our words make worlds

Language Acts and Worldmaking at the World Cultures, Global Futures Summer School

In this blog Rachel Scott (Travelling Concepts strand) writes about her experience teaching a session on the World Cultures, Global Futures Summer School which took place at Kings on 28-30 June.

The crisis of Modern Foreign Languages in the UK has been well-reported. The number of students taking up languages fell after the end of compulsory learning post-14 in 2004 and has continued to decline with a knock-on impact on modern foreign language departments in UK Higher Education Institutions, which are increasingly under threat of closure. The 2016/17 British Council Report on language trends in the UK highlighted that while some patchy progress is being made at key stage 2 and GCSE level, there is little sign of an end to the decline in A-level numbers for languagesand that language learning in schools is being greatly affected by the reduction in opportunities to engage with native speakers and experience the culture at first hand’—a situation not likely to be improved by the impending but as yet fully unknown effects of Brexit.

The need for an urgent rethink in educational policies for language learning, recognised by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Modern Languages in the wake of the Brexit referendum, was underlined back in 2013 by the British Academy report Lost for Words: the Need for Languages in Security and Diplomacy. The report stated that ‘the ability to speak a foreign language is a key element in the formation of relationships, mutual cultural understanding, trust and networks that facilitate interaction and cooperation across borders and societies.

Language Acts and Worldmakingone of several projects funded by the AHRCs Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) that seeks to address this situationgoes beyond arguments that focus solely on the economic benefits of MFL to highlight their importance for understanding how societies are structured and governed and for empowering culturally aware and self-reflective citizens.

Part of the projects remit includes working with students and teachers in local schools. Which is why I was so pleased to have the opportunity to be involved in the World Cultures, Global Futures Summer School organised by Dr Sarah Bowden in the German department at Kings College London (among others). Running over three days, World Cultures, Global Futures was open to year 12 students from state schools across London and sought to engage them in ideas about cultural difference, globalization, linguistic and cultural diversity, and national and global identity. I was asked to get students thinking about language from a conceptual point of view. Drawing on theories underpinning Language Acts and Worldmaking, my session focused on the role languages play in constructing our identities, our understanding of society, and our place within it.

The group of students I met epitomised modern London. The variety and breadth of linguistic skill in the room was astounding: from French, German, Spanish, Swedish, and Greek, to Urdu, Punjabi, Kurdish, Arabic, Somali, Tagalog, and Mandarin. Most if not all students were engaged in language learning either through a school programme or independently, and some were multilingual in two, three, or even four different languages due to their family or cultural background. Despite this, my first challenge was to address their preconceptions about languages and language learning. When asked what came to mind when they thought about this subject, perhaps somewhat predictably their answers focused on things like grammar, conjugation, cognates, fluency, and communication. Over the course of our discussions, however, we moved away from the concept of language as merely an ancilliary skill or passive vehicle for expression to consider it a fundamental aspect of the human condition that forms the basis for constructing relationships, identities, and societies and provides a different way of seeing and being in the world.

Through discussions about their own experiences, we explored the emotional and psychological connections they felt to the different languages they knew, and how their learning experiences had made them feel, interact differently with others, and approach certain situations. One student commented that he felt kinder in Mandarin; another that Greek represented comfort and nostalgia for her childhood; one noted that he felt calmer when speaking in English over his native Spanish; and another that speaking German allowed her to structure her thoughts in a more ordered way. In addition to the positive contexts they associated with languages and language learningfamily, connecting with friends, willingly exploring new identities and experiencesthe spectre of recent global events was also raised. The impact of war and enforced migration was discussed as a traumatic situation in which language skills become a lifeline and a necessity, and in which the normal feelings of being lostor adriftin a language you dont know well, or at all, are magnified.

We finished by reading a couple of poems by poets in Britain who have written about the experience of language learning and its impact on their identity and relationship to society. While hesitant initially, the students soon warmed up to the exercise, undertaken in small groups, and articulated insightful and sensitive comments that demonstrated real understanding of the theories we had been working with and the discussions wed had. By the end of the class, when asked for their thoughts about language learning anew, the previous associations were supplemented by comments about culture clashes, fractured identities, and power hierarchies.

It was a real pleasure to spend time, however brief, with such a bright and engaged group. Their enthusiasm was infectious and was a reminder of how enjoyable teaching can be. More importantly, however, it made me come away from the session thinking that with students like these applying for language degrees or continuing their learning journeys in other less formal ways, perhaps the future of MFL in the UK is somewhat less bleak.

Rachel Scott is the Post Doctoral Research Associate on the Travelling Concepts strand of Language Acts and Worldmaking.