words and seemingly illogical grammar. We used to study Latin and Greek at school not only to understand those languages, but to enhance our knowledge of English. Languages are transferable skills that are part of a well-rounded education, informing our understanding of science, history, geography, literature, music and art.
However, over the last century we have eroded our knowledge of our rich linguistic heritage and reached a period of linguistic deprivation. Deep-seated and prejudiced ideas about monolingualism are the norm, and multilingualism is seen as unusual or problematic. The census question about languages is a prime example of this monolingual prejudice. This in turn this leads to incorrect advice being dished out to multilingual parents. Professionals tell parents to stop speaking their family language at home in order to help their children make progress in English.
Evidence for a multilingual approach
Here we examine the evidence that shows how speaking more than one language supports acquisition of further languages, including English, and why it is important to educate our educators about the benefits of maintaining the ‘home’ language for EAL children. We also propose a plurilingual approach to learning languages in primary and early years. If you compare how we teach the sciences and STEM with how we teach languages, it seems logical to change our whole approach right from the start. This would benefit the children’s overall understanding of literacy and how languages work.
One day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, our children will understand how they are all born linguists and ready to learn any language from birth. Listen to episode 1 of the podcast to learn how we learn languages.
The UK is well-placed to be at the forefront of language education and linguistic expertise. We just need to retrain our thinking. Vive la révolution!
Listen to episode three of The Language Revolution Podcast now:
In this episode of The Language Revolution Podcast, I ask Thomas Bak about the perfect age to learn languages. Is it ever too late to start? Can you lose your childhood accent? How does learning languages improve your brain health? Should the NHS prescribe languages to older adults to delay dementia? What if you already have dementia, is it too late to learn languages then?
We might assume that as we get older it becomes ever increasingly difficult to learn languages. Perhaps you have heard that the ‘critical window’ for learning languages closes when we are teenagers, or even earlier. Here we examine different aspects of language acquisition (sounds, grammar and vocabulary) individually, and look at whether there is an ideal age to learn each. To find out how we learn, process and store languages, listen to episode one first.
We go on to discuss the health benefits of learning languages in later life. Did you know that being bilingual doubles your chances of a full cognitive recovery within the first year after suffering a stroke? Pretty amazing stats. We also discuss how the process of learning languages can delay dementia symptoms and improve brain health as part of a healthy retirement lifestyle. If you are thinking about taking up languages when you retire, this could be just the motivation you are seeking!
Ever wondered whether doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles, or learning a musical instrument, has the same benefits as learning a language? Is it worth the effort of trying to remember some basic Italian when you are tired and finding it difficult? Take inspiration from Joseph Conrad, Mary Hobson and Samuel Beckett, or closer to home, look to your own children and grandchildren and set a good example of how grown-ups can learn languages too.
Listen to episode two of The Language Revolution Podcast now:
Do you say ‘The Language Revolution Podcast’ or podcarst? I have no idea which one is more ‘me’ and so I sought advice about how we learn to speak from neuroscientist Thomas Bak, from Edinburgh University.
This the first episode of The Language Revolution podcast, and part one of a three-part series where we discuss everything about languages from how we learn new words, to linguistic exogamy!
Is it normal to speak more than one language? Will we feel confused? Can our brains cope with storing more than one language, and if so, how do they manage to juggle them?
As a languages teacher and co-founder of Babel Babies, I am fascinated by how something as simple as speaking has got people into such a pickle. The UK has a rich multilingual tapestry, woven with our 14 indigenous languages (go on, have a go at naming them in the comments below!) and many more language threads that have come to our shores with people from all over the world, and yet we have a reputation of shying away from learning new languages.
I think it’s high-time we faced the issues we have about learning languages head-on and talked about where our feelings of fear, embarrassment, and even resentment at the suggestion that English speakers should learn a new language come from.
It’s time for a language revolution, n’est-ce pas?
Listen to episode one of The Language Revolution Podcast now:
There’s regularly talk of ‘correct’ or ‘standard’ language in the media and on Twitter. Some people apparently wear their bad grammar like a badge of honour or refuse to learn the ‘correct’ way of speaking because, the critics say, it makes them look cooler or ‘down with the kids’. And don’t even ask about glottal stops! In the second part of our discussion, Ian Cushing and I look at what ‘standard English’ is, and why we should question policies that insist upon it being spoken (in full sentences) at all times. And why does grammar get people heckling each other? Read the blog on www.thelanguagerevolution.co.uk to find the links mentioned.
There’s a wealth of information on the Internet about bilingual education and raising bilingual kids. But for parents or teachers navigating their way through an online search, it often feels overwhelming. Facts can get taken out of context, and statistics from research are quoted as if they are set in stone. However, the science of bilingualism is relatively young and ever-evolving. In Episode 20 I talk to Eowyn Crisfield in detail about what parents need to know in order to steer their family through the rocky waters of bilingual education. This is part one of a two-part series. Part two looks at EAL education in schools, so this episode is a good foundation for teachers too.