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Talking languages podcast

Updated Friday, 22nd September 2006

We talk to experts, teachers and students about languages and language learning. Whatever your background and knowledge, if you’re interested in languages this monthly podcast is for you.

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Ever thought of learning a foreign language? Perhaps you’ve already made a start, or, like most people on our planet, you’re bilingual already.

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Episode 3: Supporting your learning

We investigate three language institutions: Alliance Française, Goethe Institute and Instituto Cervantes. What do they do, and how can they help you learn a language?


Copyright BBC


Klaus-Dieter Rossade: Hi, welcome to the third episode in our podcast series Talking Languages. I’m Klaus-Dieter Rossade from the Open University’s Department of Languages and with me are my colleagues Inma Álvarez and Sara Heiser. Together we will lead you through this programme.

Last episode we listened to some important preparation you need to consider before going abroad … In this episode we talked to people at the Goethe Institute, Alliance Française and Instituto Cervantes. They are well established language institutions supported by the governments of the countries they represent and they have lots to offer for people learning languages in the UK. The languages they offer are some of the languages currently available for study via the Open University.

When I prepared myself for a longer period of travelling in Latin America, I found the course of intensive Spanish lessons I took for about half a year the most valuable part of it. I soon found that when I travelled with people who had less Spanish than I did, everyone’s attention in a conversation would naturally turn to me. Locals considered me to be the most likely candidate to understand them, and my fellow travellers, once they realised they hadn’t quite understood everything, thought I would be the one to fill their gaps.

I wish though, I had spent as much time preparing for the different cultures as well. I think if I had used the facilities of institutions like the ones covered in this podcast, I would have found out much more about the different cultures while travelling, and would have had a better understanding when talking to the people. Sarah and Inma, how do you prepare for another culture when you plan a trip abroad?

Sara Heiser: When I am going somewhere where I speak the language like France or Spain, I find out what’s in the news so as to know what people will be talking about. Over the months before, I’ll often read a novel, listen to music in that language or tune into the radio. When I visited China, which was going to be culturally very unfamiliar to me, I started by finding out a bit about their history and philosophy of life. For Greece, which is linguistically and culturally closer, I spent time on the alphabet and in particular the pronunciation in order to give myself access to words that sound the same in other European languages, on signs and menus.

Inma Álvarez: When I go abroad these days, unfortunately, I never have much time to prepare, but I do take with me some books with local information and even a phrasebook if I don’t know the language. Then I try to pay attention to the way the local people communicate and behave, and I always attempt interaction in the foreign language, and in my experience the response is always good.

Klaus: Ok, thank you, let’s have a closer look at the three institutions.

Learning a language is probably the first element of preparation that comes to mind for most of us. All three institutions offer language courses at all levels, catering for different kinds of needs and at varying degrees of intensity. In the case of German, students can even continue their courses at Goethe Institutes in Germany, which operate in a similar way. But let’s hear from Karl Pfeiffer, director of educational links at the Goethe Institute in London, how else they can help:

Karl Pfeiffer: They can use our website, they can use the personal contact they will have established with the teachers here. Very often I get an e-mail from somebody who has just gone to Germany saying “happily arrived, I’ve got a quick question, would you help?” And of course we always do that.

The second element is: You can prepare yourself for the cultural elements that might be of interest for you in Germany, you can do that by using our library obviously and read up on things, you can use our website to do it but you can also come to our events, you can watch a film, can listen to a talk and of course we organise exhibitions with partners in London so you could even have a look at the very latest modern paintings that come out of Germany.

Inma: So you prepare yourself for your stay abroad, go there, and then come back with better language skills and much richer in cultural experience. Now you’re looking for ways to help you stay in touch with the language and the culture. The Instituto Cervantes might help even if you don’t live nearby. Gemma Belmonte, Spanish teacher at the Instituto Cervantes in London explains:

Gemma Belmonte: We have a distance learning course which has been created by the Instituto Cervantes itself. Also we offer free for everyone who has access to the internet what we call Cervantes virtual centre which is a compendium of resources for teachers, students, for everyone who wants to study Spanish as a second language including Hispanists and specialists in the language.

We offer all types of cultural events. At the moment we have a very outstanding exhibition on Velazquez the painter in conjunction with the national gallery.

Sara: With all this on offer, what is the most popular with the students? Well, the classes, libraries and websites emerge as a clear favourite. All three institutions support their activities through websites that provide links, up-to-date information about French, Spanish and German speaking events and projects happening in Britain. This could be a series of French, Spanish or German films showing in a cinema with the support of the institution or a national competition relating to a popular theme like the football World Cup. The websites, of course, attract people internationally, but for those living within travelling distance of the institutions, the classes are often the most important provision. Chrystel Hug, Managing Director of the Alliance Française in London.

Chrystel Hug: We’ve tried to organise cultural events etc but we find that in the centre of London people are very busy. They have got so many other commitments and actually coming to one weekly class, let’s say, is already quite a big commitment on their part.

Inma: The history of these institutions is varied and goes back, in some cases, to the times when European countries were waging war with each other. The Instituto Cervantes has roots in the 1940s.

Gemma Belmonte: Before becoming the Instituto Cervantes, this institution appeared in this country in the form, under the name of Spanish Cultural Centre and that appeared in the UK in the 1940s and then in the early 1990s the institution became what is now called Instituto Cervantes, in the early nineties. The institute first of all is Cervantes, the only official Spanish government language centre and it is a public institution founded in 1991 to promote Spanish language teaching and the knowledge of Spanish culture, so that gives us our added value.

IA: The Instituto Cervantes can be found in London, Manchester, Leeds and Dublin. The Goethe Institute also has four branches in the UK and Ireland, in London, Manchester, Glasgow and Dublin. Karl Pfeiffer points out how important it was to open the Goethe Institute in the UK in the 1950s.

Karl Pfeiffer: First of all, historically it was important for the Goethe Institute to be based outside of Germany and for people to have an opportunity to get to know Germany after the second World War. So initially of course in the UK because of the special relationship with Germany and the UK on the basis of the two World Wars that went between the two. The Goethe Institute has been in London since 1958 so we almost have history of 50 years in London and it has always been very much accepted within the cultural scene of London.

Inma: The Alliance Française will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2007, but Alliance Française French circles have existed in the UK since the beginning of the last century.

Chrystel Hug: In 1982 when Alliance de Londres started, it was also the time when Alliance Glasgow started and Alliance Cambridge started. Now there had been French circles for a long time, since about 1908, since actually just after the Entente Cordiale was signed, and the Alliance as language schools came later. There’s about 10 alliances … what we call alliance in the UK is a language centre.

It’s not a state organised thing, it’s a local thing and actually we only open an Alliance when it comes from the local people we are really all about being ‘bi-cultural’- and not French if you see what I mean.

Sara: We hear a lot about the reasons for learning a language these days. It is generally accepted that learning a language is an enriching experience which broadens the mind. For Chrystel Hug, it is a natural choice, since France is very close and can easily be visited from the UK. Also, the French language is close to English in word order and grammar, so there are many words that sound similar which helps learning the language. For Monserrat Aguirre, Head of studies at the Instituto Cervantes, Spanish language skills are essential in the context of globalisation. Speaking Spanish can be a great advantage in tourism, trade and many other professional areas, and of course, this applies not only to Spain but to the whole of Latin America. German is spoken in Europe as a first language by about 100,000 people, more than any other language in Europe. The expansion of the European Union might give you another reason to learn German.

Karl Pfeiffer: All the countries that have acceded to the EU from the east or from middle Europe; they will have German at least as a second foreign language so it is very easy to communicate with them. On top of that, German is the third language officially in the EU and I think it is of course culturally very important for people to at least know some of the language if they are interested in the culture of the country that is right in the middle of Europe.

Klaus: Before we finish, let’s hear what some of the students have been saying about studying with one of the institutions:

Student 1: It has given me the confidence to practice the skills I have learnt. And through the lessons, we learned about the Spanish culture, food, history, customs etc.

Student 2: Goethe institute is a school but it is not a school like you used to go to in childhood, so you really feel free to learn and you find yourself very voluntarily learning languages which is really delightful.

Klaus: We do hope that your language learning experience is as enjoyable as that of these students. For more details of the institutions covered in this podcast, and more about this podcast, visit our website at

Thank you for listening!

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Episode 2: Living abroad

We investigate the joys and challenges of living in a foreign country. We consult James Coleman, an expert in the field of studying abroad, and talk to students about their own experiences.


Copyright BBC


Tita Beaven: Hello, I’m Tita Beaven from the Department of Languages at the Open University. Welcome to the second episode of Talking Languages, our podcast series about language learning.

In the first episode, we heard about why people learn languages. For me, it was personal. My father is English, my mother Spanish, so languages have always been part of our family. Like many other bilingual children, I grew up taking language learning for granted, and I remember finding it bizarre that some of my friends only actually spoke one language.

In this episode, I talk to James Coleman, Professor of Language Teaching and Learning at the Open University. To start with, I wanted to know why Jim became interested in language learning in the first place.

Jim Coleman: I think like a lot of people who come from Wales I had an initial exposure to bilingualism which is extremely important. I am an English native speaker but I learnt Welsh from the age of 7 and that’s what triggered an interest in foreign languages, which has continued ever since.

Tita Beaven: Jim is an expert in the field of studying abroad, and knows a thing or two about discovering other cultures!

Jim Coleman: I find study abroad a fascinating topic, but one thing that recurs all the time is our emotional reactions to being abroad and trying to operate in a foreign language context where you don’t have the same control of the language as you do in your own language. One thing I remember very clearly is trying to open a bank account and not really understanding what was required and feeling hurt and angry and hostile as a result of my own failure to communicate and to understand what was required of me. Managing that kind of emotional response to being in a foreign culture is a very important thing to try to learn to do.

Tita Beaven: So, living abroad can be a frustrating experience. But what do foreign students who are spending time in the UK find difficult? I asked a couple of Chinese students to tell me about their experiences:

Student 1: I remember five years ago when I first arrived in the UK and I lived in Manchester, one day I went to an open market and I wanted to buy some groceries, vegetables, and food and the vendor said to me “Love, what do you want?” and I was really, really shocked and embarrassed, so I ran away without anything. I felt really, really strange, I only wanted some food and vegetables, why did this man call me love?

Student 2: Before I came here I thought my listening was kind of good, but once I arrived and I asked a lady what time is it, and she answered what time it was and I couldn’t catch it at all. I was so shocked, I was so scared, you know… the very strong British accent really scared me.

Tita Beaven: Well, it is clear that language, and interacting with people in real life can be a bit of a shock when you first go abroad, but what does the research tell us?

Jim Coleman: Trying to summarise the research that has been done recently on study abroad, first of all it’s a hugely expanding activity people around the world are realising what they can gain out of study abroad and every year the number travelling goes up and up and up, except in the UK, where I fear we are becoming a bit more insular.

Basically people gain first of all the academic, and the cultural knowledge that they gain from following courses in other countries; linguistically they also improve, especially in their spoken language and in the expansion of their vocabulary; they become more employable when they have studied abroad, because they have the capacity to function in different linguistic and cultural contexts; they develop personally, they become more self confident, more self aware.

Perhaps most important of all, is that they become citizens of the world and they become less narrow in their outlook, they develop this intercultural competence which means they can adapt and observe accurately what’s going on and participate without making narrow judgements on the community in which they are living.

Tita Beaven: When I was a student I spent a year living abroad. I was lucky enough to spend a year in the beautiful city of Bologna, in Italy. It was, of course, a great way to improve my Italian, but it was, above all, a fantastic way to find out about other people, other cultures, foods, flavours, music… I loved it so much I found myself going back to work in Italy after I graduated.

My own experience of Italy had been very positive, but I wanted to find out what foreign students think of living and studying here, so I went to the University of Buckingham, where a lot of foreign students come to do a two year degree, and asked them what they liked about studying in the UK.

Student 3: Well, one of the things I love about this country is that you meet so many different people, and at the same time they are not treated differently.

Student 4: First of all when you come here you see so many different people, so many backgrounds, it’s multicultural. So many people which you would never see in another city, and when you are dealing with them you are facing how things are done differently if you compare to your culture.

Tita Beaven: So, being exposed to other cultures is obviously something that can open your mind. But is there anything you should do in advance of such an extended visit abroad? Can you prepare for it in any way? I asked Jim Coleman about it.

Jim Coleman: If you want to ensure a successful period of residence or study abroad I think preparation is absolutely crucial. You should prepare linguistically, practically, academically but above all I think you need to prepare emotionally. There will be times when you feel absolutely lost when you are abroad, if you prepare yourself for that then you can also prepare some strategies for dealing with these feelings of home sickness and loneliness and anger and whatever the feelings are. So the message is prepare for absolutely everything and then be prepared to be surprised.

In the same way that they prepare athletes psychologically by getting them to think through the race ahead. It’s also possible for students and others who are going abroad to think through what it might actually be like and the kind of things they are going to want to do and the kind of feelings this might evoke. So that when these things happen it’s less of a surprise because they have prepared themselves psychologically for difficulties as well as the good side.

Tita Beaven: When I lived in Italy, one thing I did miss enormously was, surprisingly enough, food. Not that Italian food isn’t superb, but from time to time I have to confess that I would get together with my English friends, and have a Sunday roast. And food is something that the students at Buckingham also talked about.

Student 4: The first time it’s like, new food, new things and you are just happy to try it, but after a few months you are just fed up with it. I just want proper food that I’ve been eating all my life! I just want proper food from my mum.

Student 3: Even if you know how to cook when you use vegetables or meat etc it tastes absolutely different and not in a good way, especially the tomatoes because I’m from Bulgaria and we have wonderful tomatoes, big ones, here when you go to Tesco’s to buy tomatoes they all look the same, the colour is the same, and the shape is the same, and they taste like nothing, they taste like … feet.

Tita Beaven: So, obviously, small things, such as eating different foods, is something that you have to be prepared for. But what other things should you consider if you are thinking of spending some time living or studying abroad? I asked Jim Coleman for his advice.

Jim Coleman: Be prepared to adapt you’ve got to get away from that mentality that says this is the way we do it, and this is therefore the only way we do it. You have to be open minded you have to be willing to first of all understand and then accept that each culture has different ways of approaching food, time, greetings interpersonal relations, the conventions of work and so on, and I think if you are open minded and have your eyes open when you go abroad then you will adapt and get so much more out of the experience.

Tita Beaven: Living abroad, especially as a student, was certainly a fantastic opportunity for me, and I have many fond memories of my year abroad in Bologna. And for the students nowadays? Let’s hear it from them…

Student 4: When you come here your mind is changing a bit, it becomes reshaped and redesigned and you see things differently and then when you go back home and see what is going on there you can compare. Before you couldn’t compare because you are biased by your own culture.

Student 2: Going abroad can definitely broaden your views and if I stayed studying in China I wouldn’t know so many things but now I know lots of different things, things that even my parents don’t know and I have a more higher view and more global view.

Student 3: You go out of home thinking locally but when you go home after two or three or four years of education you come home thinking globally.

Tita Beaven: Well, as we’ve heard, living and studying abroad can open your horizons, make you more aware of cultural differences, and more competent at dealing with people from different cultures and backgrounds. So if you are about to embark on a period of living or studying abroad, or just thinking about it, have a look at our website. See you again soon!

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Episode 1: European Day of languages

September 26th is the European Day of Languages. In this first podcast we find out what it’s all about, and we hear from language learners about why they find learning another tongue so enjoyable.


Copyright BBC


Raquel Mardomingo: Hi, I’m Raquel Mardomingo from the Open University’s Languages Department. Welcome to the first episode in our podcast series about language learning. As you can probably tell from my accent, I’m from Spain, and I’m passionate about languages!

I first started learning English when I was seven and I still remember how excited I was when I heard myself and my friends making these strange and complicated sounds, and how funny it was to ask my mouth and tongue to produce them. That these exotic sounds could make any sense to someone else was just magic to me, and it still is!

In this episode we’re joining the celebrations marking the European Day of Languages. But what is it all about? Who better to ask than Isabella Moore, director of the National Centre for Languages, who are leading the organisation of events around the UK. Here’s Isabella’s take on European Day of Languages.

Isabella Moore: Well, the European Day of Languages is a fantastic event. It’s very much a time to celebrate the 6,000 plus languages spoken in the world. It’s a day to promote understanding, kick start the learning of languages, for many it’s day one for learning a language! But also it’s time to have lots of multilingual fun on that day.

This is a celebration of language and culture and it’s marked by thousands of people across Europe, so it’s not only just in the United Kingdom. We at CILT (The National Centre for Languages) organise the event for the UK and our role is to make this a really fulfilling day for all the organisations and schools who have taken part. We judge entrants for the award on the day and we have picked some really fantastic winners, who will be attending our event at the Scottish Parliament this year.

A number of organisations sponsor prizes. These are cash prizes, so there is a real incentive for schools and organisations to participate. Some of our sponsors, for example BMW sponsored the business language prize for the best project for developing languages provision to match the needs of business and employers; we had the London Turkish radio sponsoring our community languages prize for the best project involving community languages…

In all we have eight organisations sponsoring those awards, and we’ve had some really fantastic winners. Just to give you a few examples, last year Newbury park primary school won an award for their project which involved “Language of the Month”. “Language of the Month” celebrates the different backgrounds of the school’s pupils and encourages very much understanding of other cultures, and gives the children the opportunity to communicate in a different language each month, so it’s about valuing languages spoken by the pupils in the school.

Raquel: Thanks Isabella. So that’s what they’re up to, but why bother learning another language anyway? For me, I was fascinated by the different rhythm, intonation, and sounds of English and how different they were to my native Spanish. Then later I discovered that behind these different sounds was a people and a culture completely different to me – in fact it was like I’d discovered a whole new world.

But everyone’s different and I was curious to find out what turns other people on to study languages, so I asked a few of our OU students what motivated them.

Student 1: I did languages before when I was in Italy, and I’m just getting a degree so I can get into teaching, into primary schools.

Student 2: I have Spanish grandchildren, and they think I’m an idiot because I can’t speak Spanish.

Student 3: I work at the moment in tourism, so it’s quite useful and quite nice if you get people who have problems in English, you can manage to communicate with them in their native tongue.

Student 4: It opens a brand new world to you. Another culture, another way of life, it’s interesting for that reason.

Raquel: Of course that’s just a few of the many reasons that people choose to study a language. From the most casual student to the most dedicated, Isabella has probably encountered them all, so here’s her impression of the most common reasons that people choose to learn a language.

Isabella: The reasons why people want to learn a language can really be divided into two areas. Many people learn languages for pleasure, the sheer joy and the interest factor of learning about other cultures, other people through a language is huge, and many people learn languages for that reason.

Some people might want to learn languages for tourism; they want to travel they want to communicate with the people in the countries that they visit and that’s very important. Without some sort of language skills it’s very difficult to understand the people in a country, how they think, their customs, that’s a very important reason. Also some people learn languages to assist them in their particular studies; you might want to learn a language to understand source material in a language. I myself studied art history and I read the source material in French and in German, so that’s very important.

Then there’s the aspect of employability and there is no doubt, and our research clearly shows, that employers given the choice of employing a graduate with language skills and a graduate without language skills but (both) have the same basic other specialist knowledge, employers tend to choose those graduates that also have the additional language skills, so many of our young people are combining language skills with another subject, and that is very important.

It leads to, certainly our research shows, that it leads to a much more interesting career option, and I can say that with absolute certainty because I am sure that I myself would not have become the first female president of the British Chambers of Commerce without my language skills.

So it does open up all sorts of opportunities and some of the materials that CILT has developed, “Languages work”, actually is a tool used in schools to demonstrate just how important language skills are when choosing a career path and we have many examples of young people that perhaps may have studied languages key stage 3, perhaps dropped them at key stage 4, but then having that qualification, say, in GCSE, were able to pick languages up at a later stage. So there are lots of reasons for learning languages.

Raquel: As we’ve heard, the European Day of Languages celebrates languages diversity, but also, as Isabella said, it’s an opportunity to kick-start language learning. So if you’ve always thought about learning a language, but never quite summoned up the courage, don’t be shy – give it go!

If you want to give your career a boost, have a look at the ‘languages for work’ materials that the National Centre for Languages have developed. Or maybe you’re a teacher? If so, then take look at what other schools have done to celebrate European Day of Languages and get inspired about what your school could do this year.

For more details of all of these, and more about this podcast, visit our website. So all that’s left for me to do is wish you a very happy European Day of Languages!

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