Monthly Archives: February 2014

Bow School Outreach Project

- “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.

A new approach to language mapping

Mapping languages is a unique challenge, because they have certain characteristics which make it difficult to represent them as a static overlay on a map of the landscape. In this post for Mother Language Day, we’ll look at some of these characteristics and consider how different types of language maps attempt to record them.

Languages are often characterised as complex communication systems which are spoken by a monolingual community spread over a continuous geographical region. An interesting alternative view is to think of languages as communities of practice, like sports teams or book clubs. Under this view, languages are the products of loose associations of individuals who develop certain shared ways of doing and talking about things. Crucially, however, individuals who participate in such communities may retain certain ways of talking which don’t fit with the community’s standards, and they may also participate in other communities of practice and adopt and be influenced by their standards. If we accept this conception of languages, the challenge of mapping them becomes clear: how do you define the boundaries of a language, both socially and geographically, when individuals may move freely between different places and speak different languages, dialects and registers, even in the course of a single day?

The answer to this question will not be a simple one, and yet it’s a challenge worth addressing. A good language map should be a comprehensive record of the geographical spread of the language’s community of practice. It should also take into account the fact that certain places may be occupied simultaneously by other communities of practice, and that individuals within each community may also participate in other communities, either in that place or elsewhere. To put it more simply, a good language map should record the complex relationships between people, places and languages.

Traditional methods of language mapping cannot provide this kind of record, partly because of their static nature and partly because of the uneven numbers of speakers of each language. For example, in the map below, some major European languages are shown as coloured polygons representing their supposed geographical spread over the continent:


From Wikimedia Commons

While this map gives us a good general idea of the approximate locations of the major languages, it is woefully inaccurate as a record of the actual spread of languages in Europe. It does not record many smaller languages or varieties of larger languages, it does not record the movement of people around the continent, and it does not record individuals and their relationship to the various language communities that they participate in. Geographical language boundaries in this type of map are also depicted as similar to political boundaries, with only some very general overlaps recorded with the use of cross hatching.

It is perhaps a bit unfair to pick on such a broad scale map, as some distortions are necessary in order to keep it relatively uncluttered. But the problems inherent in traditional methods of language mapping are made clear by this example. Similar problems also occur when points are used to represent entire languages. Where, for example, should we place the point for English given its global distribution?

In order to make better language maps, we need to develop a more sophisticated approach. This can be achieved by modelling the relationships between people, places and languages in a more fine-grained way, and thinking of a different approach to recording these relationships. The method we have come up with for Language Landscape is to use audio and video recordings as the basic point of intersection between person, place and language. As long as the person who made the recording collected accurate information at the time, with a recording we can be sure that at that time, in that place, that individual said something in that language. The recording is therefore a small piece of evidence about the relationship of a language to a place and to the individual that spoke it. Mapping that recording along with information about the language and speaker is therefore one contribution to the map of that language. Repeating the process with every person who speaks that language would result in a comprehensive map of the language.

Of course, in most cases, persuading all speakers of a language to contribute to such a map would be unfeasible. This is especially true for larger languages, though with smaller communities of tens or hundreds of individuals it may well be possible. The difficulty of persuading people to map their recordings is the principal reason why traditional language maps like the one above still have their place, as they provide useful information without the need for lots of people to contribute. The problems inherent in them still stand, however, and it is intriguing to imagine what we might discover about the complex relationships between languages, people and places if more people contributed recordings to the Language Landscape map. So on Mother Language Day, we encourage you to represent your mother languages on Language Landscape and help to build a better record of all the places they are spoken around the world.

Language Landscape 1.0

Thanks for visiting the new Language Landscape blog! If this is your first time on Language Landscape, this is a good place to learn a bit more about the project and how you can get involved. You can also find more information about how to use the site on our Help page.

About the project

Language Landscape is a language map with a couple of differences. What we do is encourage our users to add recordings of languages from all around the world and map them where they happened. By mapping languages in this way, we will create a new kind of language map which better represents where languages are really spoken around the world. By encouraging everyone everywhere to contribute to the map, we will represent a wider variety of people, cultures and languages on the web, helping to make it a little bit wider and more worldly.

You can contribute to the map by adding audio and video recordings of the languages you and the people around you speak. Your language isn’t on the map? Make a recording and be the first person to represent it on Language Landscape! No recordings in your country? Make a recording and show the world how you speak at home! Your voice is a unique feature of the global language landscape: map it where you are now and contribute to a better picture of our ever-changing world.

About us

We are a team of volunteers and developers based in London, United Kingdom. As well as developing the website, our other main activity is to set up and run outreach projects with schools and community groups around London. Through these projects we raise awareness of language issues and encourage greater participation in our mapping project. We hope to expand the scope and reach of our outreach projects to other parts of the UK and the rest of the world in future. If you’re interested in starting a Language Landscape project in your community or local area, please get in touch with us, we’d love to help you make your idea a reality!

Language Landscape 1.0

We’re pleased to announce the first public release of our website (1.0), the development of which was kindly supported by Google Earth Outreach. It’s been over a year in the making but we hope you’ll agree it was worth the wait!

The rest of this post is designed as a brief guide to some of the major new features of the website. We won’t cover all the new features in this post so keep checking back over the coming weeks for more detailed walkthroughs and guides.

  • Adding and editing recordings

We’ve simplified the process of adding and editing recordings on the website by implementing an easy-to-use Add Recording form. Once you’ve added your recording to the map you can also go back and edit the information, add a photo, and so on. There is also an option to add existing recordings from YouTube, meaning you can contribute to the map using content already on the web.

  • User profiles and registration

You can now sign up for a Language Landscape account by going to the Sign Up page. Once you’ve activated your account you can start adding and editing recordings straight away. Every recording you add to the map has its own page with a link to your profile page. This page includes a personalised map of all your recordings and you can customise it with a photo and description.

  • Projects

You can group together recordings on Language Landscape as a project. Project pages are now fully customisable, with options to add a description and video about your project. You can also change the look and feel of your project map using the Google Styled Maps Wizard and add a custom map marker to give your project its own distinctive style. Have a look at the World Oral Literature Project page for an idea of what you could do with your own project.

  • Advanced search

We’ve added some Advanced search options so you can perform more complex queries on the database. For example, you might want to search for more than one language and compare recordings of those languages. Just add each language you want to see and compare the results using our custom visualisation tool. You can also search across different types of metadata, for example if you want to see recordings of a language spoken by men over 50 in a certain country. Just fill in the relevant fields and select Match all to see recordings which match all your criteria, or unselect it to see recordings which match any of your criteria.

  • Contributing to other people’s recordings

Not everyone adds recordings of their own language to Language Landscape, so sometimes they need help to interpret what is being said in their recordings. By clicking Other people can edit this recording when you add your recording, this means that other registered users can help to improve your recording by adding descriptions, transcriptions and translations. If you find a recording in your language which doesn’t have much information associated with it, you can help everyone to understand the recording better by adding this information.

  • Content moderation

We’ve implemented a system for moderating new recordings on the site. This means when you add a new recording it won’t appear on the map until we’ve had a chance to check it and make sure it’s legitimate Language Landscape material!

We hope you enjoy the new features on the website. If you have any questions or comments we’d love to hear from you. All our contact details can be found here. We look forward to hearing your voice on Language Landscape soon!