How can we reimagine MFL education?

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.

Let’s talk about talking

Words can help new worlds open up to our students
and MFL is uniquely placed to do this in the school 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).

MFL curriculum: time for a revolution?

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.

Let’s talk revolution!

If language lessons are a theatre, where has the audience gone?

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.

Rationale

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!

Why translation is important.

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.

Let’s talk about talking!

What is translation?

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.

Stephen Spender Prize poster for poetry in translation
The Stephen Spender Poetry Prize. Click photo for more details.

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?

Creative Translation workshop in Oxford primary school
Creative Translation Ambassadors at a primary school in Cowley, Oxford.

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:

Can you learn a language through poetry?

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?

Let’s talk about talking!

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.

Illustration refugee child sleeping on ground near tents
Get children to tell you what they don’t remember from their past…
Image credit: Nadine Kaadan

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!

Some Kids I Taught Kate Clanchy Paperback



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.

Kate Clanchy and her students: Episode 12

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.

Let’s talk about talking!

Meet Kate’s students

Kate Clanchy talks about her students’ poetry and multilingualism

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?

Refugee, refugee

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.

Mohamed Assaf, 12, from Syria, with England Poems from a School.
Image: Oxford Spires Academy.

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.

Kate Clanchy

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 School here and listen to part one of our conversation with Kate Clanchy on The Language Revolution Podcast below.

Conversations from Calais: Episode 11

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.

Let’s talk about talking!

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.’

Conversations from Calais poster
Conversations from Calais poster, documenting real conversations
between migrants and volunteers in Calais.

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?

Bearing Witness

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.

Get involved!

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.

Conversations from Calais poster
Yes, the world knows.
Please, do share these Conversations from Calais as widely as you can.

Michael Rosen on education: Episode 10

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.

Let’s talk about talking!

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 do children actually want to express in their writing?

Permanent revolution

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.

Woman and man in recording studio
Cate Hamilton and Michael Rosen

Language obeys us. We are the masters and mistresses of language.

Michael Rosen

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 is our interactions with all their imperfections and variety.
Michael Rosen on 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!

Michael Rosen on talking and writing: Episode 9

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?

Let’s talk about talking!

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.

Graffiti wall with the word poetry being painted.
I asked Michael Rosen if anyone can be a poet. Listen to his answer on the podcast.

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’

Cate Hamilton and Michael Rosen in recording studio
Cate and Michael with their best smiley studio faces!

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!

How can linguistics help teachers? Episode 8

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
Teenage linguistics desk with mobile, pen, and book
What is the future of language as technology changes?
Image credit: Tamarcus Brown

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.

Cate and David Crystal at the launch of the LASER initiative at the British Academy.

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.

What’s in an accent? Episode 7

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. 

Ben Crystal and David Crystal in conversation about accents.
Does an accent pass from parent to child?

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.