Playing with languages – from invention to reality

I love language.

And I love learning languages.  I’ve learnt 18 languages so far, and I can’t wait to learn the next one.  There’s something exciting and thrilling about being able to communicate with other people who don’t understand your language.  Seeing the looks on their faces when you say something in their language and they understand you is precious and priceless.  It can come from the smallest of things.  I always remember, on my first visit to Croatia, having been learning Croatian for only a short time, I asked in a supermarket on the day before a national holiday, “jeste li vi otvoreni sutra?” (‘are you open tomorrow?’), with that rush of adrenaline inside, and getting an answer, in Croatian, that I understood.  Not only had I made myself understood, but I understood the answer too!

We all have a language – whether it’s spoken, written, signed or felt.  It’s something that all human beings have in common.  We didn’t acquire our language in order to pass an exam or get our homework right.  So if you think that languages are intrinsically and inevitably difficult, that can’t be true.  If you understand English, you understand me now.  We are communicating in a language and we both understand what we’re communicating to each other.  Human beings who use other languages are exactly the same.  If we’re French, German, Chinese, Russian, Zimbabwean, Somali, Syrian, Yemeni, Cherokee or Thai, we are human beings and we have a language that can be learnt, understood, spoken, read and used.  Learning other people’s languages is like travelling all over the world and seeing and discovering new things and new experiences.  It makes you a more outward-looking, more understanding and I would say, happier person.

But how do you encourage children in Foundation and Key Stages 1 and 2 to start learning another language?  Their parents may not have a background in languages or may even hold the view that everyone speaks English anyway, so they may not necessarily encourage a desire to learn languages in their children.  Or, parents or the children themselves may be under the misconception that languages are difficult and not worth the effort.  Well, what if you could invent your own language and make up all the rules and spellings and everything?  SPAG would be easy.  You’d never get anything wrong in your spelling tests.  All the rules would make sense, because you’d invented them.

So let’s say you wanted to invent a word for ‘bird’.  What would you come up with?  Maybe it’d be AAG, because that’s the noise that dinosaur birds make.  Okay.  So how would you spell it?  Would it  be AAG or ARG, or would you invent a whole new spelling and spell it EURK, even though that doesn’t look like how you say it?  Think of a word in English like ‘THOROUGH’.  We pronounce it ‘THU-RER’ but the letters we use to spell the word don’t help at all.  We don’t say the ‘GH’ at the end.  When we write ‘KNIFE’ or ‘KNEE’, we don’t pronounce the ‘K’ at the beginning, but we do write it.  So why not spell our new word for bird as KEURGH?  It might not look anything like how we say it, but nor do a whole lot of words in English, or French, or Russian.  As well as being a fun way to introduce the concept of other languages, it also highlights the difference between spoken and written language, the fact that living languages have changed and developed naturally over time and helps take the edge off of the moan that French is really difficult because ‘HEUREUX’ and ‘BOIVENT’ are not pronounced anything like how they appear to be.

Now, once you have some basic vocabulary in your very own language, you’ll need to come up with some kind of syntax, structure and grammar to string it all together.  And why does grammar have to be difficult?  Just think of English.  Unlike French, English speakers don’t have masculine and feminine nouns or adjectival agreement to worry about, and beyond the odd ‘whom’, ‘whose’ and ‘mother’s’, English is no match for German, Finnish or Basque on the cases front either.  But once again, the process of creating grammar and structure for your invented language could take the whole ‘grammar is so boring’ message out of the equation.  For example, if I wanted to translate, ‘I drink milk’ into my new language, I start with my individual words – let’s say, MUJUS, HIUL and MA – and then I have to think systematically about how to put them together in a sentence.  Would it be as simple as, ‘MA HIUL MUJUS’ (and why not?) or could I introduce the concept of tense and verb endings?  Is ‘HIUL’ just ‘drink’ and not specifically ‘I drink’?  I might want to say, ‘MA HIULAM’ for ‘I drink’.  That could then lead to a discussion of what the rest of the conjugation might be, what the other subject pronouns would be and how you would convey past or future tense, for example.  Would it be a synthetic future tense, like Spanish (e.g. ‘MA HIULSUN’) or would it be analytical like English or German (e.g. ‘MA SUN HIUL’)?  What’s more, if we go back to our original sentence (‘MA HIUL MUJUS’), who’s to say that the words have to be in that order?  That could bring in thoughts about whether your language is an SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) language or something different.  It would make the concepts of ‘subject’ and ‘object’ seem more real and practical and open children’s eyes to the fact that not all languages have the same word order as English.  It could also introduce cases.  Should ‘MUJUS’ have a case ending because it’s a direct object and would you have a word for ‘the’ like English or French, or not, like Russian or Latin?  As you can see, the myriad of possibilities thrown up by one simple sentence in a language a child has invented him or herself could spark so much interest and ‘demystify’ a good deal of the process when learning ‘real’ languages.

Could this be an effective way to engage primary school-age children with languages and their many quirks and facets and encourage them to see beyond the misconception that “languages are difficult”?  What is more, many primary school teachers say themselves that they are reticent when it comes to teaching foreign languages and often consider that languages are not their forte in amongst the many other subjects that they teach.  Giving children the bare linguistic bones needed to let their imaginations fly and create their own language would not require, in the teacher, any more than a universal understanding of language and would not demand degree-level knowledge of French, German or Spanish.  And yet, it could provide the spark that one day might lead to a lifelong love of languages and that degree-level or working knowledge that is not only a significant boost to employment prospects, but can also be a key that opens the door to a world way beyond the classroom.  I used to love inventing languages as a child.  My favourite two languages at the time were Spanish and Portuguese, so I decided that I would take ‘the best bits’ from both and make my own hybrid language.  Years later, I discovered that I’d inadvertently ‘created’ Galician!  When I came to learn the real Galician, that childhood joy was still there.  If we could instil that joy in others at an early age, through play with the building blocks of language, might our lifelong attitude towards language learning be a more positive one?

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