A student’s perspective on Hidden Meanings in Language Learning

By Sarah Mesterton-Gibbons, MA in Psycholinguistics, University of York

It is always nice when attending an event to feel immersed in the topic rather than feeling as if you are standing on the outside looking in. Language in particular is a topic that everyone should be able to relate to—and share experiences about—and I think the MiLL Network’s Hidden Meanings in Language Learning event provided both a relatable and immersive learning experience. The event took place in the Berrick Saul building on the University of York’s campus, and led attendees through multiple perspectives, making them language learners during the pre-talk language taster sessions, concerned citizens and educators during the talk on the state of language learning and policy in the UK, and then linguists again during the reception and stories shared afterwards.

I arrived at five thirty to attend the first part of the event, which was a language taster class. There were two options to choose from, Chinese and Italian, and I decided to try the Italian class, because I thought knowing how to pronounce the names of some of my favourite foods might come in handy! I was surprised at how much the other participants and I were taught in the space of forty-five minutes. We were given a crash course in pronunciation and were taught some basic questions and greetings. I especially enjoyed this portion of the event, because it reminded me what it is like to learn a new language, and was a good precursor to the talk that followed.

After the taster sessions, everyone headed into the auditorium for Rosamund Mitchell’s talk. She discussed the benefits of being bilingual, the need for language education and some of the main facets of foreign language learning policy in the UK today. It was the kind of talk that reaffirms a language teacher’s or linguist’s beliefs in the importance of language education, and at the same time highlights new ideas and research. It was also fascinating to find out how York schools are doing compared to the rest of the UK when it comes to language learning (they are doing well!). I very much enjoyed the audience participation during Mitchell’s explanation of spatial relations in different languages; we were asked to close our eyes and point in various directions (“Point south-east”), and it was at this moment that I—and I think quite a few people around me—realized that our sense of direction might not be very good!

The event concluded with a drinks reception and a number of small exhibits on language learning. My favourite was possibly the graffiti wall, which allowed attendees to write a story of a language learning experience and then post it on the wall. I added my own story and enjoyed reading about the similar experiences of others. There was also a video showing different people recounting their humorous stories of learning another language. I loved the video on tense and aspect in Spanish running on loop in one of the side rooms; it provided a clear and humorous introduction to the topic. As a starving postgrad student, I also have to comment on the high quality of the reception fare—plenty of wine and even vegetable crisps.

Overall the event gave a great introduction to the importance of learning languages, and some of the key issues in language policy today, as well as providing a very human side to the topic through the graffiti wall and videos of personal accounts of language experiences. Possibly my favourite aspect of the event though was how I could hear people continuing the conversation as they talked in pairs and small groups, sharing even more stories and weighing in on language policy. I had a fabulous time, and hope that the MILL Network hosts many more similar events in the future!

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