Flexible language for food labels.

In a recent health food conference, Anne Heughan, Director of External Affairs at Unilever, claimed that labels on food should not just be a list of ingredients. She felt that some thought had to be put into the wording of these labels, taking into account the linguistic culture of the target country. As an example she quoted England and Germany, she said that while in Germany consumers prefer technical information in England consumers would prefer the information about the product described in a more emotional way.

While it´s easy to understand how many people would find it difficult to find an emotional way of describing a recipe of aspartame, E-numbers, mixed in with some vegetables and potatoes, there is an important message here: “localization. localization, localization.”

Wikipedia, the dictionary-lazy-person-bible to everything, defines language localization as: “the process of translating a product into different languages or adapting a language for a specific country or region.” In our day and age, knowing a language or being able to speak a language to a certain standard is very important. However, to be able to use it in a professional environment people will need to know also the culture and cultural nuances linked to that language.

Culture is something that is not really that easy to get in a foreign language class once or twice a week. To learn culture you need to live it and breathe it, day in, day out. Some teachers are fantastic at inspiring young students and pass culture on. However, MFL in the UK is not a priority subject. There are many schools where it’s not compulsory and MFL teaching jobs are scarce. It is not infrequent for MFL teachers to teach up to three languages. Are they gifted and multilingual? Far from it. Don’t misunderstand me, of course, some of them surely are. Most of them end up teaching their main degree language, a second language that they picked up along the way, maybe they did it for a year or two. But more and more MFL teachers are made to teach a third language that either they don´t know at all, they struggle through a summer intensive course in Spanish, or they did at school about 20 or 30 years ago. And when it comes to language for primary schools, well, most primary school teachers don´t speak any foreign language and have sweaty nightmares when thinking about having to teach something that they probably hated themselves in school. Some primary schools do buy in specialist language teachers from outside. However one or two sessions a week with a French teacher learning colours and days of the week in French hardly represents what I´d call immersion in the culture or the language.

All of this takes me back to my original point “localization”. Speaking and understanding the language and the culture. Being in a bilingual family I intend to bring up my daughter bilingual. I will not learn the language but acquire it, through daily immersion in the language, by talking to her Spanish family and taking part in as many holidays abroad and Spanish speaking activities locally as she can. I am not French and I speak French with a foreign accent, however for me the choice is clear. I don’t want my daughter to be completely fluent at saying the colours and days of the week, or talking about GCSE topics. I want her to speak to children her age in French, about life and games, with a strong accent if you will. The aim is called communication, with or without accent. By learning to speak a foreign language in early life, children will also be exposed to the culture. Let’s take French as an example, children would be able to watch French movies and absorb the cultural connotations and sub-meanings. They will be able to converse with other children their age in that language, thus acquiring new vocabulary, learning the social non-written rules, and being exposed to the “right” accent (for those who do worry about accents).
If we talk about personal fulfillment, I think the fact of being able to communicate with others and enjoy literature and cinema in that language will be enough for a lot of people. However, some people may also want to achieve professional fulfillment. In this respect, think about 20 years in the future. The EU, UN, multinational companies, etc will be needing people who speak several languages and understand the culture. Those people who have been brought up speaking at least 2 languages at home will have the upper hand. They will understand not just the language but the cultural nuances.
Does this mean that people who study GCSEs and A levels now won’t have a chance in the future? No, of course not. If they love languages they will keep at it and spend years after school improving that language to get to near native level. This is very hard work, as I am sure many of the people reading this know, because you are either bilingual yourself or you know somebody who is, and has had to learn the second language.
By the Principle of Least Effort, why would you want to go through the struggle of years of studying and learning, when you can acquire the language from a tender age? I know I wouldn’t.
For those parents who do speak a foreign language fluently because they, themselves, went through the verb ending learning process, the choice, in my opinion, should be clear. Don´t worry about accent, teachers in school will probably also have the same type of accent as you do, or worse if it´s their third language. Don´t worry so much about grammar and saying things wrong, think that your kid is getting much more immersion speaking it at home and using it for real interaction, than at school learning about holidays and school uniform. If you worry about grammar and vocabulary reading children´s books and watching the news will also be a good revision for you. Also, think that if your kid can hold a conversation with native people in that language, it means s/he is getting the message across. (By the way, saying the numbers and pointing at stuff that you want to buy doesn’t really count).
Finally, if we want our children to compete in the world of the future, of being those people who will be able to market products to foreign countries, to use the right lingo, the right nuances, to know that Germans like their food technical and the English prefer it pretty, let´s pass our knowledge down the generations.

Michael Gove to put languages centre stage with English Baccalaureate?

UK Education Minister Michael Gove has suggested plans to create what he calls an ‘English baccalaureate’. It will be a certificate awarded to pupils who pass five or more GCSEs at grade C or higher and must including English, maths, science, a humanties subject and, significantly, a foreign language.

His idea intention is to encourage student to take a broad range of subjects and to firm up traditional ‘solid’ subjects, which have allegedly been downplayed at GCSE and A Level as schools have sought to encourage students into easier options more likely to yield higher grades and make exam tables look good. Science and languages have been especially badly hit as students see that as harder graft and don’t wish to jeopardise their chances of landing enough grades to progress to the next level.

Languages could be given higher priority by the government.

Michael Gove is a fan of the popular International Baccalaureate, an alternative qualification to A Levels that is offered by more and more schools and sixth form colleges.

To my mind it’s a step in the right direction. Pupils at 16 should have a broad education and not be prematurely specialised. Compulsory languages should never have been dropped by the last government. However, it’s not really a true baccalaureate in the continental mould, more a why to shoehorn the existing exam into a fresh idea that it doesn’t really fit. It allows an el cheapo quick fix with a new buzzword but does nothing to tackle falling standards, rapid grade inflation, and the underachievement of boys nor will it tackle the low standards of literacy among students who have achieved high grades. It’ll be the same old GCSEs with students pushed a little harder to ensure a broad mix – something many schools do anyway, especially with brighter pupils.

Gove, then, does not appear to want to tackle the English exam system head on and introduce real reform. However, the English baccalaureate will place languages back on the agenda in mainstream education, and schools, now faced with putting all students through a language GCSE will want to channel more resources into the subjects. That can only be a good thing.

The decline of languages in schools and universities

Every year at the end of August we see the TV and papers flood with news about GCSEs and A levels, with arguments for and against the tests and people always complaining about how easy they are getting. Of course, languages are always at the top of the list.

So, when a friend sent me a link to an article titled, Who still wants to learn languages?, I was surprised. “Again another article about how easy languages are GCSEs are getting”. However this article goes beyond the August results and talks about the problems languages are facing everywhere, even at university level.

Due to the crisis and cost cutting some universities are cutting down on the language courses they offer. It seems that when money is low, languages are one of the first to go.

Is language learning really in decline?

However, leaving aside the obvious cross-cultural relation building, brain developing, family links building advantages and others for bilingualism, there are business reasons to keep languages alive. There is more and more need for language skills in the business world. Although, in my opinion, we should be careful and not generalize. Knowing a language alone is probably not going to help you get a better paid job. But having a skill set and knowing a language is going to broaden the possibilities for you. For instance, an aeronautical engineer with French may well have more chances working for one of the French owned companies making planes in Bristol.
In the Guardian article the author gives a few reasons why some languages are losing out, German is too hard, learning a language is a long term thing and people want results here and now, among them. I agree with her, most people want results quickly and learning a language once you are a teenager or adult means that you probably have to go through the grammar, vocabulary list, learning type of route.

But the article is not all gloom and doom, Aida lights a candle at the end of the tunnel by means a piece of information, namely primary schools introducing compulsory languages in 2011. Well, that sounds nice, doesn’t it? Of course, as the supporters of this scheme tells us that if you introduce languages to a younger audience they will learn to love them even sooner. Well, that theory is debatable, it depends on many factors, do you like your teacher? is your teacher a person who makes people love language? Are you being bullied in school? Is your school one of those where teachers have to spend more time keeping order than teaching?, etc

Television and Video for Bilingual Baby

One of the challenges that most parents face nowadays is the battle against TV and computers. The way the world is going it seems we will lose that one. Technology natives they call them. All these little darlings we are bringing up will breath technology. We will feel old and outdated in a few years!
Hold on! Do we have to? Well, of course not. In Spanish we say, “si no puedes con ellos, únete a ellos”, if you can’t win, then join them!

That’s it. Let’s not see computers and TV as our enemy, but our ally in our battle to protect bilingualism. I’m doing just that. Recently I asked my nephew to record from Spanish telly a handful of children’s shows, so I can play them to my daughter when she’s a bit older and so getting maximum exposure to the language. I thought DVD would be great. But I was wrong, there is even a better way, a hard disk! These days the thing to do is go smaller, instead of having hundreds of DVDs piled up and gathering dust in your shelves, have a hard disk with all your favourite shows plugged into your TV.

There's loads of great TV in other languages

It’s not a great idea if you are addicted to the X-Factor and the like, but used wisely it can be a great tool for keeping language alive. Also recording from the TV and keeping the programme for your personal use isn’t breaking any copyright rule. My nephew gave me this idea, he’s bought a hard drive for me and is recording all the appropriate children’s shows from TV.

If the shows are chosen wisely it can be a great thing even for later years when they go to school. Get your family in your home country to record good programmes about history, culture, documentaries, etc even if you are not going to watch them just now. They may come in handy when the topic comes up in school a couple of years down the line.

Some of the programmes I can recommend for Spanish kids are:
Los Lunnis, las Tres Mellizas from TVE also available on their play on demand system http://www.rtve.es/alacarta/

If you have any other suggestions, please post them below. They can be for any other languages.

YouTube as a resource for language learning

As well as off-colour clips of puking pets and teenage narcissists and that ‘Leave Britney Alone’ clip, YouTube is a great hunting ground for foreign language videos in practically any language and there’s plenty to capture the imagination of the budding bilingual baby.

It’s easy to find modern cartoons and children’s programmes but also some seriously old school stuff. Lidia has found some interesting shows she hasn’t seen since childhood. I’ve recently learned that some of my favourite childhood cartoon shows – like Dogtanian and Willy Fogg - were actually created in Spain and only later dubbed into English.

Here’s Dogtanian – AKA Dartacan – in the original language!

Many new devices now allow you to view YouTube videos on your TV, from things like the Apple TV
to Windows Media PCs. Turning a computer into a home media centre is now a pretty popular thing to do, storing all your music and movies in one place and surfing the internet, including popular video sites, from the sofa.

Before to access loads of foreign language TV, you needed to be a bit of a satellite TV buff and have your dish pointing towards the right bit of the Sky. I can see a day when the traditional TV broadcast will be a thing of the past and you will be able to bring up pretty much any film or TV show on your internet-linked TV or PC from any country, in any language. The internet makes it trivial to access Spanish media.

Looking for bilingual baby sitters?

One thing Lidia and I are trying to remember is that raising our daughter is not some ‘personal project’ to elevate her against her peers in some kid of horrible competition. We see it as vital for to to fully access both sides of her culture, which will enable her to have more choices and richer experiences later.

Of course, in our case, we have two native tongues – Papa speaks English, Mama Spanish – but some parents may be have reasonable fluency in another language and want to pass on what they know sooner rather than later when little one is most alive to language acquisition. One trend in the US, picked up by the New York Times, are parents who do not speak another language to any fluency themselves but are seeking ways to expose their children to different language early on:

When Maureen Mazumder enrolled her daughter, Sabrina, in a Spanish singalong class a year ago, she hoped it would be the first step in helping her learn a second language. But the class did not seem to do the trick, so Ms. Mazumder decided to hire a baby sitter, one who would not only care for her daughter but also speak to her exclusively in Spanish.

Ms. Mazumder, whose daughter is nearly 3, has company. Although a majority of parents seeking caretakers for their children still seek ones who will speak to their children in English, popular parenting blogs and Web sites indicate that a noticeable number of New York City parents are looking for baby sitters and nannies to help their children learn a second language, one they may not speak themselves.New York Times

Is it a good idea? Why not! Anything that exposes children to another language, whether its foreign babysitters, foreign films or music can only help develop an enthusiasm or awareness.

Lidia, who is highly fluent in French, is keen to expose little one to that language, perhaps a little French, German and Russian too, languages with while she also has some knowledge.

Are you a parent with fluency or perhaps no fluency in a language that you are trying to teach your child? Leave a comment and let us know what techniques you are using.

Does bilingualism protect the brain?

Many pieces of scientific research have suggested that keeping the mind active can play a part in guarding against mental decline in old age. Everything from crossword puzzles to read books has been suggested as good ways to achieve this positive effect.

It’s hardly surprisingly that being bilingual has been said to be another powerful way to protect and strengthen the mind.

Researchers from York University in Canada carried out tests on 104 people between the ages of 30 and 88.

They found that those who were fluent in two languages rather than just one were sharper mentally.

Writing in the journal of Psychology and Ageing, they said being bilingual may protect against mental decline in old age.

The bilingual brain is a powerful one according to research.

The bilingual brain is a powerful one according to research.

It seems that juggling more than one language keeps the mind sharper. Statistics from Wales have shown that Welsh-English bilingual children tend to do better in exams than those who only speak English. The fact that this strengthening of the brain could have long lasting and profound effects is certainly interesting and another reason for enabling our little one to grow up with two languages.