Tag Archives: languages

New toolkit and board game to strengthen Indigenous culture and language

A new Teaching and Learning Toolkit was recently launched, based on Kew Gardens’ Richard Spruce collections from the Rio Negro Indigenous Territory in Northwest Amazonia, one of the outputs of Professor Luciana Martins’ research project ‘Digital Repatriation of Biocultural Collections’.  Here, she shares details of the event and its importance for Indigenous communities.

pic of toolkit and boardgame

  • Can you share details of the event and who it was aimed at.

The event was the launch of the teaching and learning toolkit, composed of a book, A Maloca entre Artefatos e Plantas: Guia da Coleção Rio Negro in Londres (São Paulo: ISA – Instituto Socioambiental, 2021) and board game, A’pe Buese – Aprender Brincando (São Paulo: Instituto Socioambiental, 2021); with illustrations by the artist Lindsay Sekulowicz.

The launch coincided with the meeting of knowledgeable elders at the São Pedro community in the upper Tiquié river in the Northwest Amazon on the occasion of the inauguration of their longhouse (maloca), the centre of their cultural life; and was attended mainly by teachers at the Indigenous schools from the neighbouring communities, with the participation of the Indigenous researchers who visited the European collections.

Attendees at toolkit launch

  • What was the rationale for the teaching and learning toolkit?

This project, funded by British Academy Knowledge Frontiers and Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF QR), forms part of a UK-Brazil research programme that aims to reanimate the objects collected by nineteenth-century botanist Richard Spruce in Amazonia (currently housed at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the British Museum), linking them with the knowledge of Indigenous peoples (partners in Europe include Birkbeck, RBG Kew, the British Museum and Berlin Ethnological Museum; in Brazil: Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro, the Socioenvironmental Institute-ISA and the Federation of the Indigenous Organizations of the Rio Negro -FOIRN).

The teaching and learning toolkit, associated with these collections, was co-produced with Dagoberto Lima Azevedo, a Tukano Indigenous researcher and translator. It includes a guide for the collections, with scientific and indigenous information about a selection of artefacts, including a broader historical overview of the Upper Rio Negro region in the nineteenth century, European collectors and their collections, and a lesson plan; and an innovative board game that asks players to combine plants and animals used for creating particular artefacts, going through a path by the different habitats where these raw materials are found.

launch of toolkit

  • How do you envisage it being used?

Targeted principally at secondary-level Indigenous schoolchildren, the toolkit aims to enable pupils to have fun while learning about their biocultural heritage kept in European museums. We aim to ensure that the knowledge and skills associated with traditional craftsmanship are passed on to future generations so that crafts can continue to be produced within their communities, providing livelihoods to their makers and reflecting creativity.

  • How does this directly link to the original research?

In the concluding session of a project research workshop at Kew in June 2019, Indigenous researchers highlighted the need to produce, in addition to a proposed project website, printed pedagogic materials to be used in community schools in remote regions, where WiFi and electricity are scarce and unreliable. Responding directly to this identified need, the project plan was revised to include the production of this teaching and learning toolkit based on the biocultural collections. The production of this toolkit in Portuguese, with all the main terms translated into Ye’pamahsã (Tukano) language, fits within the larger context of current linguistic projects in Northwest Amazonia, which aim to strengthen and enhance Indigenous languages.

The online guide is available here and it is hoped that the project website will be launched by the end of November 2021.

Further details of the research can be found here.


“It took two pregnancies, a fierce fight against cancer and finally a pandemic, but I made it, I graduated!”

Carmen Cinque graduated last week with a BA Modern Languages degree. This is her #BBKgrad story.

Carmen Cinque with her family

When I enrolled on the first year of my course in 2015, I was pregnant. With my first daughter due to be born in the middle of the academic year I knew that studying would be no easy task. I was also working full time as a bookkeeper for a restaurant. However, I was highly motivated and eager to start my course – finally, at 36, after many professional and personal experiences, I was about to start studying to obtain my first degree.

My daughter was born at the beginning of January. I continued to study and complete assessments and exams thanks to the understanding and availability of lecturers and the support of my husband and sister. I even sat a German exam with my daughter in the room while I was breastfeeding! Everything was going well, but suddenly in spring, I started to feel very, very tired and unable to concentrate.

My doctor thought it was just the difficulty of reconciling everyday activities with caring for a little girl, and at first, I agreed with her. However, I did feel there was something more. So, after a lot of analysis, stress, frustration and many dead-end diagnoses, at the beginning of August 2016, I met a doctor who urged me to have a biopsy. I was given a horrible diagnosis: I had a rare form of pregnancy-related cancer called choriocarcinoma. My world crushed, my family and I had to deal with a long treatment and all its devastating side effects. I had to put my degree on hold. Chemotherapy did not allow me to take care of my daughter alone, let alone studying. I don’t deny – it was hard, but luckily in March 2017, I was cured. Still very weak, but cancer free.

I had doubts as to whether to start studying again or to drop out; I was scared and fragile. My husband, however, did not allow me to give up. In September I started my second year at Birkbeck and this turned out to be a great choice. It was the best way to pick up my life where I left it. Everything started to go well again. In November I fell pregnant, which wasn’t a surprise as we always wanted a second child – only it came a little earlier than expected! Oscar was born on 30 June this year – a week after my last exam and during the pandemic.

Beside learning a new language (German) and deepening my understanding of Portuguese, my experience at Birkbeck widened my horizons professionally and personally. It gave me the motivation to try and change my career path, and I plan to start a qualification soon to become an interpreter, thanks to my degree qualification and the knowledge I gained whilst studying.

2020 is a peculiar year, but the birth of my second child and graduation make it an exceptional year for me! I am so happy and proud of my achievements. It was not always an easy path but not trying is the biggest mistake to make in life and I am very grateful to the professors, my family, and my dear friends for the support I have received in this amazing journey. Studying at Birkbeck was a wonderful experience, a privilege and an important achievement in a phase so full of positive and negative events in my life.

Further Information:


The perils of swearing in a foreign language

This post was contributed by Matt Davis, a postgraduate student in Applied Linguistics at Birkbeck. He tweets about language at @word_jazz.

As every Birkbeck student knows, 6.30pm on Friday night is not the best time to listen to an academic lecture. But if there is any serious sociolinguistic discussion that’s going to keep members of the public from their weekends, it’s one about swearing.

Jean-Marc Dewaele is a Professor of Bilingualism at Birkbeck. A Belgian polyglot, he knows a thing or two about the subject. He has spoken academically about the experience of bringing up his daughter in north London to be trilingual (fluent in French, Flemish and English). He is also winner of an annual award for the rudest title of an academic article (unrepeatable here, but more soberly subtitled ‘Language preferences for swearing among maximally proficient multilinguals’).

Closing the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy’s series of events (‘To seek, to find, to live’) his lecture was about how speakers of a foreign language (what academics call ‘L2’) understand, experience and use taboo words in that language, and how it differs to how they swear in their first language (‘L1’).

Prof Dewaele described research, using lie detector technology, that shows we are uniformly less sensitive to the swear words we hear in our second language. He presented the results of his own survey of a number of proficient L2 speakers of English. In one question, they were asked to rank common English swear words according to what they thought was their relative level of power. This ranking was then compared to that by a group of native English speakers. Interestingly, L2 speakers of English tended to over-state the taboo of more benign words (like ‘idiot’), and under-state the taboo of some more powerful ones.

Prof Dewaele also introduced the idea of ‘sociopragmatic competence’ in a second language. This incorporates the idea that although it’s easy to learn a dictionary definition of a word – even taboo words – it takes experience to understand the various cultural values placed on that word by a society, and therefore where and when (if it all!) using it is appropriate.

Prof Dewaele is an engaging speaker and the talk was delivered with much humour as well as insight (sniggering among the audience was certainly not discouraged!) The talk was followed by a lively Q&A, where many people described their own experience in the subject. An American, now living in London, described how he had unwittingly caused great offence to a British family thanks to the greater emotional power of the expression ‘taking the piss’ in the UK. A lexicographer from the University of Portsmouth spoke about the nuances of writing taboo words into the dictionary.

So was it a better place to be than the pub? As a linguistics student, I certainly thought so but the test was whether my partner had found it interesting. A Canadian and native speaker of (North American) English, her mother tongue is actually Mandarin, but she has lived in UK for 6 years. She told me that she had enjoyed it too.

And did the findings of Prof Dewaele’s research fit her experience? I thought it through for a moment and realized I knew the answer: she never swears. As we had learned, when it comes to cursing in someone else’s language, it’s much safer that way.


Anglophones wanted!

This post was contributed by Jozef van der Voort, an MA student in Translation Studies at the University of Sheffield

English is a global lingua franca, and researchers or authors seeking to reach an international audience are obliged to publish in English. Yet native English speakers are notoriously reluctant to learn foreign languages, and as a result there is a great deal of unmet demand for expert translators working into English. This applies across all industries but the need is particularly acute in academia, where high level language skills must be paired with expert subject knowledge.

The Use Your Language, Use Your English summer school sought to address this need by offering a week of intensive editing and translation training to English speakers with knowledge of one or more foreign languages. My source languages are German and French, but also on offer were Arabic, Chinese, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish. This made for a diverse group of participants who all had unique experiences and insights to share throughout the course, and I found that I learned as much from my fellow students as I did from the translation tutors themselves.

The tutors were also excellent – practising translators all, they brought a vast amount of experience to bear and provided invaluable advice not just on how to tackle the texts that we worked on over the week, but also on how to get established in the profession.

Translation – not just an academic pursuit

For me, this professional focus was the most invaluable aspect of the summer school. Rewarding as it was to debate the intricacies of German and French literary texts with my like-minded and enthusiastic fellow students, the tutors and organisers never lost sight of the fact that translation is a business – that to succeed as a translator it is vital to build strong networks in order to promote your work, and to keep your clients’ needs in mind. This applies as much to literary and academic translation as it does to the more commercial texts I tend to deal with on my MA course. Every text has an audience, and while it is easy to immerse yourself in fine detail when translating texts from one language into another, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that translation is always undertaken for a specific purpose.

All in all it was encouraging to see that the translation marketplace is in good health, and that opportunities abound for native English speakers with high-level foreign language skills. I would like to thank the organiser Professor Naomi Segal for all her hard work in putting together this extremely rewarding week, and I would recommend the course as an excellent introduction for anyone interested in getting into translation.