The Linguascope Conference 2023 : Inclusivity in Language Teaching

The Duty of Inclusivity : Matching Language to Social Reality

This Saturday saw the Linguascope conference, fast becoming a trusty fixture in the language learning calendar. This year’s edition took place at the fabulous Mama Shelter in London, and as always, the event is a nice opportunity for us resource bods to learn from classroom teachers’ experience.

The overarching theme of the 2023 edition was diversity and inclusion. The precept is simple: no student should feel left out by the curriculum, unable to identify themselves in its content. It’s high time. After all, language use in the wild is already changing to reflect that updated social reality, not least in terms of pronoun usage. It follows logically that the teaching of language should mirror how it is being used.

Framing Inclusivity

Sadly, it’s still a topic that is politically charged. The reasons are many, but fundamentally, it seems that societal change triggers defensiveness, and defensive viewpoints are, in turn, prone to becoming entrenched. The fact that the change implicates identity, the hues that define our very existence, doubtlessly plays its part in how emotive it is.

And there were discouraging stories of friction and pushback amongst the conference delegates. Not amongst students, but from parents, guardians, boards, and other staff. It’s easy for us to judge them, but harder – and undoubtedly more compassionate – to understand that fear prevents some from welcoming difference.

But the flip side is the overwhelming positivity in stories of otherwise marginalised students feeling welcome and valid in the shared learning space. Their reactions show that inclusivity is less a political agenda than simply a truer reflection of social realities. What’s more, that heart-opening positivity is double-sided. Unless you live in a box, you will encounter diversity in the real world. Inclusive learning materials prepare us better to meet that with acceptance, tolerance and love, no matter how homogenous our own environments are.

As one wise voice proffered at the conference, inclusivity is not a question of promoting, but simply of representing. That’s the key: being inclusive doesn’t make change, but simply reflects it.

Individual Duty

It’s a topic that raises questions for our own, individual learning too. How welcoming and validating are our target language skills? Is the language we learn representative of diverse ways of being? What social reality is reflected in the resources we used to learn French, German, Spanish? There’s a duty for us to audit our sources, and stay in the loop, to ensure we’re not hanging onto any linguistic fossils.

It’s an issue that came up in a recent Greek lesson of mine. The conversation turned to race, and I came completely unstuck. I realised that I lacked all tools in my target language to talk about race in anything but the most unnuanced, bald terms. In this case, honesty, humility and a good teacher bridged the divide and filled the gap. But it’s even better to preempt the need and do that work in advance.

Linguascope’s inclusivity conference is a reminder to us all to build that into our language learning. 

On that note, I’ll end with a link to the excellent inclusivity resources at Twinkl, signposted by the brilliant Sharon Barnes in a very on-point and thoughtful talk. Proof of the heaps of support out there for anyone hoping to make all feel welcome on their learning journey.

The Commonwealth Games offer local linguists some amazing opportunities.

Commonwealth Games 2022 : Birmingham’s Local Language Boost

In December, you might have noticed the fanfare around my hometown, Birmingham, winning the chance to host the Commonwealth Games in 2022. The decision has generated a lot of local pride. No wonder, as all four corners of the world will grace Brum for the two-week event. But as well as a wonderful opportunity for local commerce, the event represents concrete opportunities for linguists.

Languages of the Commonwealth Games

The last UK hosting was the hugely successful Glasgow games of 2014. For that event, Capita Translation and Interpreting produced a really useful infographic to illustrate the languages spoken in competing Commonwealth lands. Due to the origins of the Commonwealth, English dominates.

However, quite a few ‘mainstream’ foreign languages make the list, too. In 2022, locals have the chance to hear French, Portuguese and Spanish on the streets of Birmingham. And with both volunteering and commercial job boosts going hand-in-hand with hosting the games, speaking one of them might well be a route to opportunities for local learners.

Ready-made motivation for the classroom

For local language teachers, the chance for games tie-ins are unmissable. What better motivator can there be for languages than the chance to use them practically on the street?

What’s more, international games also offer rich pickings for fun lesson topics. Much like the Eurovision Song Contest, they are great for topics like countries, numbers, like/dislike phrases, descriptions and more.

I’ve used an Excel spreadsheet to create sweepstake-style cards to play classroom games with country names, for example. You can easily spool cards from Excel in a mail merge. Here is a sample list I have used (in CSV format). Although this one is based on the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest final, it is useful for other events, and – of course – extendable!

Beyond Birmingham

There are plenty of events to work into your learning or teaching beyond Birmingham, of course. While local pride make Brum a special highlight for me, forthcoming extravaganzas include:

  • 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang (the official site is available in Chinese, French, Korean and Japanese)
  • 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia (the official site is a bit of a goldmine for linguists, with French, German, Spanish, Arabic and Russian versions!)
  • UEFA Euro 2020
  • 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo (the official site is also in French as well as English and Japanese)

Plenty of resources for languages-sport crossovers there – have fun mining them!

Preparing for GCSE means copious notes!

A GCSE Too Far? Giving Languages Their Point Back

Following this week’s GCSE results, there has been the usual seep of comments putting a downer on languages in schools. Simon Jenkins’ Guardian article presented a particularly cynical version of this view, which provoked (no doubt as intended) some thorny reaction.

But through the indignation language-lovers feel reading such comments, there are some difficult lessons. The sensation “little point to learning languages” headline is supported by an isolationist British narrative in some of the popular press, and picked up by parents and students alike. “Having a point” is felt subjectively – if the audience decides it doesn’t, then no amount of utility in a subject will matter.

Testing the waters

However, Jenkins enters more interesting waters when it comes to the delivery and testing of languages. His line goes that the establishment wrongly chooses to revere languages, as they are so easy to “test, quantify and regiment” as discreet units. As such, they fit neatly into our our hyper-regulated world of numbers, grades and economic comparisons of worth.

And here is the problem; as living, breathing, real-world systems, languages wither when we isolate them as objects for testing. No wonder that their utility fades away in the transformation to the exam paper. Pupils and parents have keen noses; they can sniff out those “exam only” subjects.

Content and Language Integrated Learning

Increasing the authenticity of learning materials, and in which settings we use them, is key. This is one of the core principles of Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL), an approach that may just be able to give languages their ‘point’ back. CLIL seeks to extend foreign language teaching beyond the language classroom and into the world in the best possible cross-curricular way. The model is simple: use the foreign language to teach other subjects in school.

International schools have followed a similar approach for decades, teaching through English. And plenty of research such as this study by the University of Gothenburg suggest that the benefits are felt in other languages as well as English. Nonetheless, it has little foothold in schools around the English-speaking world.

Breaking free from GCSE

For now, it seems like an unfeasible, colossal paradigm shift to start using a method like this in British schools. It is incredibly hard to break Modern Foreign Language teaching out of the chains of the exam testing system. The current setup demands hard numbers for comparing, listing, economising. There is little room to manoeuvre in the current climate. But for the survival of the subject, languages must cease to be an isolated, ‘made-for-testing’ discipline.

Nonetheless, there are things we can do to encourage CLIL principles outside the curriculum. Finding personal meaning is a large chunk of realising utility. It’s a strategy that can lead to great success in making listening material suddenly more accessible. Likewise, coaxing students to research their favourite topics via foreign languages may be one route to breaking the subject free.

As common as MOOC

As independent language learners, we can also bring these ideas directly into our own learning. In a world of MOOCs and free online training courses, there is no shortage of cross-curricular material in languages other than English. Khan Academy is available in Spanish, offering courses in Maths, IT and Science. Coursera has a huge catalogue of free online courses across a range of languages. For example,  why not try learning some Educational Psychology in Brazilian Portuguese?  Or perhaps you fancy learning iOS app development in Spanish at Udemy.

A little commitment is a good first step. Teaching languages? Try to introduce your students to some of these resources. Learning languages yourself? Pick a course in your target language, and start expanding your mind! With some canny thinking, we can free languages from that ‘academic use only’ box.