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.
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.
Listen to Episode 22 below, or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, Google and Podbean.
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.
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.
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.
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 how people 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.
Theatre and roller skates
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@MflTransform
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!