I’m recently back from the Language Event: Edinburgh. It was a two-day conference in celebration of languages and language learning. The head organiser was Richard Simcott of the Polyglot Conference. Here’s my review.
Whereas last year there was one day of short talks in the basement of a pub, this year’s programme was a two full days of talks. The focus: the Indigenous Languages of the Isles (Ireland, Britain and surrounding smaller islands). Talks ranged much wider than this, though and I’ve pulled out three stands that emerged for me: “community connections”, “language histories” and “language learning”.
The programme kicked off with the first of two talks delivered in Scots. The language of “Lowland Scotland” developed on a close but separate trajectory to English. Following the union with England, English gradually displaced Scots from public life but continued to be widely spoken among the people.
Broadcaster Frieda Morrison is the driving force behind the Scots Radio podcast. Her work reflects a vibrant new confidence around the language. Morrison noted that though there have been some institutional developments to promote the it (such as the Scots Language Centre), resources for spoken Scots are still scarce.
The Scots community has not yet emulated the success of the Gaelic college on Skye which is training generations of new creatives to staff the BBC’s online pages in Gaelic, Gaelic Radio and TV. As a first step, Morrison called for at least one Scots BBC radio programme.
The second speaker, Carlos Yebra-Lopez also spoke about language revival. Ladino or Judeo-Spanish is the Romance language which developed among communities of Jews in Spain (and then elsewhere round the Mediterranean following their expulsion in 1492). There was a steep decline in the use of the language in the nineteenth and twentieth century so that only a small numbers of speakers use the it today and they are dispersed throughout the world.
Yebra-Lopez is involved with online communities such as Ladino 21 small YouTube channel and the Ladino Forever Facebook group. “Digital diasporas” like this facilitate the “digital updating” of the language. He argued that they help fight geographical isolation and facilitate intergenerational transmission. It’s important that there are online communities where interaction is conducted exclusively in the target language. Digital projects can feed back in to connections in the real world, such as visiting people you’ve “met” previously online.
Poet Chris McCabe is a based at England’s National Poetry Library in London. He’s edited Poems from the Edge of Extinction an anthology of work written in endangered languages (with translations into English). There’s work included in languages as diverse as Portuguese-Cantonese creole (or Patuá)(Macau), Livonian (Estonia), Maori (New Zealand), Inuktitut (Canada) and Ainu (Japan).
Poetry is an intense art form that “lives intimately in the body of the speaker and the recipient”. What happens in the body of the speaker when the language is suppressed? When forced to speak French, Alsasian children felt cut off from their mother tongue. They felt “wretched, out of shape and kind of distorted to themselves” (McCabe on a poem from the anthology by Claude Vigeé (b. 1921)).
Michael Dempster held up his early 1980s Sinclair ZX spectrum computer as he launched into “Cyberscots – Scots Language in the Age of the Internet”. The talk was delivered in Scots and, as a native speaker of English, I had no problem following it. Apart from the bits I couldn’t understand at all, that is.
The focus on his talk was mainly on the presence of Scots in early internet forums. Think chat rooms from the mid 1990s. I wonder if we could even call this a “domestic digital diaspora”.
Today there is a range of online education resources both for learners and to help native speakers become literate. Back then in the early days of the net, people were writing with little or no formal education in their spoken language.
In the questions afterwards, somebody asked why no Scots on the Scottish Parliament website. This got me wondering what the debates are around the aims of Scots revival. Should the aim be a more thoroughly trilingual “official Scotland” with people able to live as much of their lives in English, Gaelic or Scots as possible? Should English remain the main language of business, the media, law with “everyone” using Scots as the main spoken vernacular (like Luxembourgisch or Swiss German)…?
One way for us as learners to replicate some “community”, whatever our target language, is to set up a language exchange (also sometimes called a “tandem”). This is where two people who are learning each other’s language team up voluntarily for conversational practice in both.
However, in her talk “More than a language exchange partner. Unconventional Ways to Practise and Maintain a Foreign Language”, Italian teacher Ermy Pedata argued that such exchanges are often boring. They don’t survive for long because they’re “too transactional”. She urged us instead to get get involved with others on the basis of shared interests. For her this had meant throwing herself into English language online forums about her artistic passion, cartooning, as a way to get practice in English
Hilbert (‘not a misspelling of “Gilbert”‘) Vinkenoog is a keen learner of the Frisian language of his ancestors and a history YouTuber. He’s also a student on the famous Cambridge University course in Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and drew on his studies to give us an impressive overview of the linguistic history of Scotland in the Early Middle Ages: “a wonderful, complicated mess of language, dialect, culture and identity that continues to this day”.
We were encouraged not to think about hard borders between communities of speakers of Celtic languages Gaelic, Cumbric and Old Welsh and the various forms of Anglo Saxon and Norse. It is more likely that there were overlapping and circles on the language map that shifted over time: “the Olympic rings gone walkabout.”
For the Celtic languages, who better to take the story forward than a man who’s spent time learning all six? In “Celtic Connections” language expert Simon Ager compared and contrasting vocabulary across the two branches of family (Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx; Welsh, Cornish, Breton).
Once you start to investigate historical etymology and understand the different modern spelling conventions, you can see that many words have shared roots. The meanings may have diverged over time. Workaday words in one language may have an elevated sense in another. Sometimes five languages share a word…and an outlier has plucked something completely different from somewhere else.
Mark Atherton is an Oxford academic and author of Teach Yourself Complete Old English. His talk combined an introduction to the language and its literature with a mini lesson.
While later English has borrowed extensively from other languages, many of Anglo-Saxon words are still recognisable such as the names of parts of the body such as sculdor (shoulder), muð (pronounced “mooth” for mouth) and bodig itself (pronounced as Modern English body)
Atherton then took some riddles to explore the Anglo Saxon imagination. Some Anglo Saxon poems were maybe meant to be sung and this session finished with a rendition of one to a melody that the speaker had written himself.
Like Yebra-Lopez and McCabe, Tony Fekete stressed the link between politics and language, but this time through the prism of publishing.
He’s built up a a library of over 500 antiquarian books all notable either because of the language they’re in or because they’re “language books”.
We saw how geopolitical changes led to the need for new language books: a Swedish to Russian dictionary published shortly after Finland was transferred from the Kingdom of Sweden to the Russian Empire (in 1809); one from Danish to German that came out after the Germans snatched Schleswig Holstein (1867).
Fekete’s slides of included first parts (published 1746) of the Scottish Gaelic New Testament (printed 1746) the bible in Breton (1827). I wondered how different the trajectories of both languages might have been if they’d had a complete bible in accessible language as early as 1588 (Welsh).
We were also treated to some hilarious English from a very old multi-lingual phrasebook from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Before you buy a phrase book (or, for that matter, any language learner book), look carefully at the credentials of the author 🙂 !
Àdhaim Ó Broin‘s talk on Gàlig Latharn: the Gaelic dialect of South West Caithness links up history with my third theme: language learning. Ó Broin is a Gaelic teacher, translator and media consultant, whom we heard speak at last year’s Edinburgh language meet up.
This year he explored the language of his mother’s people, the MacLeods, some of whom were among the last native speakers of Caithness Gaelic in the early twentieth century.
He told us the story of how he’s pieced together enough of what was a very distinctive dialect of the language to speak it. At the end of the talk he read out some old family letters that he’d translated from English back into the Gaelic that their authors would actually have spoken.
The research of cognitive linguist (and medic) Thomas H Bak had in his sights the old view that multilingualism is divisive and confusing, a prejudice that is “often fed by ideologies of linguistic superiority”.
There’s an equally old alternative view that multilingualism enriches society and the individual. Bak’s research adds to our understanding of the significant cognitive benefits of speaking more than one language.
There’s no room for complacency, though, language lovers! In the policy battles between science and ideology “ideology always wins”. Best, then, to go on the attack. Monolingualism is an “ideology of fear” and “the only people who get confused by the presence of more than one language are the monolinguals!” 🙂
In some parts of the World, it’s policy to give autistic children just one language (that old “they’ll get confused” argument again). Yet, in her doctoral research, Shereen Sharaan has found no evidence that bilingualism harmed the executive (memory) function of children with autism.
Thus grows the body of evidence that autistic children who are part of a bilingual family or community should not be discouraged from learning both languages.
In the whole history of language policy and of education, can there be any story more damning than the failure of the Irish state to revive Irish? Frustrated with the test-focussed, rote-learning approaches in the Irish school system and misfiring attempts to introduce a conversational element, inspiring Irish teacher Patricia Mac Eoin has co-authored the new “Michel Thomas Method” Irish course. True to the method, she explained that her course tries to show the core patterns to help students “get to grips with the basic structures of the language which differ so much from English”.
Ned Maddrell (d. 1974) was the last native Manx speaker but the language was carried forward by people learned the language to fluency from him. A mini language revival is now underway on the Isle of Man.
In “Back from the Dead. The Revival of Manx” linguist Christopher Lewin looked at different ways of conceptualising the relationship between today’s Manx and its history as a spoken language.
Many language enthusiasts want to stress the continuity of old and revived Manx prefer to say that the language never “died”. Yet, if it didn’t what’s the achievement of reviving it? Is it better, asked Lewin, to recongnise the needs of a community of adult second lang learners of revived languages.
Lewin also explored some what the expert on Australian aboriginal language revival, Ghil’ad Zuckermann calls a celebration of “linguistic hybridity”.
For example, some adult Manx learners seek “authenticity” by opting for archaic structures and “hyper Gaelicisms” at the expense of some structures or expression which are authentic Manx but just happen to be very similar to English. Old native speakers would probably have found such contortions very odd. They would also have been struck by how English phonology slips through under the wire, unnoticed while would-be “purist” learners focus their searchlights on syntax and lexis.
Yet if we could conjure up a group of old-school Manx speakers would they be the best people to give feedback to today’s learners?
As Amanda Patterson pointed out in the last presentation of the weekend, non-specialist native speakers often aren’t the best people to turn to for advice on polishing your language. They don’t have the necessary perspective. It’s discouraging to be given too much feedback that simply isn’t actionable. A skilled tutor will focus on a limited number of points which it’s within the learner’s current ability to work on. As a learner: be specific on what you want corrected.
I love the larger language events but was great to attend a relatively intimate event with the sixty or so other attendees. The organisation was efficient and friendly, with a meetup in a pub the night before and a meal in a restaurant on Saturday night.
The Institut Français d’Écosse provided a stately venue. It was also a somewhat ironic location for a celebration of linguistic respect and diversity, as the French state is no friend of what it dismissively terms “les langues régionaux” or indeed of any language, other than French! We’ll pass over that, though, because the bistrot was excellent…and so were the espressos.
If you think the Language Event might be for you, look out for my upcoming vlog (I’ll post it here when the edit is done). Look out too for further “Events”! Edinburgh was the second one so far, following Melbourne 2019. Next up will be Aukland (18-19 July) and then it’s back to Melbourne once again (August 2020 TBC). Thanks to Richard, the other organisers, speakers and participants for a weekend to remember.