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Languages - The Doorway to Wisdom

25/09/17

This entry was written by Emma prior to the European Day of Languages on the 26th of September. With over twenty years working in education as fully qualified teacher, and coming from three generations of a family that are or have been educators working with very young children to adults, Emma has plenty of experiences to share. 

It is the early 90s in an overheated and over-lit room, at one of Wales’ lesser known teacher training colleges. Half a dozen students are struggling to learn a complex language with our ever more frazzled teacher. We celebrate inwardly as one of us correctly gets the right word for apple. The boy from the Home Counties, the one with the straggly goatee and huge jumper that could safely wrap up a family car, asks innocently, ‘what is Welsh for polyunsaturates?’ There’s a pause as jaws hit the floor. The stunned reply of ‘polyunsaturates’ in a strong, but lilting, Carmarthenshire accent is noted down methodically in the boy’s notebook, as if he were annotating music.

Twenty-five years later, that story haunts every time I think about we ever manage to learn new words at all sometimes. But language seeps into your bones, without realising it. I regularly use Welsh words for which there are no English alternatives, like ‘cwtch’ (a loving, snuggly cuddle), because my parents do, because their parents did.

Think about it long enough, and we can all list the words that have crept into every day speech from Europe. Hygge is one of the latest buzz words you can hardly avoid in lifestyle magazines. The English language itself is built on the imported words of invaders from Europe, those enriching words sinking into the earth with their trinkets and memories, making us who we are now.

As a supply teacher, every day is different, and wonderful. Children often speak a variety of languages, many speaking two or three with skill. Sometimes, words fail us though and the fog of misunderstanding descends. It gets frustrating for everyone trying to work out what is meant, and it is all too tempting to think ‘I don’t know’ and sit in front of the Lego and hope for the best. Yet, we always find a way.

Technology is increasingly being used and I have been in classrooms with laptops being used successfully by children to complete tasks independently. However, humans are interactive beings and a flick of an eyebrow can say so much more than a thousand words, and is understood whatever language you speak. Intrinsic body language and simple, consistent sign language all help in the classroom, and using clear gestures alongside every day words really help – focusing on the ones to do with the senses (look, listen, touch, eat), things we do all the time (sit, stand, and stop) are the best ways to start. Of course, one of the best resources we have as teachers is the children themselves, because they know what is going on better than anyone. To hear an anxious six-year old volunteer to translate from Polish to English for a sick friend, and then ask to go to the toilet in Welsh, with equal fluency and confidence, is beyond rewarding and joyous.

Language has many forms, but all communicate. We can hear the echoes of our past, connect with each other right now, and look into the future with hope.

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