Public Engagement

Languages in our Lives

Devyani Sharma, Department of Linguistics, shares her experiences running Community workshops as part of the Languages in our Lives. 

19 November 2018

The East End of London has been multilingual for centuries. Today’s residents share the same struggles and joys that Irish weavers, Ashkenazi Jews, or French Huguenots might have experienced in past centuries trying to maintain cherished family languages alongside English, or trying to communicate in English after migrating as an adult.

 

As part of a wider initiative (Multilingual Capital, www.multilingualcapital.com), Devyani Sharma (Department of Linguistics), Mahera Ruby (author of Family Jigsaws: Grandmothers as the missing piece shaping bilingual children’s learner identities), and Nurull Islam (Mile End Community Project, www.mileendcommunityproject.org) hosted a community workshop for parents, children, teachers, and the wider community to share and compare language experiences, ideas for language support, and research about bilingualism. The event was held at Southern Grove Community Centre, in Mile End. Participants came from different ages and backgrounds, and the workshop was designed to prompt people to transcend those age or community ‘barriers’ by describing and sharing many of the universal joys and struggles of being bilingual in London—participants shared their personal stories, how their language competencies affected family relationships, their hopes, anxieties, and questions about language ability and social advancement, and their deep emotional connections to languages.    

 

The workshop piloted a number of hands-on activities for later use in schools, adult education centres, and community centres. These included a screening of My Great Journey (a film created by the Mile End Community Project) as a springboard for discussion; a set of printed prompts listing common joys and struggles relating to language for participants to complete (see image), recorded narratives of personal challenges and achievements; a pre-workshop prompt to bring along personal artefacts that relate to language, memory, family, and migration, also used as prompts for the recorded narratives; and a series of portrait photos of participants holding written statements about their languages. The workshop ended with a “true or false” discussion around statements about bilingualism as an interactive way of sharing research findings and combatting certain myths or misunderstandings. For example, parents and language teachers can be critical of language mixing or ‘imperfect’ language use among the younger generation in an effort to maintain a language, yet this practice often inadvertently hastens language loss by creating anxiety and self-consciousness among younger speakers. Similarly, improving awareness of cognitive and cultural benefits of bilingualism can help families to recognise family languages as a precious resource rather than a hindrance to social mobility.

    

Funding cuts to community language classes have had a tangible effect in London communities, and this pilot workshop formed part of a search for creative alternatives to support languages in London. It helped to establish a template for targeted work with specific stakeholders, e.g. schools, language teachers, parent/child groups, and community groups. The methods can be used by teachers to engage students from different ethnolinguistic heritage to their own and could help to embed creative language-based activities into the National Curriculum. The initiative also aims to increase awareness of the need not to stigmatise ‘imperfect’ language users but rather foster creative and comfortable spaces for speakers with varied competence to enjoy using languages.

 

The world is losing languages at a faster rate than ever before; half of the world’s languages may disappear in this century. As home to more than 300 languages other than English, London is uniquely placed to play a part in preserving linguistic diversity, one of the defining features of our species. More information about bilingualism is available at: www.multilingualcapital.com, and details of this and other workshops will be shared there soon.

 

If you're interested in running Community Engagement projects, why not apply for a Community Engagement Small Grant? Apply for up to £500 to pilot new activity. Deadline 15th of each month. More information: https://www.qmul.ac.uk/publicengagement/funding/small-grants/community-engagement-grants/