Category Archives: Modern Languages

What’s new?

In September I moved institutions and took up a more senior role. Four months into my new post as professor of modern languages at the University of Birmingham, it seems a good time to reflect on what’s new for me.

New postgraduate role
At my last institution, I served as (acting) Faculty Lead for Postgraduate Affairs. At Birmingham, I am now Deputy Director of the College Graduate School and Co-Site Director of the Midlands3Cities doctoral training partnership, across a consortium of 6 universities (University of Birmingham, Birmingham City University, University of Leicester, De Montfort University, University of Nottingham, and Nottingham Trent University). It means my outlook is much broader, cross-institutional, and I have responsibility for a larger cohort of students. But I also have a larger team (there are 2 other academic members of staff in related College PG roles), and we have an excellent team of administrative support staff.

New collaborations
Since arriving in Birmingham, I have met with lots of new people, both within and outside of academia. One exciting potential new collaboration is with a specialist voice consultant at the Queen Elizabeth hospital – we both happen to also be professionally trained singers, so our jobs, research, and practice intersect in fairly unique ways. I’m looking forward to going in to observe a voice clinic in the next few weeks, and am exploring different voice analysis apps to extend my own research approach. Other opportunities are in the pipeline, including linking up with the Conservatoire for their French song performance classes, and exploring new ideas around computational musicology with a colleague I met at MIT when I was over in Boston in the autumn.

New places
My new role has seen me travel a lot more for work. In the first few months of the academic year, I got to travel to some glamorous places (and some a little less exciting!), all for work: Abindgon, Boston, Leicester, London, Nashville, Nottingham, Providence (RI), Sheffield. Some of these trips were for research, including a fellowship at Vanderbilt University where I got to work with their extraordinary Baudelaire collections. Some were for engagement work, including a 4-day recording session working on a new disc of Baudelaire songs, and co-running a masterclass at an amazing new song festival (SongMakers). Some were for outreach, including presenting to secondary schools on ‘why bother with languages?’.

New curriculum
Moving universities always means getting to grips with a new setup, new modules, and new ways of delivering programmes. But part of my decision to move institutions was because of the exciting opportunities Birmingham has to offer as the modern languages team work on fresh approaches to its degree programmes (watch this space!). For me personally, this has meant setting up links with external partners, expanding my knowledge and expertise around languages tech, and approaching colleagues from across the university to co-deliver a new interdisciplinary words and music module. New modules and curriculum developments take time, but we’re a long way down the road.

But amongst all of these new things, much has stayed the same. The Baudelaire Song Project continues apace, with more exciting findings really cementing our research approach (we are very much looking forward to showcasing some of these in 2017). I continue to edit the journal Dix-Neuf, with a range of interesting pieces in the pipeline for publication in the coming year. Some of my adminsitrative work is the same (tutees, open days, planning/strategy meetings), and I continue to mentor colleagues around research plans. The diversity of the work I do is exciting, but it also means pretty careful time planning to make sure I manage to fit everything in. It helps, of course, that I got a big piece of research off my desk just as I started at Birmingham (my OUP book typescript), and that I have amazing support outside of the workplace (my husband is also in academia, so understands how the workload fluctuates at different times of year). We might be living and working in uncertain times in terms of the wider national and international (higher education) landscape, but for now at least I am able to say: I love my new job.



Should you translate songs? 

10 lessons from the SongMakers Masterclass with Roderick Williams. MiTR/Uni Sheffield 12 November 2016.
1. Lots of songs *have* been translated

Schubert’s music enjoyed huge success in France because he was sung in French translation in many of the early C19th salons

2. Some composers set texts in one language and provide a parallel translation (with some modifications to the rhythm/melody to accommodate different stresses of each language). 

Examples: Berg, Gretchaninov.

3. Publishers, especially at the start of the C20th, published a lot of translated songs/parallel scores, often with the English (translated language) on top (without composer modification)

During the First World War there was a distinct shift away from singing in German. But even Debussy’s songs appeared in parallel translations in the early decades of the C20th as part of the ‘craze’ in the UK and US for singing in English.

4. Not all translations are equal. But to claim one is ‘better’ than another is often problematic. An archaic-sounding translation to our ears today may have been the pinnacle of translation a hundred years ago.

A translation of Gute Nacht (Good Night) from Schubert’s Winterreise (Winter Journey) might use hither, thither, and gay. A more modern translation avoids those terms.

5. Singing translations differ from singable ones. Sometimes a singer has to adapt what a translator has done (discussing with the translator if appropriate/possible).

6. Different audiences like to hear different things. Those with extensive knowledge of the Lieder repertoire tend to want to hear it in original language. Newer audiences enjoy the experience of being able to understand what is being said. 

7. Singers love it when audiences are looking up at them! Traditional concert programmes with poems and translations mean audiences are often heads-down reading and rustling pages which is offputting for performers.

8. A song performed in translation is an entirely different work, doing different (not necessarily better or worse) things. It’s like a film adaption of a book: some things get left out, others have to change. There is no direct equivalence.

9. Song translations help singers and pianists to understand what is going on in the text. But good practice means performers heavily annotate their scores with word-for-word translations and key ideas from the text to make sure they are conveying meanings and emotions.

10. Singing in translation can be less daunting than working on language pronunciation and diction. But it doesn’t mean it is less work for the singer!

A festival of linguistic diversity

On the 15th European Day of Languages it’s a good moment to take stock of our languages profile. The UK is not renowned for its languages prowess, but we enjoy huge linguistic diversity nonetheless, embedded within our communities. This is easy to forget if we just read the news reports about the ‘alarming shortage’ of language skills, with our ‘poor language skills’ meaning we are being overtaken by other countries. This ‘alarming shortfall’ in language skills affects our diplomats, just as much as a ‘lack of language skills’ is said to be diminishing Britain’s voice in the world. Languages across the world are changing all the time, and globally there are many more of us who speak more than one language, than there are monoglots. But the profiles of those using more than one language are as diverse as the languages themselves (and the reasons we choose to speak or study them).

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European Day of Languages

Last week, I had the opportunity to meet with hundreds of students studying languages at Abingdon School, from Year 9s through to 6th formers. We discussed which languages are the most “useful” (clue: it’s not just about population size/number of speakers globally), and how you can get the most out of learning languages (clue: develop a daily training programme like you would for sport or music, and plan to spend time abroad, even if only for a short stint). I was lucky enough also to join in with an after-school Languages Club in which we learnt about the earliest known written language (Sumerian) and the Uralic language group (Hungarian, Estonian…). But what struck me most was how many languages students speak at home already, from Ukrainian, to Spanish, Welsh, and French, as well as the English they use in their everyday lives and studies.

A research project launched today looks at how being multilingual transforms the way societies work. Involving researchers from various UK universities (Cambridge, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Queen’s University Belfast), the project explores the challenges and benefits of being multilingual (it’s not all easy…), examining a wide range of languages including Irish, French, Cantonese, Mandarin, Catalan, German, Polish, Punjabi, Spanish and Ukrainian.

For the research project I lead, we have uncovered settings of Baudelaire’s poems in languages as diverse as Norwegian and Korean, as well as English, German, and Russian, and we know that there are many more out there that we are yet to uncover. We are finding that those who choose to set Baudelaire in another language do not always choose their mother tongue (so an Italian band might choose to set Baudelaire in English translation, for example), and the profiles of the bands, songwriters, and composers whose Baudelaire songs we examine, are amazingly diverse.

So today is certainly a day to celebrate our linguistic diversity. And to spend some time using and enjoying the languages we already speak, and to try out some new ones. Profitez-en. Approfittane! Yn gwneud y mwyaf ohoni![1]


[1] This might not quite be right – I hope some Welsh-speakers can correct me if not, my Welsh is quite rusty now…!

Why I’m proud to be European

THOSE of you who know me can guess how I’ll vote in the in-out referendum on June 23 even if I don’t usually talk about politics. Not this time, there’s far too much at stake for another comfortable, evasive silence.

But first some context – this is not a set of arguments about the economic benefits of staying in the EU. I won’t tackle the financial implications or immigration (all well rehearsed, and I value both sides of the debate). I will focus on why I want Britain to continue to play a central role in an important alliance of countries with which we have much more in common than trade.

I am European. My mother is Irish, my father British, and both have travelled extensively. My parents were living in France before I was born, and only returned to the UK a few months before my birth. My middle brother was born in France, my eldest brother lives and works in Germany. He has a German wife and two gorgeous, bilingual girls, Ella and Emily. Between us, we speak French, German, and Italian. My mother also speaks Irish and has pretty good Spanish. I have worked in Italy on bilingual contracts and communications for Italian law firms. I saw the euro established and introduced. I have lived and worked in Wales, where I spent two years learning Welsh.

My working life is focused on France; I run a large research project with a colleague at Toulouse University and regularly travel there and to Paris for work. When the Six Nations Championship begins I can support all the sides – I was born in England, I have an Irish mother, I worked in Wales, I honeymooned in Scotland, I lived and worked in Italy, and I work regularly in France. I really don’t mind who wins (but I have a slight preference for England). I’m not some wishy-washy I’ll-support-whoever-it’s-convenient-to-support kind of person, I have a finger in every national pie. But I am someone who understands deeply how much flex there is in national, cultural, and individual identities. For me, shutting ourselves off from our neighbours and friends, and their cultures, would be damaging.

Of course, my job would be significantly more difficult if we left the EU, I have a vested interest. This also applies to all my students, their families and their futures – and for the future for all Brits. We shouldn’t be short-sighted and retreat, pulling up the drawbridge just because our relationship with the EU is difficult at the moment. If we don’t work together longer term, everyone’s prospects will be diminished. Reversing what has been secured in my lifetime seems nonsensical. Forgetting that the foundations of co-operation were, and remain, the desire for long-lasting peace seems at best ignorant and at worst selfish.

The ability to travel and to work without major bureaucratic hassle or significant financial outlay is amazing. I want other Europeans to come and share their expertise and culture with us Brits too. We are, after all, already European. I am proud to be European, I am proud to be part of something that we work hard at. Walking away would be the cowards’ choice. Let’s accept the challenge, remain a member and lead the essential reform.

[This is an UPDATED POST as at 4.25pm, 30 April 2016, after my awesome uncle Jack did a brilliant copy-edit of it for me (he’s associate editor for the Irish Examiner). Original wording of post is retained below for info.]

[ORIGINAL POST 29 April 2016:

With the upcoming EU referendum on 23 June, most can guess which way I’ll be voting. I’m normally someone who keeps my politics private, but this referendum is too important for me not to share my views. But first I should be up front. This is not going to be a set of arguments about the economic benefits (or otherwise) of staying in the EU. It won’t tackle the financial implications, or explicitly touch on immigration (all of these arguments are well rehearsed elsewhere, and I value both sides of the debate). It will instead set out all the personal reasons why I want us to stay part of an important group of countries with whom we have much more in common than trade.

I am of European extraction. My mother is Irish, and my father British, but both have travelled extensively. My parents were living in France before I was born, and only came back to the UK a few months before my birth. My middle brother was born in France. My eldest brother now lives and works in Germany, has a German wife, and two gorgeous bilingual girls. Between us, we speak French, German, and Italian to a very high level of fluency. My mother also is a native Irish speaker, and has pretty good Spanish too. I have lived and worked in Italy, working for law firms on all their bilingual contracts and communications. I saw the Euro being introduced. I have lived and worked in Wales, where I spent two years learning Welsh. My working life now is focused on France; I am running a large research project with a colleague at Toulouse University and regularly travel there and to Paris for work. When the 6 Nations rugby is on, I can support all the sides – I was born in England, I have an Irish mother, I worked in Wales, I honeymooned in Scotland, I lived and worked in Italy, and I still work regularly in France. I really don’t mind who wins (but I have a slight preference for the England side)! What I mean by this is not that I’m some wishy-washy I’ll-support-whoever-it’s-convenient-to-support kind of person. But I am someone who understands deeply and personally how much flex there is in national, cultural, and individual identities.

And for me, shutting ourselves off from other countries and cultures is damaging. Of course my job would be significantly more difficult if we left the EU, so I have a vested interest in staying. But it’s also for all my students, and for their families and futures, and for the futures of all Brits, that we shouldn’t be so short-sighted as to retreat and close ourselves off just because things are difficult at the moment. If we don’t work together longer term, everyone’s prospects will be damaged. Reversing what was secured in my lifetime seems nonsensical. Forgetting that the foundations of cooperation were, and remain, the desire for long-lasting peace, seems at best ignorant and at worst selfish. The ability to travel and to work without major bureaucratic hassle or significant financial outlay is amazing; and I want other Europeans to come and share their expertise and culture with us Brits too. We are, after all, already European. I am proud to be European, I am proud to be part of something that we work hard at. Walking away would be the coward’s route.]

Why studying French poetry is great for your pronunciation skills

Getting good at French is one thing, but getting good at sounding French is quite another. I’ve posted before about how listening to French songs regularly can help you absorb accent, stress, and flow in French (in response to this JonRoss Swaby piece in The Guardian).


But I’m only now realising – thanks to a growing number of observations and comments from my students – how much studying French poetry helps too.

Poetry helps us to slow down our reading. With language condensed into a shorter form, every word, every syllable, every phoneme counts. As language practitioners we so often train our students to discover the nuances of language usage via longer journalistic or literary texts, or by very short grammar sentences for which we get them to fill in the gaps, select and conjugate the correct verb tense and so on. But poetry sits in the middle ground, and is becoming – for me – an increasingly invaluable tool for enhancing language and pronunciation proficiency.

With its rich vocabulary, we can peel back layers of meaning. I get my students to use a historical dictionary so that they can unearth the unusual, unexpected meanings of French, as well as get a grasp of the historical linguistics and cultural concepts underpinning the development of French as a language.

A student studying Baudelaire’s prose poem L’Étranger researched the use of the keyword ‘nuage’ which concludes the final statement of the dialogue which makes up the poem. ‘Nuage’ of course refers to the natural phenomenon in the sky, but its multiple metaphorical uses developed over time. The portail lexical of the CNRTL offers, for example, analogical uses of the term in agriculture, atrophysics, physics/chemistry, maths/statistics. But it also shows how, around the 1820s – 1850s in France, writers began to use the term to mean ‘Ce qui assombrit, masque la visibilité des choses’ or ‘Menace pesant sur quelqu’un, annonce d’un danger’. These more sinister meanings could add a more ‘gothic’ tinge to a reading of Baudelaire’s prose poem, or – read in conjunction with the politically-infused questioning earlier on in the poem – it could point towards a predilection for political change, revolutions, upheavals (which characterised much of the nineteenth century in the years leading up to Baudelaire writing his poetry).

But beyond the meanings is the sound world. Poetic French creates crackling, sparkling sounds by bringing choice consonants (t, p) into close contact with tight u and i vowels (‘tu m’es en riant apparue’. Mallarmé ‘Apparition’) and judicious use of polysyllabic words (‘délicatement’. Verlaine). So too does it favour more mellow and rich sounds of the deep ‘ou’ vowels (‘Les roses étaient toutes rouges / Et les lierres étaient tout noirs’. Verlaine ‘Spleen’; ‘Écloses pour nous sous des cieux plus beaux’. Baudelaire ‘La Mort des amants’).

Encouraging students to work closely with these various poetic soundscapes means enabling them to develop a really fine and subtle ability in French pronunciation. It is not just about developing a very French pout (which does, admittedly, help – it’s a technique I use with singers who need to ‘sound French’ with minimal time left to prepare for a concert; it’s not something I recommend as a general rule!). It is all about learning how to move the mouth in a very different way – from the tight forward lips required for the ‘ou’ and ‘u’ sounds (‘nous’, ‘tu’, depending on the lowered or raised tongue position) to the wide and open ‘é’ or ‘a’ sounds (e.g. of ‘éclater’), and everything in between – the really neutral loose mouth shape for an unaccented ‘e’, the dropped lower jaw for many of the ‘o’ sounds, and so on.

So I’m finding myself doing increasing amounts of language coaching with my French degree students, along the lines of the work I do with professional singers. It’s particularly rewarding working with students studying poetry because they are able to focus in on the details, they have a good grasp of versification, accent, and metre, as well as the range of semantic play. But what so often eludes them is the intensity of the soundworld, and that’s where hard work starts to pay off.

And the proof that this approach works?

Well, it is still anecdotal, of course, but what I’ve observed is that it doesn’t just pay off for their French poetry assignments. I watch my students flourish as their confidence and ability in spoken language clicks into place. They suddenly begin to sound so French even after working on just a few lines of poetry, and this work transfers almost instantly into the rest of their spoken French – whether for oral exams, for informal conversations with native speakers in and around the University, or in the wider world beyond the University (many go on to work in France or a French-speaking country after finishing their degree).

So. French poetry may seem like a niche area of study, but it’s shaping up to be a key training ground for linguists aiming to develop that ever-so-elusive fluency skill so that they sound completely French too. And the pay-off? Better (British) linguists means better global citizens.


Translating poetry for song performances

This month sees the start of the 2015 Oxford Lieder festival. I’ve worked with the Oxford Lieder team since 2008, and have enjoyed giving many pre-concert talks on song programmes focused around French song. But this year’s festival is a little different. Called ‘Singing Words: Poets and their Songs’, it approaches the art song form from the perspective of the poet first. The programme includes concerts dedicated to song settings of poems by Eluard, Heine, Rilke, or Verlaine, and many more poets besides. Working with poetry in literary language, however, especially those which use old-fashioned vocabulary and phrasing, and doing all this in a foreign language, must surely be quite alienating for audiences not fully conversant in those languages, or that type of literary language?

One of the ways round this, to help audiences engage better with what is being sung on stage, is to include translations in programme booklets. In fact, just this week, I’ve translated another 7 French poems for Oxford Lieder, all texts selected by Berlioz for songs which will be performed at a lunchtime recital on 24 October 2015. The commissioning turnaround time was quick, so I submitted them to the Oxford Lieder team with the caveat that ‘they’re hardly the most aesthetically beautiful literary translations, but they do capture what’s going on in each of the songs’. It’s perhaps a lazy get-out clause which forestalls any critique of my translation work. But if I’d had more time (or skill), what would I have done instead?

Translating poetry for song performances is not straightforward, and I wanted to share some of these issues here:

Who am I translating for?
In commissioning any translation work, it’s important to factor in who the readers of the translated work will be. Am I translating for teenagers who have never been to a song recital before? Am I translating for a group of well-established concert-goers who know a lot of Berlioz songs already, and have a pretty reasonable French anyhow? The reality with public performances is that you will have a mixture of people with differing levels of competence and experience in listening to foreign-language song (and the work Oxford Lieder and numerous other arts organisations are doing is helping to diversify their audiences). So, who am I translating for?

What is the main aim of the translation?
It is so easy to claim that the main aim of a translation is to ‘capture the essence’ of the original foreign-language text. But what does this mean? As recently-developed theories and methodologies of translation show us, there are decisions to be made which include:

Domestication / Foreignization
How much should you convert the original-language source text into the specific cultural and linguistic reference-points of the translated language (‘domestication’), and how much you keep the points of difference, whether in word order, phrasing, and syntax, or culture-specific terms (‘foreignization’). Clive Scott calls for ‘foreignization’ in his books on translating Baudelaire and Rimbaud, maintaining that poetry in some way necessitates that feel of ‘otherness’ as a different way of using language. This means that you ‘feel’ that the text is translated, and the translator can often deploy his/her creativity more extensively (maintaining what Lawrence Venuti calls the translator’s ‘visibility’). Other poetry translators seek to fully ‘domesticate’ a foreign poem by adapting it into an English-language form, using English verse metre and developing a rhyme scheme based on English sounds.

Formal or Dynamic Equivalence
Adapting a poem into the verse forms of a translated language is also a type of ‘formal equivalence’ as set out by Eugene Nida, in that it sees both the meaning of the poem and the format of the text as jointly important. ‘Dynamic equivalence’ would transmit just the effect of the message (perhaps this notion of somehow ‘capturing the essence’ of a text) without maintaining its form. This perhaps best describes what I have done with my quick Berlioz translations for Oxford Lieder: I have not created a new poetic work using English verse techniques, but I have sought to maintain the effect (‘capture the essence’). But I have also sought to maintain a more-or-less word-for-word translation so that the audience can follow in roughly ‘real time’ what is being sung which retains in some way the ‘formal equivalence’. What I have done is perhaps the most common approach to translating poem texts for song recitals, but it is not necessarily the most suitable, particularly for contemporary audiences.

Singable translations
An approach which has largely fallen out of fashion is the ‘singable translation’, which keeps the rhythm of the vocal part intact but which struggles to maintain word-for-word equivalence. There are positives and negatives to a singable translation, both for the performer and for the audience, depending on what is being conveyed through the song. Do we miss the sounds of the original language? Are sung words always fully audible? Does the sung translation ‘sanitize’ the original? Perhaps perplexingly, singable translations are common in opera (such as all the works performed at the English National Opera), but less so on the song recital circuit.

Where can I find out more?
A small team of song translation researchers and practicitioners will explore this question of how to translate poems for song performances at a Song in Translation Study Event on 25 October 2015. Laura Tunbridge, Philip Bullock, Richard Stokes and I will probe issues to do with about the integrity of the poem or its song setting, political agendas and censorhip, and how national and cultural identities come into play too. To find out more, book your place at the Okinaga Room, Wadham College, starting at 2pm!

Languages and performance nerves

In a Twitter exchange last week, a former colleague flagged up the negative rhetoric surrounding language learning in this country. The exchange was sparked by a BBC News headline Britons ‘nervous to speak foreign language when abroad’ from a report by Katherine Sellgren based on a recent Populus poll commissioned by the British Council which surveyed just over 2000 UK adults about using languages abroad.   Dr Jonathan Ervine (Head of the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Bangor University) followed up our exchange with a blog post Did you miss the good news about foreign languages?. Ervine rightly picks up on the fact that a positive statistic is buried at the bottom of the report, and that the negative spin of the headline doesn’t allow the good news to emerge that in fact nearly half of Brits are keen to try out their language skills when holidaying abroad. But the positive statistic that “48% said they enjoyed trying out their language skills while on holiday” needs to be recognised as a modest and short-lived attempt to speak in another language. The British Council report itself indicates that those trying out language skills in this way are reliant on basic ‘key phrases to get by’ such as ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, and ‘Do you speak English?’. As Brits and as linguists, we have so much more to offer than that.   With 40% of Brits saying they are embarrassed by their foreign language skills, we need to start thinking about our languages performance anxiety. Nerves about using languages are inevitable, whether on holiday, working abroad, or in the workplace or socially in this country. Most language learners go through the same process. We’ve all dealt with that feeling of intense embarrassment when you make a slip-up that has unintended consequences (such as the time I managed to say to my German exchange partner as a teenager that I needed to ‘get into the toilet’ instead of ‘go to the toilet’, which sent her into fits of giggles). But overcoming these minor gaffes can lead to untold rewards.   Research published in April 2015 has shown that speaking another language changes your view of the world. The research paper itself  is called “Two Languages, Two Minds” and shows that people behave differently depending on which language they speak. Switching into a whole other mindset is something most linguists do without thinking, but now the research seems to offer scientific proof of this. I sometimes tell my students that I am “Helen” in the UK, “Hélène” in France, and “Elena” in Italy (I’m lucky to have a ‘translatable’ name to illustrate the point, at least for the main languages I speak). I switch gear and behave like a French person or an Italian when writing up reports, planning my social gatherings, or ordering drinks at a cafe. In France, I’ll have a kir at apéro time, in Italy I wouldn’t dream of ordering a cappuccino after midday; back in England it never even crosses my mind to order a kir, or that there’s a problem with drinking milky coffee after lunch. In France, I’ll use deferential polite language to professors I am examining with, in Italy I’ll address them by their title ‘professore’; in England I’ll use first names even for colleagues I’ve only just met. It has become something ingrained and innate that I have another language-based persona, and it’s extremely rewarding.   Imagine if we, as a nation of high level linguists, could comfortably and instinctively behave like a goal-oriented German (see the research mentioned above), structure an argument like the French do, and work within the cultural hierarchies of the Japanese workplace, for example. And that that was the norm, rather than the exception. The benefits of overcoming our language nerves (and our related lack of commitment to language learning) are not just about the personal satisfaction of having engaged on a culturally nuanced and meaningful level with colleagues or friends in Germany, France, or Japan, but they are of course much more wide-ranging. If we can change the national rhetoric and recognise that languages are important and useful in all sorts of contexts, whether foreign travel, business, or social uses, we can start to change our whole way of doing things, and for the better. Accepting our linguistic weaknesses means getting over the feeling that speaking Spanish, Mandarin, or Arabic is somehow profoundly disconcerting and disorientating (or even worse, an unnecessary pain to put ourselves through). Language nerves are part and parcel of being a linguist. It means relinquishing some control of our communication habits and allowing ourselves to be transformed into a whole other person as we take on another way of speaking.   Nerves about using languages can be tackled in many inventive ways, including getting comfortable with different listening, viewing, and speaking habits through strategies such as:

  • Listening to songs. Not just nursery rhymes or ‘Frère Jacques’ but current chart songs with real lyrics and good tunes that stick in our heads with the words attached to them.
  • Watching TV. Without subtitles, encouraging us to focus in on the story or action and pay attention to how they do things.
  • Tandem work. Pairing up via Skype or Face-Time with language learners abroad and setting ground-rules which help break down the self-conscious barriers.

Getting good at languages means constantly watching and listening for how others perform in another language. Because being a linguist is like being a performer or an actor. You have to inhabit a whole other persona. And like all the best actors, this doesn’t mean just putting on a temporary façade; you have to enter a whole new world, and a different way of thinking and behaving. Good linguists are brilliant performers, and it’s time we started to recognise that. If the film industry has achievement ceremonies like The Oscars, and the pop music industry has The Brits and the Grammy Awards, what can the languages industry do to honour the performance achievements of our linguists whose brilliant work has gone unnoticed for too long in this country?

Languages and privilege

Learning a language is an immense privilege. Teaching, researching, and working with modern foreign languages is extremely rewarding on multiple levels. Yet the privileges that high-level language competence bring can be fraught with problems, particularly in terms of access to language learning and language mobility.

The word ‘privilege’ is becoming increasingly loaded. Newspapers describe how modern society is tainted by growing disparities between different economic and social privileges associated with rank or status. Yet this meaning of the word ‘privilege’ is only one of a number of meanings of the word (and is classed as the 6th meaning in a list of 10 in the OED).[1] While other meanings have now become obsolete (such as the historical ecclesiastical usages of the term), there is another meaning to the word which is increasingly overlooked:

privilege, n. an exceptionally rare and fortunate opportunity; the honour or good fortune of something or to do something

In much of the recent debate about languages, language teaching, and language learning in this country, there has rightfully been a concern that the removal of compulsory language requirement at GCSE level in 2004 has restricted access to language learning so that only the privileged few (often those at private schools who retain the value of language learning, and can allay the time, costs and hard work it involves through pupil engagement at a high level of achievement). While new provisions are coming into force which should open up access to languages once again, such as increased provision at primary level since 2014, and the introduction of the EBacc language requirement by 2020, the damage that had been done to potential language learners of a certain generation remains palpable. On top of this, community languages go unrecognised in a political landscape which hotly debates the pros and cons of immigration.

As a university academic who has worked in the sector for a decade, I have seen first-hand the changing profile of students coming to study languages. I happen to lecture in one of the major second languages taught in his country, and the language of one of our closest European neighbours with whom we conduct significant amounts of trade. But I am confident speaking 3 European languages besides English, having learnt them at school or university, and as an adult learner I spent 2 years studying Welsh. Putting myself back in the position of a beginner language learner as a ‘grown up’ (albeit one with a natural facility for languages and a heightened technical awareness of grammatical construction, usage, and language-learning techniques) reminded me of the energy and commitment that goes in to mastering another tongue. Unless you are supported and have regular access to ways of hearing, speaking, and writing in another language, it can be extremely difficult to make tangible progress.

And this is why I feel privileged. Not because I have the advantage of being able to negotiate at a high level using foreign languages in complex and nuanced ways. Not because I have the financial wherewithal to travel to the countries that speak the languages I speak. But because languages have bestowed on me a special honour of being able to think and act multilingually. I am comfortable switching between French, Italian, German, and English because I have been enabled to do it for years through sustained access to those languages. I also know that I find switching into German more mentally draining than Italian, for example, perhaps because I have lived and worked in Italy, but never in Germany, or perhaps because I just ‘click’ more with Italian. I have had the opportunity to work in the legal and financial sectors using all 3 of my main languages, and I continue to collaborate with the cultural industries in France in my job as a university academic. The privilege I, and others like me, enjoy is being able to think and behave in completely different ways. I understand how the French structure their arguments and thoughts, and that makes a major difference to how we can work together. The advantages this multilingual – and multicultural – knowledge brings with it cannot be underestimated.

Learn a language, any language, as long as it’s a language. I don’t care which language it is that we each learn besides English (usually choosing one that culturally suits your temperament is a good bet). But I do care that language learning, and all the benefits it brings, is increasingly becoming restricted to a privileged few. The privilege of being a good linguist is an honour that more of us, and a more diverse group of us, need to enjoy, so that it is no longer an exceptionally rare opportunity, and no longer confined to those of a certain social status. Schools, colleges, and universities all have an important part to play in this, but more importantly, we need to start changing the way we think and talk about foreign languages in this country.

[1] “privilege, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 28 July 2015.

What studying French at university has brought Felicity Lott…

Soprano Dame Felicity Lott was awarded an honorary degree from the Sorbonne in 2010. Her acceptance speech is incredibly touching.

How much do languages matter?

An interesting, relatively balanced programme on foreign language learning on Radio 4’s Word of Mouth – plenty of things I agree with (e.g. decline of languages linked to problematic education policies in recent years), but plenty of other things I disagree with (e.g. PhDs on Proust and/or other canonic authors are still valid and vitally important!). Challenging thoughts re. the ‘market-driven’ approach to language degrees – do students make the right choices or are they not in a position so to do? Should universities subsidise Modern Languages departments? Have education policies created a ‘class-divide’ in terms of language-learning? A range of answers to these questions presented in the programme.