What was particularly remarkable about this event was that it was created not by the academic staff, but by the students themselves — an enthusiastic band of a dozen or more young people who had put together an impressive programme of language taster sessions ranging from Portuguese, Hungarian, Polish and Welsh via Arabic and Hebrew, Yoruba and Xhosa, Tagalog and Thai, to Japanese, Korean and Chinese. And that’s only a selection. There were also sessions on BSL, Braille and Old English. The initiator of all this was one Maks Marzec, a student from Poland with native-like English and fluent Mandarin, who picked up the idea from a similar event he had attended in Nanjing.
The opening ceremony attracted the presence not only of the Vice-Chancellor of the University (who gave a witty and inspiring opening speech) but also of the Lord Mayor of the city and one of the city’s members of parliament. The VC reminded us that language study was valuable not only intellectually and socially but also because it was fun.
A highlight of the opening ceremony was a click song performed by a speaker of Ndebele, accompanied by a drummer.
The idea of inviting me came, I assume, from one of the organizers who was an Esperanto enthusiast. The committee asked me to give two talks (“presentations”) at the opening ceremony, one short and one longer.
The short one was 10-15 minutes on ‘Languages in My Life’. I told the two hundred or so people in the auditorium how from a monoglot start I had learnt — in chronological order — French, Latin and Greek at school, Esperanto on my own, German through a family exchange, and Welsh by attending evening classes. Halfway through the lights failed because the projector lamp had overheated, but I continued Powerpoint-less in the dark until power was restored (“every decent lecturer has a plan B”). I finished by urging them to learn as much as they could while they were young, because the older you grow the harder it gets to memorize things. Latin and Greek declensions and conjugations were a doddle when I was aged 9-14 — but now I would never be able to master such complexity. In my thirties I still retained sufficient powers of memory to learn Welsh reasonably well — but I couldn’t do it now. Strike while the iron is hot, when the brain is not yet sclerotic!
My second contribution was a 45-minute lecture on ‘Speech Sounds Around the World’. This was a combination of serious analysis (classification of consonants by voice, place and manner; airstream mechanisms, etc) and entertainment (fun with exotic sounds). I got everybody practising switching voicing on and off, ffvvffvv, zzsszzss, and using this to learn new sounds: mmm̥m̥mmm̥m̥, xxɣɣxxɣɣ, ççʝʝççʝʝ. This led into exotic sounds of various kinds. Wherever possible I found a speaker of a relevant language to do an authentic demonstration. A Greek young lady was delighted and proud to be called on to say ˈɣala (‘milk’) for us, and to take us through the present tense of the verb ‘to have’, ˈexo, ˈeçis, ˈeçi, ˈexume, ˈeçete, ˈexun, and of ‘to open’ aˈniɣo, aˈniʝis, aˈniʝi… (just add voicing — see?). I found a Swede to demonstrate ɧ, a Welshman to do ɬ, and an Arabic speaker to give us ħ, ʕ, sˤ, ðˤ. And so on. The Polish student I called on to pronounce język ‘language’ thought that my own pronunciation of that word sounded rather old-fashioned and mannered. Ah, well.
There is no better audience for an elderly lecturer than a crowd of enthusiastic young people.
Since it was my birthday, Tim Owen got the audience to finish by singing, to the tune of Happy Birthday to You:
Ĉion bonan al vi, ĉion bonan al vi,
ĉion bonan, profesoro, ĉion bonan al vi!
The success of the Festival shows the foolishness of current education policy in this country, which has dropped the requirement to study a foreign language at secondary school.