Women in Language: Day One (Spring 2021)

Well, I’ve just finished a great first day at the Women in Language conference. From starting off with some amazing facts about this ever-growing event, to finishing with a session about using storytelling to learn and teach a language, I’ve learnt a lot… and there’s so much more to come!

Opening Ceremony

So, this wasn’t actually my first time at the Women in Language conference. I technically attended last year, when restrictions were lifted a little and I was travelling back down to the office for a day or two per week. Sadly, this meant that I missed a few of the talks (National Express buses have just the best WiFi) and what I’ve found with these online conferences is that I am far, far more likely to watch talks live than I am to go back and watch them later.

Like, I think if the Polyglot Conference ends up being online again this year, they’d benefit hugely from having a few organised watch parties, because I did not get the same energy from watching talks on my own – and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

Anywayyyy – I did see the Opening Ceremony last year and, shockingly, this one was pretty similar. But what I do like about this event is what’s laid out: no -isms, please; be kind to one another, with the understanding that we’re here to learn from and challenge each other about languages and our perceptions on those and how we bring our different perspectives to these ongoing conversations – and to do that, we need to be respectful.

Not that I think this crowd wouldn’t be.

But there were two facts Kerstin gave us that I wrote down:

  • Over the lifetime of the Women in Language event (the first one was in 2018!), they’ve had over 100 women and non-binary speakers.
  • There are attendees from over 65 different countries.


Bahamian Dialect in The Bahamas

The first talk – from the incredibly sunny Kaché Knowles – was honestly incredible. I’m from the UK, so my knowledge of The Bahamas was literally zero, but she taught us about the islands (there’s 700 of them!), showed us some Bahamian culture (Junkanoo looks amazing and yes, I would like to try some conch p l e a s e), and led us through her lifelong experiences with Bahamian Creole, her first language.

Plenty of this was really interesting to me, especially when considering that many Bahamians codeswitch (Kaché explained this part of her own life, going to school in Canada and Spain, where otherwise people wouldn’t understand her) and yet are truly confident of the fact that the language will never disappear. Of the people she surveyed, 67% believe that Bahamian English should be taught in schools – and it’s really a shame it isn’t.

All of this discussion about Bahamian Creole had me reflecting on my own accent, too, which is something I’ve thought about more and more as I’ve been through university, as I’ve had jobs in London and as I’ve tried to unpack my own (in this regard) classist ideas about what my accent reflects. Let’s be clear: I’m from the UK Midlands, so my accent isn’t that strong and I don’t think it’s necessarily held me back in any way (I’m still white and cis and traditionally educated, y’all, like this isn’t hurting me much) – but I do find myself leaning into it more than I used to as a teenager, when I definitely wanted to lose it. I like those regional differences, now, and I like being able to point out to people that actually, this is how we talk here.

Anyway, less about me. Kaché also taught us some Bahamian Creole words and some pronunciation tips, which was a lot of fun! ‘No broughtupcy’ is – hands down – my favourite, because not only is it a fun phrase to say, it also ties into this cultural norm of being polite to strangers, which we definitely tend to lean away from here. ‘Galavantin’ was another fun one – just because my mum uses this word fairly often (and when I told her, she said in her case it’s a Yorkshire thing, haha!) so it’s nice to have that connection across an entire ocean.

Oh, and also ‘tingum’! It’s way easier to say than ‘thingamabob’.

If you’re interested in finding out more about Bahamian Creole, make sure to check out Kaché’s Instagram: iisabahamianbey, where she’s got a ton of posts that’ll help you learn more about it and The Bahamas in general. There’s also a bunch of linguistic information at this link, which should help you direct any further searches you might have.

242 to the world!

Inspired Teachers Create Inspired Learners!

I skipped the second talk of the day (The Status of Raising Bilingual Today) because 1) I don’t have kids (nor do I plan to) and 2) I had some work to finish off. I dipped back in for this talk – by Lindsay McMahon – because I figured it would be interesting even though I’m not a language teacher.

And it was. Lots of Lindsay’s points also apply to online content creation, which you know, I do *waves at this post*, so there were good tips to pick up. A huge part of this was focused on finding your purpose (in teaching) – which I think is probably a good rule of thumb for any large project you want to take on, though I do think you need more than this (i.e. discipline) to make sure you succeed.

That’s the bit I sometimes fall short on, anyway!

But yes, I like Lindsay’s list of questions for finding your purpose – in this case, very much related to teaching:

  • What’s a problem that keeps you up at night?
  • How do your students experience this problem?
  • How can you uniquely work to solve it?

It’s a great framework for looking at the why of what you’re doing and, I agree with her, that if you know why you’re doing something, the what and the how become easier – even if there are still hurdles.

She had a lot of fun podcasting tips, as well, and points about consistency, which is where that discipline should tie in. And, as she points out, every teacher – or most people – now has the technology to create their own media company; so, really, you just need to get started!

Check out Lindsay’s podcast All Ears English here – she’s been doing for seven years!

Revitalising the Michif Language Online

Okay, this was an incredible talk. We heard from Heather Souter, who is Métis and a Michif speaker, and Alexa Little from 7000 Languages, who has been working with Heather and her community to help build courses to teach Michif.

I’d heard of Michif before, briefly, but Heather gave us a great overview of the language, which arose as a contact language between Cree and French-speakers. It’s not considered to really be a pidgin or a creole; at least, not within the Michif-speaking community, where it can be called an ‘intertwined’ language. Heather and Alexa both pointed out, too, that there are many speakers of different languages who might call their language ‘Michif’, so they were referring to what linguists generally call ‘Southern Michif’ here.

Alexa led us through some of the challenges of language revitalisation, which includes dealing with a diaspora – once speakers are scattered, obviously building a speaking community is difficult – and, in this case, access to technology. Even across the US and Canada, there are vast swathes of area where people have limited access to the internet, or even to devices, and so building courses that require internet access is all well and good – until the community comes to use them.

There are other challenges too, of course: keyboards and fonts set up for those languages; can elders who speak the language use the technology?; can parents download it for their kids – or can non-tech-savvy people in general use it – in a way that is effective for them?

And what this all ties into – and what Heather emphasised multiple times throughout the course – is the idea of language as community versus the idea of language as commodity.

The issue with language courses, she pointed out, is that languages are commodified and, in the case of Michif specifically, are forced to fit the structure of the course and the limitations of the technology, rather than the other way around. And yet, we use our languages to communicate with our community – whether that’s local or national, online or offline. So, when it comes to endangered languages in particular, we have to be certain that we are centring the community and serving their needs.

As Alexa added: just writing down a language doesn’t fix the problem. Just learning it on your own, keeping it in your own head, doesn’t fix the problem. Just putting it in an app, doesn’t fix the problem. You’ve not created a community and you’re not adding to one.

This is definitely a lesson I need to work on and carry with me; I do learn a lot of my languages in isolation because I enjoy the challenge and structure and creations of a language as much as I enjoy interacting with a community – and that’s fine. But when it comes to endangered languages, we’re not ‘saving’ them by learning them in isolation.

However, Alexa did have some suggestions for us to help!

  • You can give your time/energy/resources to helping efforts like Heather’s and the work of organisations like 7000 Languages. This includes, specifically, if you have any technology or ideas that you think will help promote indigenous languages; Alexa’s really on the look out for those!
  • When you have an idea, take a step back and see whether it’s something you want or something that would benefit the community.
  • Be cognizant of your position and experience in relation to others. Alexa said when helping on projects like this, she realised that there were people she was speaking to who hadn’t learnt other languages before, or who weren’t good with technology – and these are the people you need to cater for, too.

7000 Languages are launching their Michif course on 19th March 2021 (it’s not on their site, but I assume there’ll be a notice soon). Heather is working on Michif.org, where she hopes to build a community of Michif speakers and learners, with a goal to reaching out to the diaspora – and even non-indigenous people worldwide!

Share Your Story – Making Connections Across Languages

I skipped the Speak Easy session – both because the Michif talk ran a little over but also because I needed to have tea! – and rejoined for the final talk of the day. Again, this was one aimed a little more at teachers than learners, but there were plenty of tips that worked for both.

Kate Fisher and Karina Pearl Thorne are both language learners and teachers who’ve had experience teaching all over the world. They both emphasised the value of storytelling in language learning by telling us all the story of their language journey and then showing practical examples of how they’ve used stories to improve their learners’ English skills.

I particularly enjoyed this session because one of the handful of lessons I remember teaching in Austria was about flash fiction, where we went through what flash fiction is, and then students had a short amount of time to write their own stories (I gave them image prompts). These were 16 or 17-year-old students and some of the pieces were genuinely incredible.

This is the one talk today where I really hope to take away some practical tips for my own language learning: I’ve been writing the last few days in German anyway, so I’m going to do my best to keep that up and see if I can eventually build up to a story. I enjoy creative writing (and I read a lot); but writing, like speaking, is an active skill – so it takes some actual work to improve.

You can listen to Kate’s podcast, Conversations with Kate, here and join Karina’s creative writing club here.

To sum up…

That’s it for day one of Women in Language! There’s already a lot to think about – from examining parts of my own identity, to how I view languages, to tips on content creation and new ways to improve my skills. Tomorrow, I’m planning to go to just about all of the talks and, if you haven’t signed up for Women in Language already, you can still do it!

Just go here to get your ticket. Anyone and everyone’s welcome and 10% of your ticket price will go to MADRE, a charity that focuses on global women’s rights.

See you all tomorrow!

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