Scouse? Cockney? Received Pronunciation? Do you speak with an accent? Why does our accent change when we speak to someone with a different accent to us? Have British accents always been the same or does the English accent change over time? How do we know what people sounded like in London hundreds of years ago, and what will a London accent sound like in the future?
It was my great pleasure to be able to ask renowned linguist Professor David Crystal and his son, actor, author and producer Ben Crystal, some of these questions for episode 7 of The Language Revolution Podcast. Accents have always intrigued me as at different periods in my life my own accent has been a source of shame, pride, or bemusement. I don’t exactly sound like the people I grew up around, nor the people I went to university with, nor my first teaching colleagues and students. I have collected a bit of each place (Redditch, Oxford, Glasgow), and wound up with a sort of hybrid accent that misbehaves and sometimes sounds more Welsh, or more Scottish, or posher. It just won’t sit still.
Apparently this phenomenon is called accommodation, and as David explains, if you like someone you talk like them. Great news, fellow accent chameleons: we’re not being fake, just friendly! But politicians be warned. It is not always acceptable to slip into the same accent as your interlocutors.
What kind of accent did Shakespeare have?
Since I first heard David and Ben talking about the accent of Shakespeare’s London, original pronunciation or OP, at Cheltenham Literature Festival a few years ago, I’ve been fascinated by the way it opens up the plays and sonnets in new ways to me, and to audiences around the world. I also wanted to know how they know what Shakespeare sounded like. How did they make this linguistic time machine and travel back 400 years to declare, with 80-90% accuracy, what Elizabethan accents were like? Their answer is a fascinating insight into what historical linguistics is, and as an added bonus David does his ‘party trick’ of speaking in Old English, Middle English and Early Modern English, like a true linguistic time-traveller.
What is the point of accents though? Did cavemen have accents? Indeed they did, and accents served quite an important purpose in protecting our ancestors from enemies or intruders to the cave. We can still observe this in linguistically diverse cities (rather than caves) today, as we explore in the podcast.
Sometimes accents are a source of amusement for one group at the expense of another. Have we always told jokes that mock (not always that gently) a particular accent? Apparently we have, and even Shakespeare did it. Listen to find out which accent Shakespeare mocked the most often!
Accent of the future
Then on to the future. Will English accents eventually merge into one ‘standard’ accent? How did Received Pronunciation arise and how did it gain so much momentum around the world? Will teenagers be disadvantaged if they speak in a non-standard variation of English, and will adults ever keep up with teenagers’ accents?
Come and join us (and some seagulls flying past us on the coast of Wales) as I talk about talking with David and Ben Crystal.
This is the second episode in a three-part series with Ben and David Crystal. Listen to Ben talking in more depth about Shakespeare and oracy in Episode 6.
If Shakespeare were alive today, would he be a public speaking coach helping business leaders and professionals ‘talk like TED’? Certainly the art of public speaking and speaking with confidence are subjects that he could advise on. It’s not uncommon to find entrepreneurs who experience fear of public speaking or anxiety about speaking in front of an audience. In the sixth episode of The Language Revolution Podcast, Cate talks to actor, author and producer Ben Crystal about oracy and the art of speaking in public, and whether the works of Shakespeare could be a route into helping us reconnect with the very human activity of storytelling and speaking to each other from the heart.
Where do we even begin to find the words to express our thoughts and opinions, let alone our feelings, about the subjects we care about? Should public speaking be taught in schools? With budget cuts and the arts in general being slowly squeezed out of the curriculum, there are fewer opportunities for children to stand up and speak from the heart, and this leads to adults who are subject experts feeling inhibited when we need to explain our findings, or declare our feelings, to an audience large or small.
Whether that is an entrepreneur explaining a change of direction to their team, or a scientist explaining vital research findings to an audience of non-scientists, we need to be able to find the words to bring people with us on the journey, to create empathy through storytelling so that not only can our audience hear our words, they can relate to the feelings behind them. The speaker is not hiding behind a lectern and notes, but taking the audience with them.
For many, this moment of speaking aloud in front of an audience can feel, as Ben explains, like we are standing on a cliff edge, getting ready to jump. We have a physiological reaction to speaking, testified by our sweaty palms, dry mouth, and sudden need to visit the nearest bathroom. It takes a lot of practice to feel comfortable standing up and speaking, and having the opportunity to practice in a safe environment when we are young might make for a much happier generation of adults. A lack of space for self expression leads to increased mental health problems as we ‘bottle up’ our feelings. Oracy is a skill for life, both professional and personal, but how can we encourage schools to prioritise it when there is so much competing demand for timetable space and budget constrictions?
Are we losing touch?
The world would be a different place if we started earlier with genuinely talking and listening to each other. We discuss what the effect of talking to each other online or through texting might be having on people – are we at risk of losing out on making true connections if we chat in a chat room, rather than a physical common room? Ben’s experience of working with younger actors suggests that our emotional repertoire is at risk of being limited by lack of experience in face-to-face communication and, coupled with the lack of oracy in education, young actors may lack the weaponry too. Has ‘emoji acting’ started to seep into our theatres?
Can Shakespeare help us?
Cate posits that Shakespeare might be a route into learning to speak to each other from the heart, and in the second half of this episode we explore how Ben got into acting and producing Shakespeare plays and why he has spent the last decade peeling back the layers of the theatrical onion to discover the original practices of Elizabethan theatre.
With his father, Professor David Crystal, Ben has worked on reconstructing the original pronunciation (OP) of Shakespeare’s London, and we discuss how performing and speaking Shakespeare’s lines in OP can really open up the plays in new ways, and to new audiences who might otherwise feel alienated from big words like ‘Shakespeare’ and ‘iambic pentameter’. Shakespeare has been claimed by ‘Literature with a capital L,’ leaving generations of children feeling uncomfortable in classrooms with Shakespeare, as if they do not have permission to speak his words. Is it time to reclaim Shakespeare from the few, and how do we do it?
‘Your voice is the right voice for Shakespeare’ – Ben Crystal
Ben is quite clear that, ‘Your voice is the right voice for Shakespeare’ and by tuning Shakespeare’s language back a few hundred years, removing the influence of Received Pronunciation productions and Literature, it’s as if you’re tuning in a radio correctly and getting rid of the ‘fuzziness’, hearing the plays as they are supposed to be heard.
What effect does original pronunciation have on the actors? Well, Ben explains how it changes how the actors move, how they use their voices, and even how they feel and access the emotions of the characters they are playing. OP has been known to change the overall performance time because it is faster, and perhaps more dynamic than declaiming the lines in RP.
Do we need a time machine?
Ben describes the fascinating journey that OP takes you on as an ensemble of actors, but does this mean that we should be focusing on performing plays or exploring the works of Shakespeare only in OP in our classrooms? Is original pronunciation and practice a time machine or bridge back to the past to help students cross over several centuries? Can OP make the plays ‘more accessible’? How does working with OP crack open the plays in new and interesting ways, in particular making sense of famously enigmatic speeches in Hamlet that have puzzled many an actor or director?
Ultimately, is Shakespeare the answer to our ever-increasing aversion to speaking in public, which is at odds with our human predisposition to feel empathy (as proven by the discovery of mirror neurons, of which more in the podcast) and to connect with each other through oral tradition?
Because talking and storytelling are, after all, just what humans do.
Why do humans have an emotional and social predisposition to learn to speak? Listen to Episode 5 of The Language Revolution Podcast with psychologist and language acquisition expert Dr Katerina Draper to explore the subject in more detail.
Listen to Episode 6 of The Language Revolution Podcast to hear Ben Crystal talking about talking:
Is there a recipe for raising bilingual children? In Episode 5 of The Language Revolution Podcast we discuss the prevalent myths around bilingualism, such as whether children will get confused learning two or more languages. We explore different methods of introducing languages at home even if parents are not themselves multilingual. What role does language acquisition have to play in a child’s overall development? And can technology be a useful part of the process?
Not only is Dr Kat Draper (Kantartzis) a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Gloucestershire, she grew up speaking Greek and English and is now raising her family with both languages. We discuss whether there is a ‘right way’ to introducing our babies and toddlers to languages, or whether sticking to a strict One Parent, One Language method is essential for raising multilingual children. In Episode 4 we explored how children learn to speak. Catch up here if you haven’t listened to part one of our discussion yet.
Kat explains that interaction is the key to learning languages, and we discuss how we can harness the opportunities offered by technology (such as videos and apps) when raising our children with languages. It is important to label and reestablish vocabulary learned from TV shows, for example, when we see a word we have learned in a new context such as a book or in daily life.
There are many myths about multilingualism, and we discuss whether it is problematic to mix up languages when speaking to children. This might be when one parent speaks two languages or when we mix our languages within sentences or even words. Is this ‘normal’?
And what about parents who would like raise a bilingual child in a monolingual household? How can parents support language acquisition and create a language-rich environment at home, including a new language for everyone? We look at the top methods for raising bilingual children, even for parents who are not fluent in a second language. Sometimes parents worry about making mistakes, especially if they are not a native speaker, and if this is you then do listen and see why making mistakes is part of the learning process. Being comfortable with making mistakes is good for our children to see too!
Playing with languages
Kat advocates playing with languages and having fun in the process. We chat about animals noises and why sound symbolism and onomatopoeia could be a helpful route into learning a language for young children.
Finally, we talk about families who have moved to the UK and who are learning English or helping their children learn English as an additional language (EAL). You may hear negative advice about stopping speaking your native tongue in order to focus on learning English. Is it better to speak English or continue speaking your usual language at home?
Language acquisition is important, but it is only one part of the jigsaw of child development. Listen to Episode 5 and discover how to create a balanced approach to raising bilingual children.
Talking. It’s easy right? But how does a baby learn to speak? What are the stages? And how can parents support the process of language acquisition? In this fourth episode of The Language Revolution Podcast, I talk to Dr Katerina Kantartzis about tuning into a baby’s conversational cues, what is ‘normal’ and signs to look out for in speech development, why singing is so special to humans, and whether or not you can stop humans from communicating.
What can you expect from Episode 4 of The Language Revolution Podcast?
The whole process of learning to speak is shrouded in mystery, and science is only just beginning to untangle the magical process of language acquisition. We’ve always been fascinated by it though, and no wonder: how do the sounds coming out of our mouths signify something that another human can understand? It’s amazing! No surprise that songs and stories have us enthralled from birth.
In this episode, I talk to Dr Katerina Kantarzis, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Gloucestershire, about the sensitive periods in the language acquisition process, and how parents can encourage and support their child to help them learn to speak. We look at the cues babies make and how parents can tune into them.
We also look at what to do if you think the process isn’t working – where to find support if you’re worried about your baby’s language development.
TV chefs and tantrums!
Finally, after deciding that toddlers are always right and that parenting is much like being a TV chef, we discuss what would happen if we did not interact with our children. Can you stop humans from communicating?
Find out by clicking the link below or downloading the podcast on iTunes, Podbean or your favourite podcast provider.
And if you haven’t already listened, you might be interested in the previous episodes of the podcast where I talk to Dr Thomas Bak about the neuroscience behind learning languages, and why the UK needs to change our approach to learning them.
If you read the news yesterday you may have seen some distressing headlines that suggest learning languages causes mental health problems. GCSE students are being excused from language lessons ‘because language lessons apparently damage their mental health.’ Top prize for bigotry and linguaphobia goes to the Daily Mail for the following headline:
‘Doctors give pupils sick notes to duck French and German lessons amid fears the stress of learning a second language is harming their mental health’
The article goes on to explain exactly how learning languages will harm your child’s mental health, referring several times to ‘the mental health threat’ posed by language lessons, and saying that these sick notes ‘often mention a range of stresses, not just languages.’ Ouch.
Not far behind with second prize is the Telegraph:
Children find foreign languages so stressful they are being signed off by a GP, headteachers told
Apparently children ‘must be excused from learning languages because it is causing them extreme anxiety.’
Both papers are at pains to point out that languages are irrelevant, pointless, and not part of our culture. There is also some suggestion that languages are a waste of money, since they adversely affect children’s mental health, meaning that mental health services will be strained.
STOP WHERE YOU ARE.
Learning languages does not pose a ‘mental health threat’. Yes, our teenagers are increasingly stressed about GCSEs and social media is causing more anxiety than ever for our young people, but languages are the scapegoat here, and not the root of this growing problem.
There is plenty of scientific evidence that, far from ‘harming’ mental health, learning languages has a positive and beneficial effect on mental health and indeed on long-term physical brain health. If the NHS prescribed learning languages, it could save billions on dementia care and depression medication.
Languages are an easy target because, as my first The Language Revolution Podcast guest Thomas Bak points out, we routinely undervalue languages in the UK and indeed the census promotes a monoglottist view of the state of languages in this country. If we continue to phrase the census question on languages as ‘What is your main language?’ we imply that only one ‘national’ language has importance, and this smacks of the kind of linguistic stamping out, or linguicide, that has been seen in extremis in Australia, where of the 250 native languages that existed before colonial settlers arrived, only 13 are not highly endangered today.
I read with interest the studies of Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann in Australia, as reported by Alex Rawlings in this BBC Future article. Zuckermann has shown that since reintroducing ancestral languages to indigenous people who were subject to the imperialistic policies of the Australian government in the late-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries (namely separating children from their families and forcing them to speak English instead of their mother tongue), a clear trend has emerged of improved mental and physical wellbeing. Alcholism, addiction, diabetes, depression and suicide rates have fallen amongst Aboriginal people whose languages are resurrected through Zuckermann’s work, suggesting that far from causing mental health problems, languages are a source of improved mental wellbeing. The studies are ongoing and I await further results with interest.
Through my work with Babel Babies I regularly hear from families who have been advised by well-meaning (I hope) professionals to stop speaking their own language to their own children, in order to improve their child’s chances of learning English or to help improve a suspected speech delay that they claim is caused by bilingualism. This is a totally incorrect and false piece of advice, and not only proven to have the opposite effect (as Thomas Bak explains in Episode 3 of The Language Revolution Podcast) but I suspect it also causes untold psychological trauma.
Imagine if your mother suddenly stopped singing, reading stories and saying all the comforting and loving words of your first few months or years, and fell silent or became emotionally distant all of a sudden because she felt unable to speak in her own language of mothering, your shared language, and was only ‘allowed’ to speak in faltering English to you. Awful!
I was moved to tears at the Languages Symposium in November 2017 by Dina Mehmedbegovic’s stories about teenagers in London who were cut off from their ‘home’ language and felt that it was a sin to speak it, or even to think of an answer in school in a language other than English. The long-term damage this monoglot culture is causing to our young people, to our families and communities, is breathtakingly sad.
And surely it is easy to change this by stating the scientific facts about bilingualism CORRECTLY:
1 – You will NOT IMPROVE your child’s English outcomes by switching to only speaking English at home;
2 – You will merely SLOW DOWN their progress with English, and SPEED UP the deterioration and eventual loss of their first language, disconnecting them from their relatives and history at the same time (and leading to long-term negative effects, as Zuckermann’s research shows).
3 – Children will learn English through school and the environment, and by continuing to speak your family’s language(s) at home you IMPROVE their acquisition of English too. The two languages do NOT COMPETE with each other, they support each other, as Thomas and I discuss in the first episode of the podcast.
Fear of Languages
So why are we so darn afraid of languages in the UK, to the point that it is reportedly causing ‘damage to mental health’ in our children to study languages at school?
I believe quite strongly that our whole approach to language education needs to change. There are gaping wounds to heal in the adults who went through school hating language lessons, fearful of appearing stupid, who in order to protect their self esteem now tell me they are ‘rubbish at languages’ rather than that ‘languages were not taught in a way that felt natural to me’. If we look at the natural language acquisition process, we don’t sit babies down with a verb table and get them conjugating or parsing, nor do we ask them to repeat lists of vocabulary or expect them to speak in full sentences just because we have read the same story to them every night for a week.
If we taught science with the same preposterous expectations, the science curriculum would be:
Early Years/KS1 – no mention of science, but a playground full of children whose parents are biochemists, vets, doctors, astrophysicists, engineers etc. One or two parents may come into class to read a story about saving lives or space exploration. Teachers, keep it light – it’s not of central importance.
KS2 – up to one hour per week (unless there is something more important happening like an assembly) with a different teacher (preferably a science graduate if you can find one because only experts can teach this) where children repeat five or six elements of the periodic table, colour in some pictures of rockets, or label a diagram of a plant. Also a ‘science week’ to be organised for year six pupils in the summer term, after all the important (actual) work has been covered in primary school.
KS3 – disregard primary curriculum. Children choose a specialist science and learn it up to a high standard ready for examinations.
Teaching notes – Drop in the odd comment about ‘doing your bit’ for the economy (heaven knows, we need scientists in order to to thrive as a country!) and also point out at careers fairs and parents’ evenings how useful science is for long-term development, getting jobs, appearing ‘well-rounded’ and you could go as far as saying that it’s fun even if you don’t really believe that it is. That’s okay because adults know that science is the hardest subject, with unfair exams, but we need our children to value it anyway or the country is doomed.
Change the languages curriculum
Yes, I am being facetious here, but do we really expect our children to want to learn languages, to feel equipped with the skills and metacognitive awareness to explore the vast and colourful subject of languages and feel in control of doing it, and to enjoy the process of learning languages (not just hope the outcome is useful in adulthood) under the current floundering system? Languages are central to our understanding of humankind, and a central part of being human. But ‘learning languages’ at school is far removed from that reality.
A tough-nut pupil in a Glasgow secondary school summed it up for me when he asked, after our third lesson on ER verbs where we’d been making up raps about the verb tables and partaking in all sorts of linguistic acrobatics to make it palatable, ‘Miss, how are we doing verbs in French when we dinnae use them in English?’ In case you don’t know, how roughly equates to WHY THE HECK, and he’s right! He was completely unaware that English is a language with all the same grammatical intricacies and systems, historical vocabulary sources and overlapping sound systems as French, or that we actually SPOKE FRENCH in the UK for 600 years. The disconnect between English being a language and ‘other languages’ is astounding and extremely damaging. In class his friends included children who spoke additional languages, but as the curriculum ignored these it didn’t help much because languages your friends speak and languages in school are not the same thing.
Let’s start by putting languages back at the heart of our human experience, our history and knowledge of how we have got to where we are today as an ever-evolving species, and let’s educate our children from birth or as soon as possible about how they fit into the linguistic landscape in the UK. No, they may not speak other languages at home or ever visit France, or even venture further than McDonalds on the high street, but those are not the only reasons to learn another language.
Health benefits of languages
Let’s also educate ourselves about and continue researching the enormous health benefits, both physical and mental, of learning languages. Neuroscientists are only just beginning to understand the incredible effects of languages on our brain. Knowing more than one language doubles your cognitive recovery rate within a year of suffering a stroke, and buys you another four or five years of symptom-free life if you suffer from Alzheimer’s. The best drugs on the market don’t even come close! As Thomas Bak says in our interviews, monolingualism is an epidemic that speeds up the ageing process, but it is reversible if we learn languages.
Furthermore, a 2018 study proved that singing lullabies and songs from around the world in mother-and-baby groups decreases the symptoms of post-natal depression by 35% within six weeks of giving birth, as reported by the BBC. This was a much faster recovery rate than the mothers taking part in creative play sessions or receiving their usual care and support, medication, or mindfulness interventions.
If there is a prejudice against learning languages in the UK, we need to take action now to enlighten people. Languages are not the cause of the problem, and they might just be the cure.
We face a UK languages crisis as GCSE numbers plummet and our confidence in learning languages crumbles. In episode 3 of The Language Revolution Podcast, I ask Thomas Bak why, and what we can do about it. We Brits have a terrible reputation for learning languages these days, yet this hasn’t always been the case. The problem is that everybody speaks English now so we have reached a period of ‘linguistic inertia’. Can we find our way out of it again and embrace our linguistically diverse society and history?
Did you know that we spoke French in Britain for 600 years, and before that we spoke German? The grammar and spelling of English are pretty bonkers sometimes, aren’t they? Why is light not spelled as lite? And why is there a silent ‘b’ in debt? The history of our language explains the origins of ‘unspellable’ words and seemingly illogical grammar. We used to study Latin and Greek at school not only to understand those languages, but to enhance our knowledge of English. Languages are transferable skills that are part of a well-rounded education, informing our understanding of science, history, geography, literature, music and art.
However, over the last century we have eroded our knowledge of our rich linguistic heritage and reached a period of linguistic deprivation. Deep-seated and prejudiced ideas about monolingualism are the norm, and multilingualism is seen as unusual or problematic. The census question about languages is a prime example of this monolingual prejudice. This in turn this leads to incorrect advice being dished out to multilingual parents. Professionals tell parents to stop speaking their family language at home in order to help their children make progress in English.
Evidence for a multilingual approach
Here we examine the evidence that shows how speaking more than one language supports acquisition of further languages, including English, and why it is important to educate our educators about the benefits of maintaining the ‘home’ language for EAL children. We also propose a plurilingual approach to learning languages in primary and early years. If you compare how we teach the sciences and STEM with how we teach languages, it seems logical to change our whole approach right from the start. This would benefit the children’s overall understanding of literacy and how languages work.
One day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, our children will understand how they are all born linguists and ready to learn any language from birth. Listen to episode 1 of the podcast to learn how we learn languages.
The UK is well-placed to be at the forefront of language education and linguistic expertise. We just need to retrain our thinking. Vive la révolution!
Listen to episode three of The Language Revolution Podcast now:
In this episode of The Language Revolution Podcast, I ask Thomas Bak about the perfect age to learn languages. Is it ever too late to start? Can you lose your childhood accent? How does learning languages improve your brain health? Should the NHS prescribe languages to older adults to delay dementia? What if you already have dementia, is it too late to learn languages then?
We might assume that as we get older it becomes ever increasingly difficult to learn languages. Perhaps you have heard that the ‘critical window’ for learning languages closes when we are teenagers, or even earlier. Here we examine different aspects of language acquisition (sounds, grammar and vocabulary) individually, and look at whether there is an ideal age to learn each. To find out how we learn, process and store languages, listen to episode one first.
We go on to discuss the health benefits of learning languages in later life. Did you know that being bilingual doubles your chances of a full cognitive recovery within the first year after suffering a stroke? Pretty amazing stats. We also discuss how the process of learning languages can delay dementia symptoms and improve brain health as part of a healthy retirement lifestyle. If you are thinking about taking up languages when you retire, this could be just the motivation you are seeking!
Ever wondered whether doing Sudoku or crossword puzzles, or learning a musical instrument, has the same benefits as learning a language? Is it worth the effort of trying to remember some basic Italian when you are tired and finding it difficult? Take inspiration from Joseph Conrad, Mary Hobson and Samuel Beckett, or closer to home, look to your own children and grandchildren and set a good example of how grown-ups can learn languages too.
Listen to episode two of The Language Revolution Podcast now:
Do you say ‘The Language Revolution Podcast’ or podcarst? I have no idea which one is more ‘me’ and so I sought advice about how we learn to speak from neuroscientist Thomas Bak, from Edinburgh University.
This the first episode of The Language Revolution podcast, and part one of a three-part series where we discuss everything about languages from how we learn new words, to linguistic exogamy!
Is it normal to speak more than one language? Will we feel confused? Can our brains cope with storing more than one language, and if so, how do they manage to juggle them?
As a languages teacher and co-founder of Babel Babies, I am fascinated by how something as simple as speaking has got people into such a pickle. The UK has a rich multilingual tapestry, woven with our 14 indigenous languages (go on, have a go at naming them in the comments below!) and many more language threads that have come to our shores with people from all over the world, and yet we have a reputation of shying away from learning new languages.
I think it’s high-time we faced the issues we have about learning languages head-on and talked about where our feelings of fear, embarrassment, and even resentment at the suggestion that English speakers should learn a new language come from.
It’s time for a language revolution, n’est-ce pas?
Listen to episode one of The Language Revolution Podcast now: