Most professional translators, linguaphiles by definition, will no doubt be aware of the fact that the languages from and into which they are translating contain many loan words and borrowed terms from other languages. The relatively high proportion of English words which have been infiltrating the French language over recent decades causes much uproar among members of the Académie française, the institution designed to protect the French language from ‘degradation’, but the use of words from one language by speakers of another is in fact a natural aspect of a language’s development, and something not to be derided. Rather than impoverishing a language, using words and terms from another language enriches the stock of words at one’s disposal and can also open people’s minds to the contributions of other cultures.
The BBC recently published an illuminating article exploring the surprising number of foreign words which are now used by English-speakers, and indeed readily accepted as being part of the English tongue. In the article entitled: ‘Does English still borrow words from other languages?’ (published on the 3rd February 2014), Philip Durkin, the deputy chief editor of the Oxford English dictionary and author of Borrowed Words: A History of Loanwords in English noted that English has over centuries been enriched by hundreds of different foreign words. He cites several examples of words we all use in everyday speech which were originally ‘borrowed’ from another language: ‘famous, foreign, languages, use and taken are […] borrowed words’, Durkin writes, as well as more obviously ‘borrowed’ words such as sushi (a word first used in English at the end of the nineteenth century). An understanding of these cultural and linguistic layers which make up the English language can be very beneficial, as Durkin notes: ‘Knowledge of what is being borrowed, and from where, provides an invaluable insight into the international relations of the English language.’
English has borrowed many words from French, Latin and the Scandinavian languages, due in part to the way the British Isles were invaded. Durkin notes that the words ‘peace, war, just or very’ came into English from French, while ‘leg, sky, take or they’ were Scandinavian loan words. Conversely, England’s role as coloniser in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries meant that many words of South Asian origin, such as jungle, yoga and khaki, also came to be part of the English tongue, writes Durkin. The language we speak today therefore bears the traces of the UK’s idiosyncratic history. Durkin states that English is now borrowing fewer and fewer foreign words as it becomes the international language of science, business and technology. Other languages are now borrowing words from English, hence the concern of the French about the increased infiltration of English words. The BBC article concludes: ‘Borrowings affecting other areas of the vocabulary typically follow the pathways of power and prestige between languages. English today may, for once, be more of a lender than a borrower. If we try to look decades or centuries into the future, who knows?’
Thus, we can see that while the common perception is that coming into daily contact with foreign languages is the province of professional translators, this is not strictly the case: when speaking English (or indeed any other language) in our day-to-day lives, we are (often unknowingly) coming into contact with words from other languages, and contributions from other cultures which can only serve to enrich our own.
The world of professional translating and interpreting could see a drop in the number of native English speakers qualified to enter its midst if current trends in the study of languages in the UK continue.
The professional translation and interpreting world needs not only fluent speakers of the world’s languages, but also those with a native command of different languages. Most professional translation agencies require the translator to have a native command of the language into which they are translating, which is not the same thing as fluency in a language. For example, if one is fluent in German, one will generally be seen as having a sufficient ability to read and understand the nuances of the language to be able to translate out of it, but of course translation (or interpretation) is a two-way process, and one needs a language to translate into. Generally, a native command of this language is necessary: even if one understands every word of a language, it is surprisingly difficult to translate perfectly into this language if it is not one’s mother tongue.
There is no reported shortage of non-native English speakers who can translate from English into their own languages, but there is growing concern about the number of native English speakers who have a sufficiently fluent command of foreign languages to be able to undertake the essential task of translating from another language into their native English.
Google ‘Decline in UK foreign language-study’ or any other related terms, and numerous links to alarmist articles about the drop in the study of languages in the UK pop up. The decline in those studying foreign languages can be seen at all levels of education. Most recently, Oxford University languages professor Katrin Kohl has written in the Guardian about the drop in those choosing to study languages at university (‘Universities must make languages relevant’, The Guardian, 16th April 2014). Similar views can be found, among many others, in the Guardian’s article of 8th October 2013, entitled ‘Modern languages: degree courses in free fall’ and that of 7th October 2013, entitled ‘European language degree courses abandoned by many UK universities’.
A significant number of those who read for a Modern Languages degree can on to become professional translators or interpreters, but with a dearth of students choosing to read a degree in languages in the first place, the professional translation sector suffers from the lack of qualified, native English translators and interpreters.
Kohl believes the current crisis in language study in higher education is due to the lack of government funding and the misguided strategies of policy makers. It is also surely due to a very British arrogance about the position of the UK on the world stage, and the English language’s status as the global tongue. As the professional translation industry’s need for native English speakers with a fluent command of other languages shows, it is not enough to smugly wallow in the knowledge that a large proportion of the world’s population speaks English as a first or second language; however widespread the command of English becomes, English native speakers who speak other languages fluently will always be in demand. It is a sad state of affairs if today’s undergraduates are too short-sighted to notice this.
As professional translators, we here at Language Now are all very interested in linguistics, philology, translation theory, and other fields of study related to the science and development of language. A blog post about one of the key figures of modern linguistics, David Crystal, therefore seemed fitting. His work greatly influenced us in our decision to read languages at university and branch into the world of professional translation, thus allowing us to use our knowledge of language and linguistics on a daily basis.
So who is David Crystal, what is his contribution to the field of linguistics, and which key texts should one endeavour to read in order to satisfy one’s curiosity about this eminent academic’s area of work? From a glance at the bibliography on his official website (davidcrystal.com), one can see the breadth of topics he has touched upon during his academic career: his works are listed under categories of ‘Child Linguistics’, ‘Creative Linguistics’, ‘Internet language’, ‘Language death and diversity’ and ‘Lexicography’.
For example, there is Crystal’s encyclopaedia of language: a substantial, coffee-table-sized tome (complete with colourful illustrations) in which one can look up almost any term related to language and linguistics, the Bible of all language-lovers. The compendium of terms related to languages and linguistics provides a fascinating introduction to the subjects, whets the appetite of confirmed linguistics, and acts as a useful reference book for language professionals wishing to refine their knowledge or deepen their understanding of a certain aspect of their field.
Crystal’s contribution to the field of sociolinguistics (the field of study which looks at the way in which language is used in a social context, at the connotations linked to regional accents, the use of slang and so forth) has been particularly influential in directing the studies of many of those at Language Now, while his book ‘How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning and Languages Lives or Die’ was cited in many a university essay. It explains the construction of language, the use and meaning of things such as names, compares cross-cultural examples of politeness and decodes the language of infants.
For those who wish to further add to their linguistic-centric reading list, David Crystal himself recommended what in his opinion are ten of the best books about languages and linguistics in a Guardian interview of 2006. In the article, entitled ‘David Crystal’s top 10 books on the English language’, Crystal recommends a mix of grammars, dictionaries and histories of the English language for all those who wish to learn more about the structure, development and current usage of the idiom. Among his selection of ten texts is the less academic yet very entertaining ‘Mother Tongue’ by Bill Bryson, which comes highly recommended by those at LanguageNow.
Previous blog posts by LanguageNow have considered the decline in pupils taking languages at GCSE and A Level and in students electing to read Modern Languages at university. When people refer to Modern Languages in the context of the British education system, they generally tend to mean the four most commonly offered by the national curriculum and those traditionally provided for by university departments: French, German, Italian and Spanish.
Yet in the articles which drip with doom and prophesies Britain’s slide into mono-linguistic shame, there is often a glint of positivity to be found: while the numbers reading German at university, for example, are continuing to decrease, the numbers of those electing to read for a degree (or to take an A Level) in a more ‘exotic’ language such as Russian or even Mandarin Chinese, Japanese or Arabic are steadily (if not swiftly) climbing. Even if the traditional choices of German or the Romance languages no longer pique the interest of Britain’s youngsters, the lure of mastering the intricacy of Chinese characters, playing a role in the developing Russian economy or of gleaning a more profound understanding of the simmering tension in the Middle East have begun to seduce fringes of the nation’s linguistically-minded youth.
‘The Chinese economy is the future’, booms the voice of the corporate world; master Arabic and you shall be in demand as the UK anticipates further conflict with the Arab-speaking world, comes the cry from the corridors of power. Careers fairs targeting language graduates laud the benefits of acquiring not only a foreign language but an ‘exotic’ one at that. The intelligence and security services, perhaps unsurprisingly, sniff around for graduates with a command of such tongues.
Yet does such positive discourse surrounding the acquisition of languages such as Chinese and Arabic serve to make teenagers’ judgements hazy when it comes to picking the language to which they are going to devote their studies?
The difficulty for Anglophones of languages such as Chinese and Arabic in comparison with Romance or Germanic languages is due in part to the shared Latin, Germanic and Celtic roots of English and languages such as French, Italian and German. There are many grammatical, lexical and etymological similarities between the languages (all of which descend from the Indo-European family), meaning that when embarking on a course of higher education focusing on one of these languages, one can be fairly sure of achieving a reasonable degree of fluency, provided one puts in the requisite (and indeed significant) effort.
Languages such as Chinese and Arabic share no such similarities with English; they have different alphabets, entirely different grammatical rules and syntactical structures, involve phonetics which the Anglophone will often not ever have been exposed to, and do not have a common etymology with Indo-European languages. This, coupled with the fact that most undergraduates reading for a degree in one of these languages is more likely to study the language ab initio, without the firm grounding of an A Level in the subject, means that it is much less likely that students will graduate with a fluent command of Chinese, for example.
Nonetheless, even if one’s knowledge of the language does not stretch to being able to conduct complex commercial negotiations in the foreign tongue, due to Britain’s reputation as a stubbornly and arrogantly monolingual nation, even a passable command of a notoriously difficult foreign language by an Anglophone can do much to smooth the path to diplomacy or to successful business dealings in the countries in question.
English may have once been the number one language of the Internet and the main language of technology but all this is set to change as more and more websites are beginning to be translated into various foreign languages. This translation of websites and other documents into several foreign tongues is testament to the increasing globalisation of today’s world.
The latest company to turn to translation is e-commerce website Etsy, who recently published an article on their website entitled ‘Etsy Starts Taking Translation Seriously’. The article notes that due to the company’s aim to expand its business internationally, it has decided to translate millions of its listings into French, German, Italian and Spanish, in order to attract more business from western Europe and other parts of the world where these European languages are spoken. Its website had already been translated into several European languages, including Dutch, Portuguese and Russian, but until recently most of its listings were still only available in English, which of course was a problem for customers abroad.
Now, when a new listing is uploaded by a customer into one language the website allows for it to be automatically translated into another, thus increasing the company’s opportunity to glean further business from abroad on which it would previously have missed out.
While this strategy of automatic translation has clearly been working for Etsy (many listings in local languages increasing for mere thousands to millions, for example, thanks to the website’s new translation strategy) it is important not to rely on machine translation, and to bear in mind that automatic translations are never perfect.
Making the decision to translate your company’s website into a foreign language with a view to international expansion is not enough. It is necessary to approach the process of translation with as much seriousness and professionalism as you would any other aspect of your company’s marketing.
This sharp increase in the translation of companies’ listing and websites testifies to the need for high-quality professional translators, who can accomplish the task of translating a website or other documents into a foreign language with flair.
An ill- or mistranslated document will bestow of an air of unprofessionalism on any otherwise renowned company. Even if you have an extremely good command of the language into which you wish to translate your website, it would be ill-advised to take on the task yourself unless you are a native speaker of the language. Professional translators only ever translate into their native tongue, even though they are fully bilingual and have generally spent years living and working abroad using their second language.
When translating your company’s website or other documents it is therefore best to turn to a translation agency such as Language Now who will then outsource your work to reputable professional translators.
An upbringing by a secular Jewish mother meant that the my quotidian vocabulary, and that of of my sister, came to be smattered with a handful of Yiddish words, many of which we did not consciously realise belonged to another language until later in life, often when we used one of these words in the course of a conversation and our interlocuteur asked for clarification about the meaning of the term used. Furthermore, we came to notice that the lexicons of our goy (Gentile) acquaintances were not sprinkled with such wonderfully expressive terms as ‘schmuck’, ‘schlep’, ‘schamltz’ and ‘chutzpah’.
These words seemed to us to contain nuances not found in English equivalents (and finding such shades of nuance and hints of meaning in different words is the joy of language-learning). What word other than ‘schlep’ could more accurately convey the disgruntled effort involved in heaving box after box of your sister’s possessions up four flights of stairs as she moved into university halls? (Admittedly my parents were lumbered with the bulk of the schlepping, but that’s beside the point.) What word other than ‘schmaltz’ could be more apt for conveying the cloying sentimentality of many American films? There are many people who cannot be labelled anything but ‘schmuck’. In addition to the shades of meaning conveyed by these words, there’s always something very satisfying in the sounds of those syllables. The sounds of certain syllables, the nuances not found in equivalents in other language, and the emotional attachment and sense of history entrenched in different languages (something which will be subsequently discussed in relation to Yiddish) are all problems professional translators must battle with when dealing with the slippery problem of conveying the same sense and meaning of a text in a different language.
The Wikipedia article entitled ‘English words of Yiddish origin’ shows are prevalent such words are in the English language; many Anglophones probably do not even realise when they are using words from Yiddish: ‘schnook’, ‘schnoz’, ‘shpiel’, ‘schmooze’ and ‘shtick’ are words that no doubt embroider most native English speaker’s vocabularies, while ‘glitch’, ‘Kitsch’, ‘klutz’, ‘nosh’, ‘schnaps’ and ‘tushie’ are other words of Yiddish origin which no doubt pepper many an Anglophone lexicon.
The use of Yiddish words as part of an English vocabulary also provide a link to a common and individual past: the mainstream use of many Yiddish words show the influence of Jewish culture on contemporary society, and for many are also attached to memories of parents, grandparents or more distant relatives. My occasional use of Yiddish words reminds me my childhood, and no doubt reminds my mother of her own mother and childhood. They resonate with a depth of semantic and emotional meaning. The use of these words links back to the turn-of-the-century immigration of our great-grandparents and thousands of others fleeing Eastern Europe pogroms for the refuge of Britain or America. While we can conjure up only a smattering of Yiddish, they had only a few words of English. This Teutonic addition to our vocabulary is a link with the past, identifying us with distant relatives and what is now seems distant history.
What about when it comes to professional translation of such terms? An illuminating study might be to find out whether, in a French translation of an English book containing Yiddish words, the Yiddish terms are retained in their original language, or transposed. What I do think the example of the proliferation of Yiddish words in English demonstrates is that despite the cries of the Academie Française, Academia della Crusca and other language watchdogs pained by what they see as the invasion of their Romance tongues by the English language and its nefarious influence, one language can enrich another, rather than impoverish it.
For those hungry for more information about the Semitic aspect of modern English, read Leo Rosten’s glossary of Yiddish words collected in Hooray for Yiddish! A Book About English, The New Joys of Yiddish, and The Joys of Yinglish. Or watch Annie Hall.
Beginners generally learn foreign languages through the use of direct translations and reassuring equivalents. X in Language A equates to Y in Language B. Beginners learn are taught that there are clear translations in the foreign language for all terms and phrases in their mother tongue; becoming fluent in a language is just a question of learning the vocabulary which translates the words and mastering the grammar which orders those words into phrases.
To a great extent this is of course true. Yet one of the lovely things about having a fluent command of foreign languages is that, as one’s ability with a language develops, one comes to realise the beauty of untranslatable words, the satisfying frustration of the fact that there just aren’t always equivalents between words in different languages. Different languages have words which add nuance, deepen hues of meaning or describe concepts which simply do not exist in other tongues.
I pointed out to some French friends a few weeks ago that there is no real equivalent in English for that wonderful Gallic term ‘dépaysement’. It can be explained, roughly, as that weird feeling you get when you’re abroad and you don’t feel quite at home, but it is not the same feeling as homesickness and not quite identical to culture shock. Such a clunky explanation neither captures the essence of the French word nor mirrors its succinctness, and lead to slightly blank looks on the faces of English speakers when such an explanation is proffered. Can it be, then, that different nationalities think differently? Or that speakers of different languages do not see the world in the same way? This debate has raged for years and this blog is not the place to discuss it at length but such issues raised by the existence of untranslatable words in different foreign languages are worth mulling over.
This frequent lack of direct translations for words sprinkles joy into language-learning and is also one of the reasons professional and literary translation cannot be replaced by the cold, unsophisticated hand of machine translation spurting out Google-de-gook in a pathetic imitation of the eloquent art that is professional or literary translation.
I have often felt a frustrated contempt for the constraint of the English language which does not provide a satisfactory equivalent for the useful French term ‘décalage’. The word refers to a small gap between things but can also be used in a more figurative sense to describe a sort of mismatch, something which cannot quite be translated into English without resorting to clumsy and imprecise paraphrases.
My admiration for this concise elegance of the Gallic tongue is counteracted by the lack of suitable translation in French to capture the English adjectives ‘cheesy’ and ‘creepy’. French only allows ‘not deep’ to translate the English word ‘shallow’, while my French friends also argue that there is no real equivalent for ‘aware’ in French, and that the word ‘conscient’ in their mother tongue does not cut the mustard. Such instances of untranslatable words and concepts adds to the richness of the language-learning process and sparks fruitful debate between lingo geeks.
Of course it is not only between English and French that one finds a lack of direct equivalents to translate different words. The German word Schadenfreude trips off the tongue of any English speaker when the situation demands it; it has been adopted into our language because there is no English equivalent. And yet clearly the concept also exists in the minds of native English speakers, judging by our ready use of the word.
Why then are some untranslatable terms adopted from one language into another while others are not? The French term esprit d’escalier refers succinctly to that feeling you have when you’re leaving someone’s house after a dinner party and it is only as you descend the stairs of their flat that you think of the witty or cutting remark which did not come to mind at the opportune moment. We are all familiar with such a feeling. Why then is this French term not more widely used in English to describe this very sensation? Food for thought. (This cliché – and here is another example of a French word adopted into English to compensate for a paucity of English equivalents! – is, incidentally, translated by the rather more unpoetic ‘material for reflection’ in French. Even when words do have an equivalent in a foreign language, they do not necessarily possess the same beauty or resonance in all languages. Such is the frustrating joy of language-learning.)
Much has been written about untranslatable terms and the beauty of words which do not exist in all languages. Christopher J. Moore’s short text In Other Words: A Language Lover’s Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World is a fascinating selection of words and concepts used in other tongues but for which there is no equivalent in English.
When consulting various examples of French literature through the ages, an interesting phenomenon reveals itself: many of the novels, plays and other literary works we consider as belonging to the French national canon are actually written by foreign authors, and by this I do not only mean Francophone authors. Romanian, Russians, Britons and Czechs, for example, have all chosen to write literary works in French than in their native tongue. For example, Ionesco, a Romanian playwright, wrote his absurdist works such as La Canatrice chauve (1950), La Leçon (1951) and Rhinocéros (1959) in French rather than his native Romanian. What motivates an author’s choice of literary language? Why did Ionesco, and so many others, choose to write in a language that was not their own? Beckett, an Irish playwright wrote Waiting for Godot (1952) in both English and French, translating his work himself. Both Ionesco’s and Beckett’s plays are generally considered as belonging to the literary genre the theatre of the absurd. Therefore, might the choice to write in a foreign language in these two cases be a linked to the content of these authors’ work, one thread of which is the futility of language as a tool of human communication? Their texts often a treatise on the ability of language to lead only to misunderstanding rather than unambiguous conversation, and it is possible that their choice to write in a language which is not their first is a symbolic nod to the problems they saw as inherent in human language.
Are we wrong to assume that choosing not to write a literary work in one’s native tongue is out of the ordinary, or something unnatural? We assume that because writing a literary work is such a personal thing the most natural choice is to write it in one’s native tongue, the language with which one is most at ease, with which one feels most oneself. But maybe this is not so. Perhaps writing literary works in a foreign tongue is actually more fitting. When writing a literary work it can be difficult to gain a sense of perspective about what one is writing, so perhaps writing in a language which is one’s second or even third foreign tongue is actually an apt choice to make when penning a novel or play. I recently attended a conference in Paris, a round-table debate entitled « Que racontent nos langues ? » organised by Café Bilingue about the role of languages in the lives of various intellectuals. A British-born author on the panel, Alex Taylor, discussed the fact that he wrote his book (Bouche bée, tout ouïe : Comment tomber amoureux des langues ?) in French rather than English. He had grown up speaking English, and only acquired French ‘artificially’ as it were; it was not the case, as might be suspected due to his choice of language for his text, that he was bilingual almost from birth, and he only learnt French as a teenager. Taylor later told his publisher that he could not translate his work himself for the English market, as he felt such an endeavour would bring him uncomfortably close to his own text. This need for distance, for escape through the use of a second language also calls to mind Kundera, Czech author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being who wrote his novel L’Ignorance (2000) in French. Kundera’s novels focus on questions of identity, nationality and belonging, the experience of exil and the return to one’s native land. The distance gained by writing in a language which is not one’s mother tongue perhaps helped Kundera in his musings on what it means to belong to a nation, to be exiled from one’s homeland, to be in search of an identity.
Some authors write in French for a personal love of the language, because they grew up strongly influenced by French culture and language even though they count another language as their mother tongue. Such is the case of Makine’s Le Testament français (1995), written in French rather than his native Russian. The book testifies to his love of all things French, and the language in which he chooses to write therefore seems fitting.
Many authors from former French colonies, such as Senegalese poet Senghor, choose to write in French rather than their native tongue. Why write in the language of the colonisers? Some Francophone African authors believe their work is likely to meet a wider readership written in French, while others cite what they see as the precision, clarity and literary spirit of the French language as their reason for choosing it when writing their works.
Such a reason, the idea that French is a literary language, is a reason often cited by various foreign authors who choose to write in French instead of their native tongue and is presumably why such a phenomenon is found particularly in French literature, far more so in comparison with other national canons.
A lot has been written about the idea that languages may change the brains of bilinguals, in the sense of changing they way they think and the way we see the world, an idea sparked by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of the nineteenth century. (There will be more about this conceptions of language and bilingualism in a future blog.) But more recently much research has been published about the possibility of language to change not only the kinds of thoughts we have but also the physical way in which we think, that is the theory that the physical nature of the brain of a bilingual is different to that of a monolingual person. It may seem incredible that the (mere) acquisition of a language can have a real effect on somebody’s brain, but the research supports such a theory. Scientists have often theorised that strenuous mental activity, such as that required in order to become fluent in a foreign language, can prevent degeneration of the physical tissue of the brain, thus staving off conditions such as Alzheimer’s, one of the scourges of modern society. Yet bilinguals benefit not only from increased protection against Alzheimer’s, but also from improvements in their everyday cognitive processes.
An illuminating article on this, and the idea that learning a foreign language alters the composition of the brain, was published last month in the Huffington Post. In ‘Your Mind on Language: How Bilingualism Boosts Your Brain’, the article cites numerous ways in which bilinguals theoretically process thoughts or think in a different way to those who speak only one language. For example, the article notes that bilingual people are better able to concentrate on two things at once, are able to plan better and to think more critically and have greater powers of reasoning and recal. These conclusions are not merely derived from the fact that bilingual people must necessarily possess a different or more developed set of skills which allowed them to learn languages in the first place, or resulted in their becoming bilingual; it is a consequence of the fact that the grey matter of the brain of a bilingual is denser than that of a monolingual, and that the parts of the bilingual people’s brains devoted to tasks such as memorising and reasoning are larger in comparison with their monolingual counterparts.
The Huffington Post article neatly breaks down the reception of language by the brain into layman’s terms, showing that language is received, processed, understood and produced by four different areas of the brain: The auditory cortex, Wernicke’s area, Broca’s area, and the motor cortex.
The process of language comprehension is obviously more complex in the brains of bilinguals because, as the article in the Huffington Post points out, the brain has to work to identify the sounds of the word in whichever language is it received. This strengthens the brain’s ability to make decisions, which thus makes bilingual people better at multi-tasking or conflict-managing than their monolingual counterparts. An article in the New York Times (‘Why Bilinguals Are Smarter, March 2012) which also looks at the benefits of bilingualism to the brain notes that being bilingual was long considered to have a negative impact on cognition and intellectual development. Throughout much of the last century, the conflict between the two languages in the brain of a bilingual was seen as a hindrance rather than, as scientists now believe it to be, something which actually strengthens the decision-making abilities and other cognitive processes of the bilingual.
Is the effect of change on the composition of the brain as profound in those who acquired a second foreign language in later childhood or in adulthood as compared with those were bilingual from birth? According to the Huffington Post article, the language is received in a different way by the brain depending on whether it is a language acquired in early childhood or in relatively later life. The article states that ‘if you learn a language after adolescence, a separate area develops for the second language near the area used for your native tongue.’ Those who became bilingual in adolescence or later in life do however still benefit from the protective properties of language-learning.
However, for both native speakers of two languages and ‘artificial’ bilinguals alike, the same rule applies to the retention of the second language (or even in some cases the native language). If you don’t use it, you lose it and like a muscle, language is something that has to be exercised and used in order to be fully retained. Language-learning is an ongoing task, and one that is never entirely complete.
A film entitled ‘La cour de Babel’ recently came out in France. The title is a play on words, a transposing of ‘la tour de Babel’, the ‘tower of Babel’ to mean instead the ‘playground of Babel’ (which has rather less of a ring to it in English). The title is apt, as the film focuses on a group of immigrant schoolchildren all speaking various different languages and all attempting to learn French in order to integrate into their adopted country and be able to follow lessons in their second language. The young protagonists of this documentary film have all joined what in French is called a ‘classe d’accueil’, or ‘welcome class’ in a school in Paris’ tenth arrondissement. The majority of them will remain in this ‘classe d’accueil’ for a full academic year, as they begin to learn, or consolidate their existing knowledge of, French as a foreign language. They are taught French in French, the lingua franca of the group, but the teacher ensures she speaks slowly, using easily-understandable vocabulary and grammatical structures to ensure her pupils do not feel overwhelmed by the formidable task of quickly acquiring a foreign language. The pupils remain in the ‘classe d’accueil’ before they are judged to have a grasp of French advanced enough to cope with mainstream schooling.
Tough Young Teachers, a recent BBC Three documentary, also briefly highlights the difficulties of adapting to schooling in a foreign language. In the first episode of the series, the novice teacher discovered a girl from Francophone Africa in his Year 7 class spoke no English; speaking no French himself (despite a Carthusian education), the teacher was forced to temporarily recruit an older pupil to use an online translator to communicate with the Year 7 pupil. There was no mention of the pupil being given extra English lessons, or being provided with a professional translator to work at her side as a learning support assistant would with pupils with learning difficulties.
While Britain is as multicultural as France, with some inner-city schools recording 90% of their pupils as having English as their second language, a system based on the French ‘classe d’accueil’ method would no doubt benefit many.
Of course, it could be argued that complete immersion is the best way to learn a foreign language; it would have been interesting for the documentary to have revisited the Francophone pupil at the end of the school year to note her doubtless greatly improved command of the English language. Yet the pupils in the classe d’accueil filmed in the French documentary are also all experiencing immersion, taught as they are in French. Recruiting a professional translator or interpreter to accompany every pupil without a sufficient grasp of their language of education would surely break the majority of school budgets.
The ‘classe d’accueil’ also has the advantage of easing the pupils into their new school environment. They have a chance to make friends with fellow foreigners (while, again, using French as the lingua franca), learn about the culture of their adoptive country and often gain a much-needed confidence boost that they are soon to be linguistically able to cope with the demands of the French education system. This method is surely preferable to that of leaving immigrant pupils feeling isolated and bewildered, surrounded by native speakers of the language who can follow what their peers are saying and what the teacher is talking about. The ‘classe d’accueil’ method also removes any unnecessary burdens on the teacher: it is tough enough to teach a class without having to worry about accommodating pupils who do not even understand the language of instruction.