Back in March, over 1,100 primary school children from around the UK joined our annual competition, the Junior Language Challenge, learning Italian online. Over the next three months, they scored points in the language games, and then in June the top scorers from each region of the country progressed to the second round.
Not wanting to make it too easy, for their next challenge we asked them to learn the notoriously tricky language of Japanese. Impossible, you might say – how can you expect children under 11 to learn such a difficult language?
As we discovered this week, it’s not impossible at all. Over the last ten days, we’ve been travelling around the country for the regional semi-finals, and have been seriously impressed with what we’ve seen. All the children had clearly worked really hard, and we had several very tense contests in the race to grab a place in the final. There were some familiar faces, and some first-time competitors, and everyone gave it their all. So on behalf of EuroTalk, thank you to all the teachers, parents and most importantly, the children for joining in so enthusiastically.
The competition also raised nearly £6,000 for a brilliant organisation called onebillion, who create apps to teach children in developing countries basic maths and reading, giving them valuable learning opportunities that we often take for granted here in the UK. onebillion were recently featured by BBC Click, and their report gives you a taster of the fantastic work they’re doing in Malawi.
But what about our finalists? They’re not finished yet. For their third and final language, they’ll be learning the African language of Somali, ready for the grand final in London next month, where they’ll compete for the title of Junior Language Challenge Champion 2014, and a family holiday to Africa.
We hope that everyone who’s taken part in the JLC this year, whether you’re continuing on to the final or not, really enjoyed it. Now you know that you can learn any language, even difficult ones, the sky’s the limit!
And to our finalists… see you next month 🙂
In today’s day and age, a great percent of the people travel, either for vacations, business or even a longer period of time, in search of a better job, better opportunities, to be with the loved ones and why not, just for the sake of a multi-cultural experience. While some of us learn a new language as a hobby or in school, migrants find that it is difficult to live in a country whose language you can’t speak. So this is where we get to the point of this article: how does it feel to speak another language than your native one, every day with everyone.
First of all, let me take you on a history trip back in the ‘90s. No, we’re not going to listen to Backstreet Boys, instead I’m going to tell you how our generation got to learn English from TV back in Romania. There was a single cartoon program back then, Cartoon Network, and it wasn’t dubbed in Romanian (like it is now), nor did we have subtitles. So we’d just watch the cartoons without completely understanding what they were saying (not that there was much conversation, but still) and I would occasionally ask my parents what does this/that mean. From the age of eight we’d eventually start learning English in school, but by then it already sounded familiar and we would only add the grammar to the equation.
Growing up, we had daily contact with American English from movies and music and by the time I finished high school I’d already got a certified advanced level.
So I was quite confident in my English; I got the chance to use it for both of the jobs I had in the years I worked in Romania, and I got along really well with the people I’d have to speak in English on the telephone or in meetings.
Last year, when I moved to London I was rather surprised to find that I couldn’t understand what these people were saying. I panicked at first but then I realised that no one is expecting me to be 100% fluent in English so I started asking questions or asking people to repeat so that I can understand properly. As I said, most of the English vocabulary I had was American, so I started picking up the differences like, ‘mug’ not ‘cup’, ‘biscuits’ not ‘cookies’ and ‘fringe’ not ‘bangs’.
At first I found it quite exhausting, and at the end of the day I wasn’t able to concentrate anymore or to use more complex words. With time, I got used to it and I started learning more and more words and expressions that I would afterwards try to use in conversations (like for example ‘I’m skint’, which means ‘I’m broke’). Also, in the first months here, I used to get nervous at the supermarket or whenever a unexpected conversation would start, fearing that I won’t find my words or that I wouldn’t remember certain things. With time, I started gaining more confidence and now, after ten months, I am easily able to have a conversation, express my feelings and ideas accurately and understand almost all what the other person is saying. I still have trouble understanding different English accents, and I would probably see myself stuck in a conversation about, let’s say, gardening tools – so certain topics with a specific word-pool.
You know how in your native language you can express your feelings and state of mind by the words you choose and by your tone of voice? Well, good luck doing that when you only know a single set of words for each thing. Also, studies have shown that sometimes people find that they can speak more freely in a non-native language because they don’t feel that the words ‘really’ belong to them, they’re not ‘their’ words.
But what happens when you spend more than half of the day speaking a different language? Your brain starts to associate certain situations, new situations that you didn’t have to deal with in your home-country, with a certain language – this is when you start to ‘think’ in another language. Some people associate this moment with the moment you start to feel like you belong to a certain culture, that your roots are starting to clench to the ground and now you’ve become (or at least moved closer to being) one of ‘them’.
So I’ve found myself in situations in which it was easier for me to express myself using an English word rather than a Romanian one, either because I found that it sounded better or because I couldn’t think of a proper translation.
It’s funny how the brain works sometimes – I got a call at work today from a business partner that also speaks native Romanian, so naturally I started talking to her in Romanian and found it very difficult to find the right words or to build the sentences without sounding stupid. I felt like I had to do a reverse-translation of what I would normally say in English.
At the end of the day, I can agree that using multiple languages really does wonders for your way of thinking and for the structure of your thoughts. Like Nelson Mandela once said, ‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.’
This Saturday is the final of the Eurovision Song Contest 2014 in Denmark, with 125 million people expected to watch across Europe and beyond. The contest, now in its 59th year, has become known for its wacky performances and tends to divide opinion; while some people love it (although maybe not as much as this man), others claim to find it tacky. But I think most people can agree that whether you take it seriously or not, Eurovision is good fun. (Even if sometimes you need a drink or two to help you through it.) Here are our ten favourite things about Eurovision:
1. Russian Grannies
I had to put this first because it was one of my favourite ever Eurovision moments. The song on its own is fairly forgettable, but what made it amazing was the elderly ladies who managed to incorporate baking into their performance at the 2012 contest. I’m still not sure what it had to do with a Party for Everybody, but it was brilliant, and I’m still disappointed that it didn’t win.
The Irish dance act were first discovered when they performed during the interval of the Eurovision Song Contest in 1994. Known for its amazing synchronicity, energy and rhythm, Riverdance went on to become a worldwide phenomenon. So if you’re not a fan, now you know who to blame.
3. Romanian rivalries
In the UK, it’s not seen as very ‘cool’ to enjoy Eurovision, but some other countries take it incredibly seriously. In Romania, for example, it’s a really big deal and apparently it’s traditional for the acts to try and win a place by discrediting their opponents.
4. The voting
How could I not mention the political voting? Half the fun of Eurovision is predicting who’s going to give points to who. Greece and Cyprus usually vote for each other, as do the Scandinavian countries and the Balkans. If that sort of thing interests you, this is a useful summary. Unfortunately, the political voting tends to leave the UK in a precarious position; we often get votes from Ireland, and sometimes Malta, but not very often from anyone else…
5. The UK
While we’re on the subject, let’s take a look at the UK’s Eurovision record. It’s hard to believe looking at recent history, but apparently it’s one of the most successful countries, winning five times since our first appearance in 1957. The last win was in 1997, with Katrina and the Waves, and since then we’ve not been doing so well, finishing last three times. The first of these was in 2003, when we scored an embarrassing ‘nul points’. Apparently this year’s entry, Children of the Universe, by singer-songwriter Molly, is expected to do well. I’ll believe it when I see it.
It’s not often that a Eurovision act goes on to have a successful long term career, but one exception is Swedish group ABBA. Not only did they win the contest for Sweden in 1974, they went on to sell over 380 million albums worldwide. Their music also featured in the hit film Muriel’s Wedding and the award-winning musical, Mamma Mia! (And the movie version, which introduced the world to the singing ‘talents’ of Pierce Brosnan.)
7. Alcohol is Free
Regardless of your views on drinking, it’s hard not to tap your foot along to Alcohol is Free, by Koza Mostra and Agathonas Iakovidis, a.k.a. the Greek answer to Madness. They finished sixth in 2013.
We love Finland; they always come up with something memorable. Last year was the catchy Marry Me, which ended with that kiss, but nothing beats 2006 entry Hard Rock Hallelujah, by Lordi. Eurovision isn’t known for its heavy metal, preferring to stick to happy songs about how we should all love each other. But the alternative approach seemed to do the trick; the band won that year’s contest.
Warning: this video contains flashing lights and monster masks!
9. Language rules
Eurovision used to have a very strict rule about countries only singing in their native language, which has been lifted and restored a few times over the years. These days, many of the competing countries choose to perform in English, but some remain loyal to their own language; France and Spain are two examples. When I was growing up, there were more songs in other languages than there are today, and we used to enjoy turning on the subtitles and watching them struggle to translate the lyrics. Songs in English have won 28 times, followed by French, with 14 wins.
This was a popular choice in the EuroTalk office. Every now and again, Eurovision does actually produce a good song, and Fairytale was the one that we all thought of. The Norwegian entry for 2009 featured violinist Alexander Rybak, and won with a record-breaking 387 points out of a possible 492. For some reason, Alexander and his dancers were also a bit of a hit with the ladies…
Have we left out your favourite thing about Eurovision? Let us know in the comments!
From September this year, it’s going to be compulsory for primary schools in the UK to teach a foreign language. This is causing quite a lot of stress for schools, according to a report published earlier this week, which says that 29% of teachers don’t feel confident about teaching a language to their students. That’s hardly surprising, considering many teachers haven’t studied languages themselves since their GCSEs, which for some will have been quite a while ago.
But despite this, the report says, 85% of primary schools have said they believe making languages a requirement is a good move, and many are already tackling the situation head on by introducing languages before it’s required by law.
So what exactly is the point of teaching languages at such a young age? Many people will argue that the curriculum for children is already too full, with a need for English, maths and science, as well as citizenship, history and physical education, to name just a few. Why squeeze in yet another subject, especially in a world where many people believe that ‘everyone speaks English’?
Learning a language is good for your brain
Well firstly, learning a language can actually make you smarter. The positive effects are well documented – bilingualism makes you better at problem solving, planning and verbal reasoning. Research by psychologists at Penn State University has shown that if you’re bilingual, you’re likely to be better at multi-tasking, because your brain is used to ‘mental juggling’. And other studies have shown that learning another language can help to delay the onset of dementia in later life.
It makes you better at your native language
Studying a second language helps you to understand your own, because it makes you think about how language is formed. Because I grew up speaking English, I don’t really remember learning the rules of the language; they just came naturally. But when I took up Spanish, suddenly I needed to think about grammar, and about how I was structuring sentences, which is much more important in Spanish than in English. For example, in Spanish you can’t end a sentence with a preposition, which made me realise how often I was getting away with this in English. And I would never have even known the subjunctive existed if not for my Spanish studies (although I’m not going to lie and say I use the subjunctive regularly in English!).
Learning a language prepares you for the rest of your life
I don’t just mean learning languages at secondary school, although it’s likely that children who leave primary school with some knowledge of another language will want to continue it when they move on. I mean beyond school – when the time comes to choose degree courses and, even more importantly, find a job. A recent article in The Economist says that employees with a language in the U.S. can earn on average 2% extra, which may not sound like much, but over time can add up to some serious money. Not only that but learning a language will make it easier for you people to go travelling and see the world; it might even help you find the love of your life!
The younger, the better
It’s a common argument that children are better at learning languages than adults; because of the way the brain develops, some scientists believe there’s a ‘critical period‘ for language acquisition. And although there’s plenty of evidence that this might not necessarily be the case (just look at Benny Lewis, who didn’t start learning languages until adulthood, and now speaks twelve languages fluently), I do think there’s something in it; after all children are constantly learning new things, so one more probably won’t phase them. And they’re also in a better position to learn than adults, who are very good at finding other things to do and worry about. (I know I am.)
Some people might disagree with me here, looking back on their own language classes at school with its endless repetition of vocabulary and verb conjugations. Obviously I’m biased, but I do think learning to speak another language can be really fun if it’s put across in the right way. There are so many exciting ways to teach a language, from songs and TV shows to games and apps. The internet is full of great ideas – have a look at #mfltwitterati on Twitter as a good starting point.
Or check out the Junior Language Challenge, EuroTalk’s national competition for children aged 10 and under across the UK – it’s great fun for children, makes life easy for teachers and raises money for charity all at the same time. Just the other day we received a message from one of our 2013 finalists, who said, ‘It was a great adventure. It’s now set me off to learning languages from all over the world.’
A recent report by the British Council has laid out the ten most important languages for the UK’s future, in political, economic, educational and cultural terms.
According to the report, the ten most important languages, in order, are: Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. I read this list with a certain amount of smugness that I speak Spanish, German and French – although my knowledge of key languages such as Mandarin and Arabic is, sadly, next to nothing. So feel free to give yourself a pat on the back if you can speak, or are learning, one of those ten languages.
Unfortunately, the report also indicated that the numbers of UK residents actually learning these languages, especially the ones not taught in schools, are very low. On a positive note, around 15% of people can hold a conversation in French. However, only 6% are able to do so in German, 4% in Spanish and 2% in Italian. But the figures for the other languages are as low as 1%.
Perhaps one of the problems is that Mandarin, Japanese, Russian and Arabic all require learners to pick up another script. This might seem daunting, but is actually really exciting. Just being able to read simple words in another script gives you a huge sense of achievement, and you’d be surprised how quickly you can begin to decipher words from what previously looked like squiggles.
Hopefully if you’re reading our blog you already know the importance of language-learning, and that picking up a new language is an adventure rather than a chore! But maybe this list will give you an idea about which language you fancy picking up – maybe it’s time to start reviving your A-level French? Or be brave and give Arabic a try? Personally, I’m working on adding Italian to my list, which is proving interesting as I lapse back into Spanish as soon as I don’t know a word!
The report recommends a much greater focus on languages in schools and that businesses should invest in language training for languages that are useful in their industry. But don’t worry if your school days are behind you – it’s never too late to learn a new language!