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Reflections: Languages Memory Conference

In this blog post, Felicity Moffat, a member of the Language Acts and Worldmaking Student Advisory Board, writes about the Languages Memory conference which took place 13th-14th June. 

I attended the first day of the Languages Memory Conference on 13th June and was struck by the range of discussions taking place on the subject of Languages Memory. With so many simultaneous workshops and panel discussions we were spoilt for choice. 

The session on the History of Language Learning and Teaching was fascinating, ranging from the work of the eighteenth century Italian grammarian Angelo Vergani to the history of Spanish language teaching in England through the ages; from historical differentiated pedagogical practices for the teaching of French based on gender and status, through to a review of the period since the Leathes Report of 1918 and reflections on language teaching in Britain over the last century. The two key messages I took from these four presentations was, firstly, the surprising fact that, until recently, there has been so little research into the study of the history of language teaching and, secondly, the potential for that research to play an important role in revealing other perspectives relevant for contemporary language learning policies, in particular, in the articulation of current challenges to the purposes of modern language learning. 

The keynote lecture by Juan-Luis Suárez on the language of peace in Colombia provided an interesting perspective on the language associated with the peace negotiations in Colombia between 2012 and 2016 and, in particular, that used in the documentation recording the negotiations. The nature of the conflict in Colombia, as an internal struggle between multiple factions, has meant that it does not fall within the legal definition of war under International Law and thus legislation, which would otherwise provide some clarity on the status of victims, is not applicable. Through the work of CulturePlex, the public documents relating to the peace negotiations have been analysed, specifically looking at the language of peace, conflict and victimhood. The analysis of language has clearly demonstrated a gulf between the rhetoric of peace and the importance of victims in the final recorded agreements. However, this lecture prompted me to consider the challenges of recording peace when negotiations are often fraught and unstable. The ultimate aim of peace must often outweigh perfect draftsmanship, and pragmatic solutions must be a necessity, even if they might lead to uncertainty and even disagreement in the future.  Compromise will inevitably inspire criticism but, in that moment of reaching any agreement which can be recorded, it must be hoped that any imperfect drafting or lacunae in the issues covered can be addressed in time. The subsequent discussion was thought-provoking: are we attributing too much importance to language or not enough?  What can we learn about the use of language in these sort of circumstances and how can this analysis and understanding of language help linguists play a role?

The session From Pupil to Teacher provided quite a contrast to conflict resolution in Colombia! Four nearly qualified student teachers recounted their autobiographical language learning and teaching stories highlighting where their memories of being a student in the classroom have informed their personal styles of teaching. They talked of their response to moving from student to teacher, the experiences that they have found fulfilling and those that they have found frustrating. What was particularly striking was how often they referred to the positive elements of their own student experience and how they were trying to translate that into their own teaching, whether that be ‘the how’ or ‘the what’. This session therefore considered the personal autobiographical experiences of four individuals but encapsulated the wider discussion of the application of narratives and memory to MFL teaching programmes.

These three diverse areas of discussion relating to language memory emphasised to me that the challenges to justify the methods, models and even existence of language learning is nothing new, but that as linguists we have an insight and a responsibility to continue to raise awareness of the importance of communication through language and to use our own language memories to encourage future students.