Podcast Episode 43: Language is Everything: Talking Language Activism with Wikitongues

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An organization dedicated to raising awareness of language diversity.

"This is one of the most important things that we can do as humans - to constantly strive to learn about things that we don't understand."

We all know that language is important, but after listening to this episode you'll be amazed at the enormous variety of perspectives on this topic. Non-profit organization Wikitongues looks at languages from all points of view - as a metaphor for life.

Listen to the new podcast episode now to find out all about Wikitongues and how Lindsay and I are connected to their mission.


When a language is lost, the individuals in that community lose a part of who they are. Language death is both a loss of history and a loss of identity.

If you oppose racism, mysogyny, genocide and oppresion, you must support language diversity!

And if you thought language discrimination was a thing of the past, think again: Languages like Occitan and Cornish are experiencing it right now.

Some cool languages documented on Wikitongues:

Note for pedants: In the interview, the Universal Declaration for Human Rights was mentioned, but the speaker may have meant the Universal Declaration for Linguistic Rights. I researched this but could not find the exact quote in either one. If you know more details, go ahead and leave a comment or itunes review to help us out.

Podcast Episode 26: Language Careers, Language Events, Language Inspiration

In this episode, Lindsay and Kerstin discuss a good bunch of topics around the topic of language learning in person.

This episode is brought to you with support from Other Cats to Whip, a cute French book that you can buy for 10% off using the code FLUENT.

  • What was language learning like before the internet?
  • What’s so great about an event like the Language Show?
  • Our ideas for Langathon and Language Speed Dating
  • Language and Careers: What’s out there beyond Teaching and Translating?
  • Lindsay’s passionate explanation of “Primary Languages” in the UK, and how to instil a language passion for life in younger learners
  • Our appreciation of multilingual actors and subtitles in TV and movies

Our podcast also featured a short interview with Dan McIntyre from the University of Huddersfield and our discussion around what fluency involved.

Tip of the Week

Lindsay chose Tip 2 as the winning tip for this episode and added more great ideas on how you can present to people, even when they are not learning your language.

1) Draw a trilingual vocab chart to practice vocab divergence

2) Prepare a presentation for your tutor or buddy

3) Swipe in two languages using the Swiftkey Keyboard app

Links and Interesting Stuff from This Show

Language Learning Events around the World

Language Show Live

Polyglot Gathering

Polyglot Conference

Polyglot Workshops

Creative Language Learning Podcast 26 language show

The Special Needs Child and the Foreign Language (by Sally Holmwood)

Sally Holmwood, tutor at Indigo Languages is establishing herself as a regular and always very welcome guest here on the Fluent Language blog. Her experiences working with young people of all ages, both inside and outside the UK school system make her views so profound, and Sally has a real passion for her languages to share with you. Today she is discussing a special group of people, often forgotten in the language learning world: Special needs children.

One Tongue, Two Languages

As well as working with languages, I support individuals with special needs in a wide range of settings. There is a wealth of information, on the internet and beyond, about teaching languages to children with special needs – and plenty of resistance from parents and school staff alike!

special needs learners.jpg

“My Child Struggles to Communicate in English - Why Teach Them a Foreign Language?”

Many parents I know of children with severe learning difficulties would argue against teaching a foreign language to a child that experiences considerable difficulty in speaking their own. I know two mothers of non-verbal autistic boys, for example. For the mothers, English is not their native tongue. They live in England and so speak to their sons in English. They believe that, as their children hear English all day, wherever they go, it might confuse them to hear a different language spoken at home. Such apprehension about introducing a child with a learning difficulty to a foreign language is not uncommon. Some parents and staff believing pupils’ time might be better spent focussing on building independence skills.

Using Language-Learning as a Stepping Stone

At Languages Without Limits, the rationale that we are all different is reason enough to introduce pupils with special needs to a foreign language. Seeing the variation between people from different cultures showed pupils that it is acceptable to be ‘different’. There is scope for revisiting useful basic language concepts when learning a foreign language too. The teaching of social and other core skills can be integrated into foreign language lessons, shifting the focus just slightly. (Read this twice because it applies to all learners, not just special needs ones. -ed.)

“But This Child Can’t Speak!”

We may believe the non-verbal child does not benefit from learning a foreign language - but can we really be sure? If you haven’t heard of Carly Fleischmann, the Canadian teenager with non-verbal autism, now’s the time to look her up! Watch her video below to see for yourself the stark contrast between her father’s assumptions about her understanding and what she herself wants to communicate! Carly, like many other non-verbal youngsters, now has an electronic communication aid – many of these can even be furnished with foreign language software!

David R. Wilson has compiled a list of resources that include guidelines on making foreign languages accessible to pupils with a number of special needs, who may need to learn in a different way to their peers.

A Time and Place for Everything – Including Traditional Teaching Methods!

Rudyard Kipling once said

The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it!

We know that there are three learning styles – visual, auditory and kinesthetic (tactile) – and certainly some pupils with special needs learn better if they can ‘get stuck in’. Videos, games and songs and plenty of opportunity to get up out of their seat to act things out will enhance their learning experience – the more tactile, the better!

Take fruit. Teach the names – and even the signs – not just by showing a simple photograph or cartoon image as a visual aid. Embrace the wonder that is ICT. Even better still, bring actual pieces of fruit in for pupils to try and allow them to feel, smell and taste it. Make the most of stories like Eric Carle's "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" – just think how this could be used to combine simple vocabulary with a brilliantly multi-sensory experience for children with special needs!

The Higher Functioning Special Needs Child

Let’s not forget the high functioning autistic learner either, who, like any of us, is highly motivated by things they really like. It may be the rigidity of maths or science that appeals. To others, like one young man I know, it is foreign languages. Excelling in school at French and German, he taught himself Russian at home. Foreign languages come complete with strict, non-negotiable grammar rules and a clear right or wrong answer for many questions. This can play to the high-functioning autistic pupil’s thirst for rigidity of routine. They may find such things easier to grasp than confusing abstract concepts found in other subjects.

Is the Special Needs Child the Better Language Learner?

We know that the pupil with special needs learns in a very different way to one without. We may have concerns that a child with special needs may not understand a foreign language, particularly if they are non-verbal, but that shouldn’t mean we exclude them altogether from the opportunity to learn. After all, Carly Fleischmann showed the world just how wrong people could be about the level of understanding of a non-verbal child.

The question of whether the special needs child makes the better language learner is a tricky one that brings me back to the diversity of all pupils, so much so that I am inclined to sit on the fence and say simply that we are all motivated by the things that interest us! We all deserve to be offered the same experiences and to receive support, where necessary, to make the most of them.

Learn One, Learn All!

The language learner with special needs may need to approach language learning in a completely different manner. Yet amongst the vast technologies that exist today, there are certainly many ways in which to offer them an experience of learning a foreign language that is meaningful to them. Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves from now on is not simply whether individuals with special needs should learn a foreign language, but rather how they should be doing so?

About Sally Holmwood

Sally lives and works in West Sussex, England. She splits her working week between individuals of all ages with special needs, and languages (specifically German and French). Sally loves to make time to travel the world when she's not working - sometimes Europe, sometimes even further afield! Furthermore, she is a big fan of great television: SherlockBonesThe Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who. Stay in touch with Sally on Twitter or Facebook.

**Note from Kerstin : Like Sally, I also believe very strongly that language learning should be open to everyone who wishes to do so. This is not an easy path for anyone, and her ideas of the learner with autism finding comfort in rigid grammar rules, or the tactile learning styles, should be an inspiration to us all. How do you bring more adventure into your learning styles?** 


Get involved: How to make language lessons great

Remember only a few weeks ago, when we looked at the findings of the British Academy's State of the Nation report? I'm sorry to keep battering you, Great Britain, but the alarm bells really do start ringing when you read articles like this one, in the UK Guardian.

It starts with an image of language learning that certainly would have never given me my passion:

Learning a foreign language is difficult, right? Well, yes it is if you start at 11, only do it for three years, get the bare minimum of curriculum time, have your classes so spaced out that you forget what you learned last Wednesday when it comes to the next lesson on Tuesday, and never get to apply your skills, so it’s all theory and no practice (let alone pleasure).
— Guardian, Languages in UK schools: where we are vs where we need to be

Gosh. Yes. I think I would hate most subjects taught like that.

The article goes on to describe how a lot of the teaching is too driven by exams and motivation and fun come in much lower. Academics and language experts decry the design of the GCSE exams as really narrow - no one would feel challenged or intrigued by their content.

Design a School

img: morguefile

img: morguefile

Compare the ideas above with the tuition I experienced in Germany. My own curriculum looked a little like this:

  • In Kindergarten and primary school, there were no formal foreign language lesson. We sang "Sur le pont d'Avignon" and "If you're happy and you know it", that's about it.
  • English was introduced at age 10 in my new school. At this stage I was REALLY EXCITED to study 4-5lessons a week. The number of lessons didn't drop until I left school (I chose this after age 16). We were reading plays and books about halfway in. We had school exchanges and the language was relevant to other subjects.
  • At age 12/13, I had to take second foreign language but got a choice of Latin vs French. I went with French "because Latin is dead". Most of the geeky guys in my class went with Latin. This again came in at 4-5 lessons a week for the next 5 years. Again, we did have school exchanges.
  • There was a voluntary option of taking a third foreign language in the afternoons at age 14 (2 hrs a week), and I chose Italian out of Italian vs Spanish vs French for the Latiners.
  • Enter age 15/16 and I had to drop Italian. We continued for a bit as a club rather than a school subject, but things fizzled out. Instead, I got the option of taking up Latin - once again at 5 lessons a week.

Honestly, I couldn't have imagined a much better environment. I would have probably liked to continue with Italian, but I did get to drop it in favour of another language. I wasn't even at a foreign language or Europe-focused school, just seemingly one that offers all it can.

Twinning is winning

I think exchanges and twinning were so much more significant and important than how I imagine having taken a physics lesson in French. We got to hang out with ENGLISH TEENAGERS. I had AN ENGLISH BOYFRIEND (for 2 days). They came to our parties and drank our alcohol. That, ladies and gentlement, is intercultural bonding.

And perhaps controversially, I was also more than happy to start learning languages at the age that I did.

What would your ideal language school look like?

Dream in the comments, please! We can probably all do a job at least as good as Michael Gove.

  1. How many lessons a week do you think children need?
  2. At what age would you start?
  3. Would you incorporate language learning in other subjects (the new FLAME project is keen on that)?
  4. Would you include foreign trips, language exchanges or virtual twinning with other schools?

Sylvia Guinan, experienced Greece-based English online teacher, added that the space in which you are taught can make a huge difference to interest and wellbeing. She found great ideas in this gallery of cool learning spaces, and points out how they also have the best in blended learning options available.

The Extreme Classroom is my favourite - learn a language by going out into the world and using it, reading it and so on. If we can't all go to Germany, is the internet the next best thing?