February 2, 1786

Today February 2 is a special day for linguists and English language teachers.

On this day, in the evening of February 2, 1786, a revolution began in Calcutta.

At the third annual meeting of the Asiatic Society, which he had founded 3 years earlier when arriving from Britain to be a Supreme Court judge in India, Sir William Jones (1746-1794) gave a speech.

It has gone down in history as ‘the philologer speech’. Later linguists have claimed the theory he described that evening ”is one of the most important in the history of ideas’’ (Garland Cannon)

This is the crucial extract from his lengthy speech:

‘’ The Sanscrit language, whatever be its antiquity, is of a wonderful structure; more perfect than the Greek, more copious than the Latin, and more exquisitely refined than either, yet bearing to both of them a stronger affinity, both in the roots of verbs and the forms of grammar, than could possibly have been produced by accident; so strong indeed, that no philologer could examine them all three, without believing them to have sprung from some common source, which, perhaps, no longer exists; there is a similar reason, though not quite so forcible, for supposing that both the Gothic and the Celtic, though blended with a very different idiom, had the same origin with the Sanscrit; and the old Persian might be added to the same family’’

That evening, Sir William Jones essentially launched the science of modern comparative linguistics.

He outlined his theory that Sanskrit, Latin and Greek had a common source, a common parent language, and they might also be related to other language groups such as Celtic languages, Germanic languages and Persian.

This speech, and the further development of his theory of the existence of an Indo-European language family through subsequent essays, had a huge impact on the academic world.

Linguists were immediately captured by the theory and across Europe scholars turned their attention to the study of the links between Indo-European languages and later the theoretical reconstruction of the original Indo-European language.

Modern scholars consider his insights to have been ground-breaking, creating a new field of science:

‘’Jones’s brilliant suggestion put linguistic scholars on the right track of conceiving human speech to be groupable in families members of which were derived from a common archetype…….’’ (Suniti Kumar Chatterji, Portraits of Linguists)

If you want to pay homage, visit St Paul’s Cathedral where there is a statue of him frozen in marble in 1799 by sculptor John Bacon……a tribute to a linguistic polymath who changed the way people looked at language.

Longer version on the Language History Materials tab

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Deep history of English

What we know

After many ground-breaking developments in archaeology and genetic research over recent years, we know a lot more than we used to know about the prehistoric migrations which peopled modern Europe as we know it.

What we are now trying to add to this archaeological and genetic knowledge now is an understanding of the development of languages from prehistoric times, a development which culminated in the multiplicity of languages spoken today.

Most people have heard about aspects of the most recent linguistic history. We know that English is a member of the Germanic family of languages, related to Dutch, German and the Scandinavian languages, which often seem to use quite similar words.

This Germanic family is descended from the Indo-European family of languages, which includes Greek and Celtic, Latin and the Romance languages, Baltic and the Slavic languages, plus Iranian, Pashtu, Hindi, Urdu and others. About half the Earth’s population, about 4 billion of the 8 billion people alive today, speak one of the Indo-European languages.

But where did that Indo-European family of languages originally come from? It must have started somewhere. There must have been a time when it was not a family of different languages, but one unified language from which these later ones are descended, the original Indo-European language that was spoken before it divided into groups like Germanic, Celtic, Baltic, Slavic, Greek et cetera.

Historical linguists have reconstructed a form of that original unified language, which was spoken before Greek and Latin and Sanskrit et al became separate daughter languages. They call the reconstructed unified language ‘Proto-Indo-European’, and describe it as the parent of the Indo-European family of languages.

What we don’t know

So far so good. We can see the links between modern languages, which often use words that seem superficially similar, and we can see that they came from a common parent, Proto-Indo-European.

But where did Proto-Indo-European come from? It is unlikely that it suddenly erupted into life one day, like the astronomical big bang that created the universe.

Proto-Indo-European, or PIE as we shall call it for convenience,  must have developed from an earlier language. What was it? Or was it ‘they’?  And where were they spoken?

It’s really hard to get answers to many of these linguistic questions because we have no real forms of writing before about 5000 years ago (or 3000 BCE).

We have to speculate from what we know, and try to build an historical model that suits the evidence that we have from all three disciplines of archaeology, genetics and linguistics.

One approach is to look at the genetic origins of the people who later became the speakers of Indo-European languages in Europe and further east – and their geographical spread through migration. 

This Blog series will summarise some of these Homeland issues and share research into the Deep History of English

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UNESCO Mobile Learning Week 2013

view from UNESCO

This week saw the third iteration of UNESCO’s symposium on the world of mobile learning in Paris, with over 200 delegates from governments, ministries, corporates and education providers from around the world. Headed by an energetic Steve Vosloo, UNESCO’s team put on a fine event with excellent speakers, panels, workshops and a ‘walking gallery’ of exhibitors. UNESCO are providing excellent support to educators by helping to bring issues of pedagogy, best practice and funding in mobile learning to open discussions.

This new field is exploding rapidly and many of us see this as radically changing education opportunities and practices  – especially in the developing world – in the next few years. To help educators, learners and policymakers get the best from these opportunties, UNESCO has invested a lot in these events and in publishing their Policy Guidelines for Mobile Learning (available here).

A key player in the Mobile Learning Week and in the field of Mobile Learning is the mEducation Alliance, founded and led by Tony Bloome of USAID in Washington DC.

Tony has created a wide-ranging global network of mobile learning professionals, providing leadership and direction for a new field and bringing together members from both public and private sectors to share and network.

The mEducation Alliance, whose secretariat is headed by Rebekah Levi, has been running summer Symposia in Washington DC to help build and exchange expertise in this field (see website below for more on the future events).

Tony leads a steering committee comprised of specialists from across the different sectors and across the globe, and ensures everyone is committed to developing the Alliance further to support educators and providers bring quality education to learners, especially those disadvantaged and poorly served.

A key focus has been using mobile learning to improve literacy, and the Alliance along with the key support of USAID is working on bringing new ideas, best use of technology, and new ways to train teachers to the support of that goal.

The mEducation Alliance has more: http://www.meducationalliance.org/

More on the UNESCO events here: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/unesco/themes/icts/m4ed/unesco-mobile-learning-week/speakers/

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BETT Show January 30, 2013

BETT is the biggest educational technology show in the world. Now being held at ExCel in Docklands, it’s a long ride from central London but worth it for the breadth of exhibits and the great talks – all for free (and good views of the docks from the DLR railway).

My talk (which you can find on the Presentations page) was about re-defining access to language learning through the use of Handheld devices. There was a good turnout of over 100 people, with some interesting Q&A afterwards,  but it’s really hard to concentrate when you’re in an open theatre, inside the exhibition hall, surrounded by 10,000 people chatting!

Not far away in Limehouse is Gordon Ramsay’s newish venture, a gastropub called The Narrow (on Narrow St). Excellent riverside terrace with views back towards the city, great for peaceful lunches watching boats…..

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Conference presentations

The ConferencesPresentations pages are now live and you can download my PowerPoints from there in PDF format.

Please feel free to send questions comments on the presentations!

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IATEFL Hungary

MC presenting at IATEFL Hungary

IATEFL Hungary brought 300 delegates from 18 countries to Eger, a charming medieval city about 100km from Budapest, close to Slovakia, Romania & Ukraine for their excellent annual conference this past weekend.

The conference brought in international gurus like Scott Thornbury, Lindsay Clandfield, Ken Wilson, and was co-sponsored by the British Council, led locally by dynamic Country Director Simon Ingram-Hill.

The many highlights included Ken Wilson’s thoughtful but hilarious ‘Ten Quotes to make you think’ presentation, Steve Oakes’ session on ‘Embracing Ambiguity’, and David Hill on using British Folk Songs in class.

IATEFL Hungary have set up their own online conference site, with sessions, interviews, roving reporters and commentary for those who couldn’t make it to the actual conference.  You can see interviews with many of the presenters, including your truly interviewed here.

Many thanks to organisers Zsuzsa Lindner and her dedicated committee for a stimulating and enjoyable conference.

Join us next year in Budapest for the 23rd conference.

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European Day of Languages 2012

Every year September 26 comes around too quickly, and in the UK we neglect to join in the celebration of the European Day of Languages. A few events are arranged here and there but there is no press coverage or public awareness of the celebration of humankind’s ability to speak multiple languages and communicate between multiple cultures.

In Europe they do things differently, and I was lucky enough to share in celebrations in Poland yesterday with a conference in Warsaw focusing on New Technologies in Language teaching. Unlike an ELT or languages conference in the UK, this was of great interest to the press and the public – several TV channels were there interviewing speakers and participants, and the conference made it on to breakfast TV.

Can you imagine an IATEFL speaker being interviewed for BBC Breakfast Time? What does that tell us about our lack of interest in languages, I wonder?

The conference attracted speakers and participants from across Europe and was illuminating because the core theme of many of the presentations shifted from the use of technology in itself to the use of Social Media. Speaker after speaker described using Facebook, Twitter, LiveMocha, Busuu and other sites, and emphasised how the use of social media in and alongside the classroom was giving their students more confidence in expressing themselves, boosting their motivation, promoting task-based learning and groupwork.

It was instructive to see how the emphasis had shifted from the use of technology (web, PCs, mobiles) to the use of the communication medium facilitated by the technology, and how this can benefit learning.

Many of the investigations into social media usage had been part of EU projects, organised around EU-funded multinational consortia of schools and colleges from around the EU, with teachers and academics using the project to dig deeper into uses of social media.

The richness of this input gave a great ‘takeaway’ for this conference, but also served as a useful reminder that too few institutions in the UK are involved in the EU project circles that help teachers to carry out this vital developmental research. We in the UK really need to get more involved in the EU’s focus on language use and language research.

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Market intelligence for ELT

New launches in the Market Report series to support UK ELT schools

The British Council and English UK held a launch event for three English Language Market Reports: China, Italy and Turkey on Wednesday 19 September at The Royal Society.

At the event, authors of each report shared their findings and responded in a Q&A session about each of these key ELT markets.

The reports are part of a new series of comprehensive market studies to be produced by the British Council and English UK. They aim to provide support for UK ELT institutions in recruiting students from overseas markets. They focus on key markets that are vital for the work of accredited ELT institutions.

There is a need for ELT-specific market information and it is hoped that these reports will help British Council accredited institutions to gain insights into how the education market works in the target countries. The reports will assist institutions in building closer connections with and promote their products to potential students and their influencers, overseas partners, study abroad agents and other stakeholders.

At the launch event there was an opportunity to hear the authors summarise and discuss their findings and conclusions.
Participants also received hard copies of the reports, which will be available in the ‘English in the UK’ section of our English Agenda website.

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IATEFL Peru in Lima, 2012

After months of tireless work by association founder Leo Marin and her dedicated team, the first full IATEFL Peru  conference ran smoothly over a warm winter’s weekend in Lima, with plenary speakers Paul Seligson, Andrew Sheehan, Penny Ur and myself.

We were hosted by the Colegio “La Reparacion” in central Lima for the first day, moving to a private college on the outskirts for the second day – a chance to experience different parts of the city.

The conference was a great success with a large turnout of teachers from all over the country. Some had travelled 12 hours or more by bus, overnight, just to attend. Their dedication to their profession, their appetite for new knowledge, new ideas and desire to share experience, was impressive to see.

Everyone is very grateful to Leo and the IATEFL committee for making this happen and look forward to IATEFL Peru 2013 which will be in Lima on July 13-14.

Lima itself is a delightful city – 2000 years of history along the beach. If you have chance to visit, make sure you go to the Huaca Puccllan, a 2000 year old pyramid and religious site, which long pre-dates the Incas. The original Lima people built this in around 200 AD and lived here peacefully worshipping the moon, sea and the shark until overpowered by the Wari – who specialised in human sacrifice. Photos of the site can be found here.

The only sacrifices now are of the sea bass and steaks in the attached restaurant, here,  one of the gastronomic highlights of Lima, which is set in the ruins and where even in winter you can eat fine food in the historical site. I recommend the Tacama red wine – Peruvian wine has come a long way in recent years and now rivals Argentinian in some of the vineyards.

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On the Mersey Beat

At the weekend I went to Liverpool to speak at the EnglishUK North conference, held at a stunningly designed language school called  LILA* – which I assume stands for the Liverpool International Language Academy.

The conference was excellent, with a wide range of speakers from the local to the  global like Jeremy Harmer, and a great audience of about 120 teachers from across the North.

Being originally from the North, I found it very heartening that ELT is developing so much outside the centres in the South and South-east, and finally students overseas (and especially their agents) are realising the benefits of moving further afield than the traditional and very overcrowded centres like Cambridge and Oxford.

Being originally from Manchester, though, it pains me slightly to admit how much our rival port of Liverpool has developed in recent years. The city centre and the docks have been completely transformed to create a tourist and cultural focus equal to many in Europe, and the swarms of European tourists in the streets underlined that this city has been radically improved.

The combination of successful investment with the traditionally friendly culture of the  city makes it a real pleasure to visit. More ELT conferences in Liverpool, please!

And hopefully we at the British Council can help by investing more energy in promoting the North, Wales and other less traditional destinations for learning English.

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