Language Matters

by Wendy Ayres-Bennett

With the resumption of Parliament on Wednesday 25 September, the importance of how we use language came sharply into focus. In the highly charged atmosphere of the House of Commons, one MP warned against the dangers of using ‘offensive, dangerous or inflammatory language’. Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Brendan Cox, husband of the murdered MP Jo Cox, put succinctly the reason why this important: ‘because it has real world consequences’. How we use languages – and which languages we choose to learn and to speak – identifies who we are, how we view the world, and how we relate to others. Language matters.

All this came as we at MEITS are putting the final touches to our Pop-Up World of Languages, which will open in Cambridge on Saturday 19 October. Our three zones – ‘Languages and Me’, ‘Languages around Me’, and ‘Languages in the World’ – highlight how languages and language learning relate to us personally and shape our identities, how we interact and communicate with others, as well as the world’s linguistic diversity that, with globalization, is increasingly under threat. Of course, the Pop-Up Museum is above all intended to be fun and enjoyable, and is filled with family-friendly, hands-on activities and games. But we are also inviting participants to think about the languages they hear and see around them, how they react to different accents, and how learning a new language can open up new ways of viewing the world.

Preparing for the Museum has been a very steep learning curve for me, and I will never again complain about the difficulty of writing an academic article! I have always been convinced that I was at the back of the queue when artistic talent was handed out yet, working with a professional museum designer, I have gradually become much more visually literate. Just like learning languages really. C'est en forgeant qu'on devient forgeron (literally, ‘it’s through forging (working as a blacksmith), that you become a blacksmith’). I much prefer this to the English equivalent, Practice makes perfect. When I was younger I would never have thought of myself as multilingual (despite having a degree in French and German!) because I thought you had to be perfect, a ‘native speaker’, to qualify for this label. As Katie Howard, one of our PhD students on the project, puts it in her language biography for the museum, ‘My experience as a teacher, researcher and learner have taught me that it’s OK to make mistakes because language learning is a journey not a destination.’ We hope you will want to join us on a journey through our three zones to uncover the hidden treasure of languages #WorldOfLanguages.

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