Celebrating Language

Having bumped into Professor Tom Cheeseman yesterday, it reminded me of a wonderful evening spent a few weeks ago at one of the Volcano Fridays events that he is organising. Alongside a very mixed audience from across Swansea and beyond I enjoyed an evening, at the Volcano Theatre, of Arabic, Welsh and Chinese poetry, both in the original languages, in each other’s languages (Welsh poetry translated into Chinese and vice-versa) and in English. It is not perhaps the entertainment I might have chosen for a Friday evening in Swansea but there was such a great atmosphere, the poets clearly sparked off each other, and the poetry itself was both exciting and moving. I would strongly recommend those in Swansea to get out and go along to one or more of the remaining events in the series, you will be surprised, entertained and amazed.

This event, however, got me thinking about the place of language in teaching and research. I have always had a love/hate relationship to language thanks to my own dyslexia. I did not begin to read seriously until I was 12, and then, starting with War and Peace (the Napoleonic Wars were a particular obsession of mine at the time) I began to devour novels of all kinds. I failed the written element of the ‘O’ level French exam three times, although the oral never caused me any problems. It was only at University that the support and work of a dedicated lecturer in the anthropology of religion actually freed up my writing style and allowed me to enjoy the play of language on the page. Being dyslexic does mean that I never take language (either my own or that of other people) for granted, and for my current research project, over two thirds of the source material is in French.

I do believe that one of the great gifts that a university education can give is that of a joy in language, in both senses of the word. There is a joy in being able to handle your own native language, to be able to use it well to express what you want to say, whether that is some sophisticated sociological theory, a critique of poetry, or a series scientific concepts. There is also a joy to be had, I would suggest, in learning other languages, using that experience to challenge our own often casual use of language, and the level of communication with others, and with other people’s ideas, that this can often bring. I would also want to include maths here. I studied maths up to ‘A’ level, and on to the first year at University. At its best mathematics is a very beautiful, and very specialised language that has its own rules and its own symmetry and inner poetry. The ability, the acquired confidence, to be able to work well, either in our own language, or that of others, or that of mathematics, dance, music or art is something that will always be useful and creative in many forms of employment.

However, language is more than words, sentences and communication. As an anthropologist language is also a way into culture. The translation of mid–twentieth sociological texts from French into English, as part of my current research, is not just a matter of the equivalence of words. There is a whole different set of cultural assumptions, geographical and historical references and different ways of thinking that cannot simply be ‘translated’ or easily grasped through English translations. Those who come to Swansea from across the world and work in English, often a second or third language, need support and encouragement to be aware of some of the more subtle references and assumptions that we expect our English speaking students to take on board without thinking. Being in Swansea also raises the question of Welsh. Is there something that those of us who struggle to learn Welsh are missing of the regional culture and colour? The importance of Welsh is something that, in my own view, is to be celebrated and encouraged, and it is often something that many of our foreign students actually want to engage with, and even learn, as visitors to the region.

The mastery of language, in its other sense, is also an important skill that all our students should learn. The ability to communicate, the careful choice of words, the turn of a phrase, rhythm, rhetoric, even poetry, is essential to the academic endeavour. I attended the Three Minute Thesis competition earlier in the week, when PhD students were encouraged to present their thesis in three minutes, and get the key ideas over to an audience of non-specialists without the props of power-point or visual aids. Language, and the ability to cut back language to its most fundamental points, is essential to such a task. It is also necessary to all forms of communication, whether oral or written, and something that can often be overlooked, something that is rarely taught specifically. PhD students have often asked me how they should write as an academic. I always say to them that the only answer to that is to read, to find those texts that really speak to them, and then to analyse how that author uses language to get their ideas across.

Language is often undervalued. We know that in terms of learning other languages and the paucity of applications that come through from our schools to language degrees. The undervaluing of language is also something that is common across the University and something that the kind of event celebrated in Volcano Fridays can really bring to our attention. Language takes many forms. Most of us – not just those who can claim to be dyslexic – often find language difficult and hence avoid any direct engagement with it. But is also so rewarding and something that we need, as a University, to make available to all our students in as many different ways as we can.

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