Tag Archives: language learning

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).

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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.

 

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.