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Who are we?: Polyglots, poetry and language learning

Updated Friday, 26th July 2019

Dr Tita Beaven explores how can languages professionals address the languages crisis? And what happens when polyglots and artists get together with language teachers and learners to address the issues that face our discipline?

On 22 May 2019 students from three secondary schools joined poet Laila Sumpton, artist Natasha Davis and polyglots Richard Simcott and Lindsay Williams for a Polyglot workshop at Tate Exchange, London, organised by Tita Beaven, in collaboration with Counterpoint Arts as part of the Who Are We project. As Laila put it, the workshop, Language learning, risks and recipes, enabled us to ‘investigate what language learning feels like, what the risks are and what ingredients are needed for the present and future health of language learning’. There were poems, objects polyglots and sharpies to aid the discussion.

The workshop began with participants saying the word ‘butterfly’ in as many languages as they could (13 in total!). The discussion then focused on language and identity, where participants listened to Dean Atta's poem 'Mother Tongue'. Laila Sumpton then read out her poem ‘You never learnt?’ about the people who were never taught their mother’s tongue as children, and find themselves grasping for missing words, disconnected from their roots.


Students discussed the dangers of not learning languages both from a personal and a global point of view, highlighting the link between language learning and personal growth, tolerance, trade and international relations, and the dangers of being inward looking.

In another activity, participants were introduced to a varied collection of assorted items displayed on a table and had to pick one of the objects and explain how it represented what language learning is about for them. 

A picture containing different objects Creative commons image Icon Polyglots, poetry and language learning by Tita Beaven under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 license

Whilst some saw language learning as fun or adventure, others discussed how it can be frustrating too.

The activities also encouraged more poetic, unexpected connections. For instance, a pack of cards was chosen by a student that said learning languages was like a trick that gave her magic power – the power of speaking a secret language, her mother’s tongue, that others around her did not understand. Another young woman chose a fan to represent how learning a language was a way of spreading her knowledge and also of blowing people away with that knowledge. One student chose a small bottle of oil, saying that language learning was like oiling up gears she didn’t even know existed. Students seemed to be very aware that learning languages give you knowledge, and they felt clearly empowered by it.

Lindsay Williams picked a remote control, deliberately mixing her metaphors and saying that it opened doors, but also explaining how languages enable her to change channels and see different worlds. For Richard Simcott, language learning was like a deer’s antler, it was about being part of a wider whole. For Richard, the antler also symbolised the interconnection between language families, and he gave an impromptu mini-lecture on the topic.

Finally, during the workshop the ingredients for language learning were discussed. As one of the groups of students put it, you need the following:

1 cup of listening to the language whenever you can

3 table spoons of reading (books, magazines, etc)

3 cups of speaking practice

2 cups of immersion in the country where the language is spoken

1 cup of grammar

Mix the 3 tbs of reading and the cup of grammar learning. In another bowl, mix the 3 cups of speaking with the cup of listening. Fold the initial mixture into the latter. Cook with two cups of immersion in the country. Enjoy!







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