- “What’s the best way to learn a foreign language?”
- “Start before the age of seven!”
What can I say? It’s not the most useful piece of advice – at least not if you have already celebrated your eighth birthday. But there is some truth in it. Young children learn languages quickly. Annoyingly quickly. And seemingly without much effort. This may surprise you, though – they can learn about languages just as quickly, and they can have fun whilst they do it.
To find this out, the Language Landscape team embarked upon a project with a school in East London. I think of it as more like an experiment… what happens when you put six incurably passionate linguists in a language class with about twenty children? The answer? Oddly enough, chemistry! No, no, put away your test tubes and Bunsen burner, all I mean is that the kids learnt a lot, we learnt a lot, everyone had a good time and we should do it all again. That doesn’t sound like chemistry to you? Well read on, here’s the formula that made it all work.
We prepared an eight week timetable, going into the school every Tuesday afternoon. This one precious hour every week was all we had with our young participants, so we made the most of it. Every minute was planned with language-related activities. We had achievable learning outcomes for every session, but we also wanted to give them a taste of managing a language project over several weeks. Assembling them into groups, they defined their projects (for example, one project was to record songs in languages other than English from people in the school). Then they divided up responsibilities, and off they went! Each week we made step-by-step progress towards these projects, and it culminated in the groups visiting our university and presenting their work to an audience of academics. You can even hear some of their recordings on the Language Landscape Bow School Project page. To deliver a jam-packed and enjoyable day for them, we also arranged a debate on the topic of endangered languages, which they fully participated in, and even had time for a language taster session (Swahili, in this case) which was very popular.
Judging by how engaged and enthusiastic the schoolboys were on this last day, it can be difficult to remember how far we’d come. When we first arrived at the school, forewarned that over 80% of the school are “Disadvantaged pupils”, we were told not to expect an easy ride. We also didn’t want to expect too much prior knowledge, at least in the specialist field of linguistics. What can I say? We were surprised on both counts.
The whole class won our hearts and minds with the energy they put into every task we put in front of them. Okay, sometimes that energy needed some help to… ahem… redirect to the task at hand, but the groups certainly achieved a great deal, and that’s really down to their hard work. Also, only a fifth of the school’s pupils have English as a first language – many speak another language at home. So there we were, in a room full of bilinguals, the majority of them working on a third or fourth language at school. In their own way, these were veritable language experts!
One of the most important changes I noticed was how attitudes to their home languages were affected. Think about this for a moment – can you imagine speaking another language in addition to English, totally fluently, and consider it a hindrance? That is exactly what we observed in our class. By the end of our workshops, this had turned into recognition of multilingualism as the asset that we at Language Landscape believe it to be. Of course, that was also a great confidence boost for lots of participants, and some were taking a more visible pride in their heritage. Result!
There was a lot going on to make this project work, and if you want to learn more, check out this little video we put together.