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.
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: