UCL Global


Celebrating International Mother Language Day

21 February 2023

Dr Michael Spence (UCL President & Provost) and Professor Li Wei (Director & Dean, IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education & Society) discuss their shared love of languages in this new video and podcast.

Dr Michael Spence and Prof Li Wei sitting across from each other in conversation

In honour of International Mother Language Day (21 February), Dr Michael Spence (UCL President & Provost) and Professor Li Wei (Director & Dean, IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education & Society) met to discuss their shared love of languages: from raising bilingual children and language learning mishaps, to preserving heritage languages and the importance of supporting language teaching in schools.

Watch the video or listen to the podcast below.

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Podcast transcript

Li Wei  0:01  
Hello, I'm Professor Li Wei, Director and Dean of IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society. I've always loved learning languages, which is an interest I share with UCL's President and Provost, Dr. Michael Spence. In celebration of International Mother Language Day, Michael and I recently had a chat about our experiences of language learning, and why we think it is so important. Have a listen.

So I understand that you are bringing up your youngest children bilingually, in Korean and English. Tell us how you're doing it. 

Michael Spence  0:47  
Yes, so both my wife speaks to them in good Korean and good English. And I speak to them in bad Korean and okay English. I know that's not the way you're supposed to do it, you're supposed to have one parent only speak one language and one parent only speak the other language. But it's just not practical in a family. And so we do what you're not supposed to do, which is swap between the two. But of course, we spend a lot of time with my parents-in-law and they're much more comfortable in Korean than in English. So they only speak to the children in Korean. And we had them educated in nursery school entirely in Korean and of course, we send them to Korean Saturday School now. So their Korean is, you know, as I say, better than mine, really.

Li Wei  1:34  
So that's a really good example of how families manage their languages, according to their individual needs, and social needs, rather than following strictly these policies that are designed somewhat artificially. 

Michael Spence  1:50  
I think that's right. And it's also I mean, I think you'd notice it particularly lexically. Because in a family, just as you have, you know, pet words for one thing or another, there are some things we only ever refer to in Korean. Because, I don't know, 'milk', for some reason we only ever use the Korean word, not the English word. Who knows why, yeah. 

Li Wei  2:10  
So in your work, how do you find the knowledge of multiple languages helping your work? 

Michael Spence  2:19  
Well, you know, as I suggested, Chinese has been incredibly important in my work because of the importance of research, and education and collaborations with China. And I think it's very important to be able to get a window into the culture with which you're dealing. And also as you develop peer relationships with people in other institutions, sometimes to be at the linguistic advantage, and sometimes to be at the linguistic disadvantage. There's a kind of power sharing arrangement that I think should go on there. 

Li Wei  2:57  
So apart from family life, and work, what are the benefits of language learning, can you see? 

Michael Spence  3:05  
Well, language learning just opens up whole worlds. It is genuinely the case that I don't think I fully understood my wife until I learned Korean. And that's because, you know, Korean has five levels of honorific, and it's not just honorific markers, there are different, nouns take different shapes depending upon who owns them. It's very complicated, hierarchical language. That's deep in my wife's heart, but she has the accent, and the grammar and the facility in English of a native born Australian. And, of course, Australia has a very egalitarian culture. And so you'd never guess that hierarchy is quite so important to my wife as it is, unless you had something of an insight into the Korean language. And I think learning that the things that you take for granted about the world, and that are written into your language, are not necessarily things that everybody takes for granted about the world is incredibly important. 

Li Wei  4:16  
Indeed. So, despite the fact there are hundreds of different languages in society, in British society, the uptake of modern foreign languages in schools is on the decline for the last two decades or longer. What do you think the reasons are and how do we go about changing that? 

Michael Spence  4:40  
So I think as for the reasons as to why people are not learning languages, you know, that really falls within your expertise and that of the Institute of Education. I'd be interested to hear what you think. But there is, of course, a danger on the horizon, which is that translation software, both written and oral is getting so good, that there's the danger of people thinking, "Well, I have my phone. Why do I need to learn another language?" But of course, there's nothing quite like engaging with someone in their own language yourself, or acquiring the mental agility that comes from learning the structures of a different language. And I think we just need to make sure that we support language learning with the resources that it requires, because it is more resource intensive, if well done than teaching some of the subjects to make sure that British young people have those skills. But why do you think people are learning fewer languages?

Li Wei  5:37  
I think, one of the reasons is clearly because there is a false impression amongst English speakers, that because everybody in the world speaks English or trying to learn to speak English, and we don't have to bother with anybody else's languages. But there is also a real societal issue. That is, teacher supply. And we, in England are facing a terrible challenge, very tough challenge of finding enough modern foreign language teachers, in post-Brexit Britain, to support language learning in schools. There are other social class, social economic class issues, in terms of the different gender uptake, and different geographical distribution of modern foreign language education in schools. These are really complicated social issues that are part of the bigger challenge of education of schooling that we all have to face. 

Michael Spence  6:46  
We know the other thing that we need to do in education is to affirm people's heart languages across the curriculum. So where we lived in Australia, we could have sent our children to state schools, where they would be taught bilingually in either Korean and English or in or in Chinese and English. And that was available not only for people for whom they were community languages, or home languages, but also for people from the community more generally. I think the education system needs to sink resource and commitment. And we need to affirm the fact that if you speak Farsi, or Urdu, or whatever at home, that's a great resource you bring to the class, not a disadvantage.

Li Wei  7:32  
Absolutely. Community language education is very, very important in this country. And there are hundreds of community language schools that don't have formal, systematic support from the local government or the central government, indeed, but they are community based. And they are providing a really valuable education to hundreds of young people. At the same time, we see in European countries, content and language integrated learning programmes are extremely successful in both teaching the content, and also teaching the language and developing knowledge, , subject based knowledge, and linguistic knowledge at the same time, and again, it's something that Britain needs to learn from, and really transform our way of teaching languages. So what are the incentives and also pitfalls in learning a language?

Michael Spence  8:32  
So, I just find learning languages fun. And, you know, I did modern Greek for a while when I was at Oxford and I've had a go Welsh, and there's just, it's just kind of fun, but you do have to have a certain, you have to be prepared to make a fool of yourself. You know, I remember, I used to go for Italian conversation sessions with a very elegant, aristocratic, Italian lady. And the words for 'dog' and 'meat' are very close in Italian. And we'd had a long conversation in which I had been, thought that I'd been talking about something I'd read about Italians eating less and less meat. And she thought that I was talking about Italians eating less and less dog and got quite offended in one way or another. And you've just got to be prepared to kind of go with the flow and ride all of that. But as well, languages have deeply personal meanings to people, and you know, I know that you're of Manchu background, aren't you? Did language have a resonance in your family around that? 

Li Wei  9:44  
Yes. So my love for languages actually came from that kind of family experience and rather sad experience. The fact that the family actually lost the language through the generations. I remember when I was a little child, my granddad was writing this funny script, vertically from right to left, or very curly. I thought he was drawing or painting something. But it turned out to be the Manchu script. And he explained that it's a different language. Of course, he didn't speak much of it, my parents didn't speak it at all, and certainly I wasn't brought up speaking it. And when I came to England, I saw a parallel kind of phenomenon of children of immigrant background losing their home languages very, very fast. And I felt really sad about it. And I really think you lose something of yourself through losing your mother tongue, your ethnic language, your home language.

Michael Spence  10:56  
And there is a kind of impulse in children. So you know, my seven-year-old's Korean is really quite good, my six-year-old's Korean is alright. Our four-year-old has mostly been in an English speaking environment and so her Korean is more limited. But when she wants to relate to her grandparents, she'll go "Ya ya ya ya ya ya ya". And it's not, she's not making fun of them. She wants to be able to communicate with them in a way that she knows they better understand. So I think there is that, it's really important that we equip young people to speak and enjoy their heritage languages. For all those those sorts of reasons. 

Li Wei  11:44  
Indeed, yes. So, how do we encourage more people to learn more languages? And also, should we encourage people to pick up languages at any age?

Michael Spence  11:57  
Yes. So you know, I've had to learn Korean relatively late in life. And it's not my, it's not my strongest language. But we actually have research done here at UCL that demonstrates that there are benefits as well as disadvantages, to later language learning. And certainly, I know that you both expect to and pick up all sorts of things about a language much more quickly, later in life rather than rather than earlier. So I would really encourage people to get out there and start learning languages. 

Li Wei  12:34  
So one of our current research projects is looking at the cognitive benefits of learning languages that are typologically quite different from English, for example, we are hosting the Mandarin Excellence Programme funded by the Department of Education in secondary schools across England. And we're looking at the benefit, or the impact of learning Mandarin, writing in Mandarin, Chinese writing, on spatial visual processing. And it's an absolutely fascinating project, obviously, they're really interesting experiences of these young children and we're really looking forward to learning more of their processes, learning to write, read and write Chinese, and also the benefit on the cognitive capacities. 

Michael Spence  13:27  
It's interesting, because I'm a very verbal person, but actually reading and writing Chinese is the thing that I have enjoyed most about, most about learning it. And indeed, one of the things that I do on a Sunday is at church, I tend during the sermon to read my Bible in Chinese. And that's for two reasons. One, because engaging with the typography actually slows down the process of reading, and therefore, makes you think differently. But second, because often the Chinese translation takes a slightly different tack to the English translation, it gives you an insight into the text that you might not otherwise have, I think engaging in, with a different kind of typography does have all sorts of benefits so I can understand that their voice is important.

Li Wei  14:20  
So is there any other language that you want to learn?

Michael Spence  14:25  
So I'd quite like to learn Arabic, though, it's a bit of a challenge. And my wife would say that my Korean needs to get better before I go off on any new ventures. And what about you? Is there a language that you'd like to learn? 

Li Wei  14:36  
I learned a little bit of British Sign Language. I love the fact that it's bimodal and I'd love to really take a proper course and learn it more. 

Michael Spence  14:47  
Right. And it's taught at the Institute of Education?

Li Wei  14:49  
It is indeed.

Michael Spence  14:50  
So there you go. So I think the important thing on International Mother Language Day is for people both to treasure the languages that they have, particularly the languages, their heritage languages, and there's a thing that we English speakers often have about language that is that you have to be fluent, for your communication to be meaningful. And I think what I see again and again and again, is that no matter how bad your language is, if you're making an effort to reach out into somebody else's language, and therefore into their culture and into their heart, it's deeply appreciated. So in my last job a community from a particular part of Southeast Asia got me to learn off by heart, and I was like a talking parrot, I had very little idea what I was saying, about a page and a half of, of a particular language to honour a leader from their country. And so I stood up at this ceremony and recited my words like a parrot and I'm sure mutilated them in all sorts of ways. People cried, because of the of the fact that you were making contact with something that was profoundly important to them. And I think we English speakers can sometimes be just about a bit too proud about the notion that you have to be fluent or not give it a go. If there's a lesson for International Mother Language Day it must be give it a go, you know, treasure your heritage languages, and make sure that you try new ones as well. 

Li Wei  16:31  
That's absolutely wonderful. Multilingualism is good for individuals, good for the community and good for society. Thank you very much, Dr. Michael Spence. 

Michael Spence  16:41  
Thank you.

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