School presentation: foreign languages are not as foreign as we think

Hello in different languages
Chiara Cappellaro and Martin Maiden

We spoke to a large audience of year-9 students at The Cherwell School in Oxford about the empowering fact that foreign languages are not as ‘foreign’ as we think.

The talk was inspired by our strand’s work on exploring and encouraging mutual intelligibility across languages, aimed at increasing awareness of the following issues:

1) Multilingualism is not unusual – it’s what most speakers experience in their life.

2) Learning a new language is a bit like climbing a mountain. Getting to the top (being able to express oneself in a given community as a native speaker of the language would do) is what we should all aim for, but this is not always possible. What is always possible however is to get some way up the ‘mountain’ using one’s creativity and deductive powers to learn to identify and exploit similarities between languages.

3) Similarities among languages can be of (at least) two types: familiar/genetic and contact-induced. We gave some examples of this in (a) showing similarities between words referring to body parts in ‘sister’ Germanic and Romance languages. And in (b) highlighting similarities in everyday words like chocolate, tomato and bus stop due to borrowing in languages very different from one another, like Japanese and English.

4) Sometimes ‘tricks’ can be used to find correspondences between languages and we explained how these tricks reflect sound changes that can be traced back in time. For example, if we consider how German <z> pronounced [ts] often corresponds to English <t> it is not difficult to guess that the German words zwei and zehn (numbers) correspond to English two and ten.

Photo of school presentationPhoto ©Chiara Cappellaro

In a post-talk Q&A session, one student asked a sensible but unexpected question: where can I find information on tricks, such as how the German <z> often corresponds to the English <t>? We hesitated in answering. The literature on sound change is very rich, but there is, to our knowledge, no immediate resource for children that we could recommend. This fact has reinforced our aim of producing a website and app for school children that could deal with this issue.

Feedback after the event showed that the pupils were most struck by how similar languages are, and how they ‘steal’ from one another – facts they had not known before attending the session. 77% of attendees stated that they are now more confident about their ability to understand the meaning of individual words written in a foreign languages and over 84% of pupils said that languages are more interesting than they previously thought. We were delighted to see such positive feedback and hope the presentation inspired and encouraged them to start or continue learning a language.

Dr Chiara Cappellaro and Professor Martin Maiden are researchers on Creative Multilingualism’s 3rd strand: Creating Intelligibility across Languages and Communities.

Where next?

Film: 500 school children singing multilingual song 

Creative translation in the classroom

On the road: Prismatic Translation’s Swahili workshop