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Languages optional at KS4

Audrey McKie

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Audrey writes:

For example, I had to complain about a bill (as I had to recently) to someone in a call centre. The person I was talking to had a strong Asian accent, which I generally find difficult, and he in turn found it difficult to understand me.

Aaargh! Don't tell me about it! Large organisations in their efforts to save money are locating their call centres overseas, but they have totally failed to realise how important it is for their staff to speak good, unaccented (or slightly accented) English. I was relayed to a call centre in Jamaica recently - at least I think it was Jamaica. I love the West Indian variety of English, but in this case I simply could not understand the guy at the other end of the phone. Several hardware and software companies have call centres in Ireland, but no problem here; Irish English has a pleasant ring, and the staff are usually courteous and often display a sense of humour too.

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On moving to Rwanda and chosing to learn the local language of Kinyarwanda (a Bantu language with some similarities to Swahili) I felt that vocabulary and pronounciation would be the two most important things to work on considering that for a while a least i was planning on simply pointing at things, naming them and saying a number.

Sadly this does not work in languages with 15 different 'genders' and which take the plural at the start rather than the end of the word. For example

umuhungo - the singular of boy

abahungo - boys

The numbering system then changes depending on the 'gender' so

umuhungo umwe = one boy

abahungo abirir/atatu/ane/atanu = 2/3/4/5 boys (notice the a at the start)

ibishyimbo bibiri/bitatu/bine/bitanu = 2/3/4/5 beans (bi at the start of the number this time).

So when I went to the market and pointed to a jerry can and said

"amajericani umwe" when what I should have said was "ijericani imwe" they simply didn't have a clue what I was talking about having got both the gender and the plural/singular bit wrong.

This is one of the cases where grammer needs to be taught from day one or you will simply get frustrated and give up because no-one understands you!

The 'r' 'l' problem I think is pretty universal. My students often wrote about plotons and erectrons and in the end I told them that if they thought it should be l to write r and vice versa as they consistently got them the wrong way round. In Kinyarwanda itself r and l are totally interchangable so that you can greet someone by saying either 'Muraho' or 'Mulaho' and they will not even notice the difference. I took to switching it up on a regalar basis in conversations in English just for fun and even took to introducing myslef as 'Lowena'.

A friend was told that in Africa they have animals with the same name as him. His name is Ryan.

On one occasion I was walking away from school when I caught up with a bunch of older boys who clearly should have been in class. When I asked them why they weren't studying they replied "It is OK madam. We have erections". I have to admit to finding it hard not to check;-)


p.s. I learnt Kinyarwanda and Swahili initially purely for survival purposes as I lived in a tiny village where virtually no-one spoke English or French. My first priority was 'things that you can buy at the market'. Certainly with the grammer issues involved it would have made far more sense for our teacher to teach us entire sentences or phrases rather than individual words which then changed depending on a multitude of different factors. Size was also relevant

umugore = woman

akagore = small woman

abagore = women

Isashe = bag

akasashe = small bag

Greetings were obviously also a priority (changed not only depending on the time of day but also how many people you were greeting and whether they were more or less important than you) along with how to say please and thank you...which didn't take long to learn as Rwandan don't say please and rarely say thank you!

In the end it became as much about learning about the culture as it is about buying a 4 small bags of flour.

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what a fascinating example that Rowena has told us!!

I think that we are all the more puzzled when we are learning a language which is VERY different from ours, when reality and nature are percieved in a totally different manner as ours. I think my lecturer (se my previous post) called it a 'cultural grid'.The usual examples are the fact that the Innuits have 20+ words for snow and the people of the Sahara have as many but for sand. I also heard that in Swahili (I think, Rowena can either prove me right or tell me off) there are only two words for colours... the way that foreign languages are spoken does give you as much information about the language itself as it does about its people, its traditions and its culture. Having said that it is very difficult to make youngsters understand that structures are different from one language to the next, that you can't translate literally, that it doesn't make sense.

Why can't you say 'running up the stairs in French'? why do you have to say 'going up the stairs while running'? was the latest I had to deal with in my year 11 class. Well because it is is the usual answer, I'm afraid...

Still, how fascinating, Rowena, you made my day...

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Learning Hungarian was the most traumatic language learning experience in my life (I managed a project in Hungary from 1991 to 1996). Several problems hit me from day one:

1. The lexis has virtually no connections with other European languages, e.g. "bor" = "wine" and "sör" = "beer".

2. Hungarian is an agglutinative language, which means that words change their form substantially as a result of different prefixes, infixes and suffixes being added to them, e.g. "a felségemmel" means "with my wife", where "a" means "the", "feleség" means "wife", "-em-" means "my" and "-mel" means "with". There are no prepositions and possessive adjectives in Hungarian - it's all done by suffixes and infixes.

3. Word order can be very strange, with the verb normally falling at the end of the sentence, as in Latin, but not always... ...and I never really worked out why.

4. Hungarian has seven ways of expressing "you", depending on the relationship with the person you are talking to.

5. A man greets a woman with "Kezet csokolom" ("I kiss your hand"), but a woman greets a man with an expression corresponding to "Good morning" or something similar. "Hello!" is used for "Hello!" and "Goodbye!"

6. Questions are marked in speech only by intonation, but don't expect the intonation to correspond to question intonation in other European languages!

I could go on...

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In reply to Audrey,

I'm not entirely sure about Swahili but in Kinyarwanda there are words for blue, green, red, white, black and yellow but pink, purple and orange are not concepts that they understand. However, there are about 20 words for different shades of brown. The reason for this is that the Banyarwanda love cows and keep enormous herds of them for prestigue reasons as much as anything else. In order to be able to distinguish between the different brown cows in a herd of several hundred it is useful to be able to describe them in terms of their brownness. Needless to say this was not something that I even considered adding to my vocab!

These cultural colur issues proved to be almost overwhleming when trying to get students to be able to identify compounds based on the colours resulting from different reactions. I had to introduce them to the concept of turquiose, royal blue (loyal brue), canary yellow, buff, purple, pink, orange etc etc. In the end I invested in a set of colouring pencils and made a colour chart on the wall so that they could match their solution to the colours listed. The problem not being that they couldn't 'see' the blue, simply that they didn't know where green and blue ended and turqoise began. Understandable considering. I'm not sure I could tell you the difference between beige, tan, oatmeal and buff:-)

Following on from Grahams descriptions of the cultural hurdles of Hungarian, in Kinyarwanda the word for brother is different depending on whether you are a man or a woman. I recall intrucing a male friend as my brother once hoping to deflect suggestions that we might be a couple and was greeted with hoots of laughter. The reason was not, as I thought, that they didn't believe me, just that they thought it hilarious that I thought I was a man:-) There is the same problem with sister, then there is the issue of whether the sibling is older or younger than you..etc etc

Something which I found interesting is that the word for Mother is 'Mama' and no, they did not get the word from the white colonists, it is a Bantu word used throughout East and Central Africa. I am assuming that this is because the first sounds a baby can make is 'Mama' or something similar.

The word for Father however is not 'dada' (I don't recall what it is but its something quite tricky). However the word for older sister is 'data'. Perhaps because the second sound a baby learns to make is dada/data and the second person who looks after the child in African culture is an older sister.

My favourite linked words in Kinyarwanda are

Inyama = meat

Inyamaswa = aminal

so we all know what animals are for:-)


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Article taken from BBC online

Learning languages 'boosts brain'

Learning languages enhances the brain, scientists believe.

Researchers from University College London studied the brains of 105 people - 80 of whom were bilingual.

They found learning other languages altered grey matter - the area of the brain which processes information - in the same way exercise builds muscles.

People who learned a second language at a younger age were also more likely to have more advanced grey matter than those who learned later, the team said.

Scientists already know the brain has the ability to change its structure as a result of stimulation - an effect known as plasticity - but this research demonstrates how learning languages develops it.

It means that older learners won't be as fluent as people who learned earlier in life

Andrea Mechelli, of University College London

The team took scans of 25 Britons who did not speak a second language, 25 people who had learned another European language before the age of five and 33 bilinguals who had learned a second language between 10 and 15 years old.

The scans revealed the density of the grey matter in the left inferior parietal cortex of the brain was greater in bilinguals than in those without a second language.

The effect was particularly noticeable in the "early" bilinguals, the findings published in the journal Nature revealed.

The findings were also replicated in a study of 22 native Italian speakers who had learned English as a second language between the ages of two and 34.

Lead researcher Andrea Mechelli, of the Institute of Neurology at UCL, said the findings explained why younger people find it easier to learn second languages.


"It means that older learners won't be as fluent as people who learned earlier in life.

"They won't be as good as early bilinguals who learned, for example, before the age of five or before the age of ten."

But Cilt, the national centre for languages, cast doubt on whether learning languages was easier at a younger age.

A spokeswoman said: "There are conflicting views about the comparative impact of language learning in different age groups, based both on findings and anecdotal evidence."

However, she said it was important to get young people learning languages in the UK.

Only one in 10 UK workers can speak a foreign language, a recent survey revealed.

But by 2010 all primary schools will have to provide language lessons for children.

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Rowena writes:

Following on from Grahams descriptions of the cultural hurdles of Hungarian, in Kinyarwanda the word for brother is different depending on whether you are a man or a woman.

In Hungarian the words for elder brother/sister and younger brother/sister are different.

Isn't language fascinating? In another part of this Forum I once wrote about the "Windtalkers", the native Navajo speakers who were employed as radio operators in WWII. I don't think there were any written Navajo dictionaries or grammars around at the time, and the language in it spoken form is quite impenetrable. When the idea of using Navajo operators was proposed, the US military sent sample recordings to their own code-breakers, without telling them what it was. The code-breakers failed even to transcribe the language, let alone understand what was being said. It fooled the Japanese. A film called "Windtalkers" was made a few years ago, starring Nicolas Cage.

I have heard two of the indigenous languages of the West Coast of Canada (Squamish/Salish) and Alaska (Athabaskan) being spoken. Some of the sounds are incredible - lots of glottal stops and unusual consonant combinations.

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indeed this is really very fascinating.

I am just going to add on the Hungary topic that, together with Basc, Hungarian is one of the few languages which are suspected to originate from a different source than the Indo-European branch. I also remember driving threw Hungary on a cultural exchange trip to Romania and by the time you matched the name on the signs to that on the map, you'd already gone a few miles past your junction... Thankfully we stopped in Solnok, which was easy enough to find thanks to the shortness of the name! :-)

In reply to Rowena about the shades of brown, I think it corroborates my argument on cultural grid. It makes sense for Kinyarwanda speakers to have so many shades of brown, just like it makes sense for the Innuits to be able to differentiate between types of snow, etc. Like I said, the language tells you about the culture of its people. I'll finish with an example that is closer to us: when I was learning English I was told about some lexical differences between British English and American English, one example being 'truck' and 'lorry'. When you think about it, there is no wonder that there are two words, they are simply not the same thing! similar, yet different! therefore the Americans needed to fill in the lexical gap.

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Rowena writes:

Thankfully we stopped in Solnok, which was easy enough to find thanks to the shortness of the name!

Even shorter is Jak!

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Sorry, quote wrongly attributed in last message! I meant:

"Audrey writes" regarding the comment on Solnok.

I'm not sure that there is a difference between "truck" and "lorry". One of my relations in Canada drives what he calls a "truck". He's always amused when my wife and I call it a "lorry". He also drives a pick-up, which he hooks up to his fifth wheel (a monster of an RV). Again, he is amused when my wife and I refer to his RV as a "caravan".

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Tractor trailer will always be a sticking point for me. A tractor trailer is a tractor followed by a trailer - NOT an articulated lorry.

Also, a trailer is a thing that you attach to the back of your car to put stuff in to transport, not something you go on holiday in...though they do of course both trail...

Then there is the pavement. Try passing your driving test in a country where you MUST drive on the pavement!

Ah the list is endless and probably concludes with fannypack.


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Has anyone else ever tried to read a map in Southern Ireland. The names on the map are in English whilst more often than not the road signs are in Gaelic. We took 4 hours to make a 1 hour journey on one occassion because the english name of a place had 4 letters whilst the Gaelic one had about 20 and we just couldn't believe it was the same place! The result was going round in circles and passing the same group of sheep in the same field at least a dozen times:-)

Ever taken the ferry to the port near Dublin pronounced Done Leery but written

Dun Laoghaire ?


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Ireland? Yes, been there done that - many times! My wife Sally is from Belfast and my sister-in-law is from Cork.

Irish Gaelic seems to have a lot of redundant vowels - three vowels for one sound. The language sounds beautiful. We were on holiday in Ireland last year, including Gaeltacht (Gaelic-speaking area) of Galway last year. We took a boat trip to Aran, where mainly Gaelic is spoken.

Dun Laoghaire is an easy name! Have you noticed that the Gaelic for Dublin is Baile atha Cliath? This is the original name of the city and appears on all signposts. It's pronounced something like "Balya Clear", I think but Gaelic speakers may be able to advise me here. Dublin is the name the city was given by the Vikings. It's a translation into Gaelic (Dubh Linn) of its Viking name "Black Pool".

The BBC Languages website has a good introductory course in Irish, "Giota Beag" ("A little bit"):


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I have to drive through parts of Wales every day to go to work and I don't quite get the translations either. I always assumed that 'local' names were relatively similar to English names for places, but they're not. I thought that maybe it was a Celtic thing but names of places in Brittany (i.e. in Breton, another Celtic language) are very similar to their French equivalent, most of the time.

Rowena says

But Cilt, the national centre for languages, cast doubt on whether learning languages was easier at a younger age

I thought that it had been physiologically proven that it WAS the case. My father's dearest dream was to become fully bilingual in English but he just simply can't (he's very fluent) because there is too much in him and in his way of thinking, and therefore speaking, that comes from his mother tongue. He can't master the British or the American accent because his jaw muscles are set for his first language, that's why teaching languages at an early age MUST be a good thing, surely.

Most children who come from a mixed background (one parents speaking one language and the other another) are perfectly bilingual by the age of 5. Before that they tend to amalgamate both language and see it as ONE. The problem they face, though, is the fact that they'll probably be able to write the language of the country they live in but not the other (because it's their schooling language). But that's a different matter altogether.

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Does CILT really cast doubt on whether it is easier to learn languages at an earlier age? Source? The following seems to contradict this. However, doubts have certainly been cast on the quality of language teaching at primary school level. There are simply not enough properly trained teachers at present. See this article in The Independent (28 Feb 2002):


About 20 per cent of primary schools offer some kind of foreign language teaching, with most concentrating on years five and six. In the independent sector, however, almost all preparatory schools offer a second language to pupils aged between five and 11 years, considered the ideal time to start learning one. It's important to start early," insists Terry Lamb, president of the Association for Language Learning.

"It's much easier to get a good accent and pronunciation when the ear is more attuned to sounds and the mouth is still forming. And younger children just accept things, like different genders and so on."

Peter Boaks, deputy director of the Government-funded CILT agrees earlier is better. "At primary they don't have inhibitions and are happy to show you what they can do and don't feel foolish or odd. Adolescence is absolutely the worst time to start, when foreign languages can seem daunting, strange and frightening."

Have a look at the NACELL site:


National Advisory Centre for Early Language Learning

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