Case Study: Speaking my Language

Professor Deirdre Heddon, University of Glasgow

February 2012 – August 2013

Speaking My Language was a pilot programme comprising a year-long integrated language development and cultural competency training package for postgraduate researchers across Scotland. Marrying the expectations of language acquisition with the internationalisation agenda, Speaking My Language responded to the need for researchers in the modern world to be global citizens, confident in their ability to contribute positively to an increasingly globalized society and able to take leadership in the sharing and exchange of advanced knowledge and skills on a global stage.

Content of Skills Development programme

Speaking My Language was structured around two language pathways and cultures: Mandarin-China and Portuguese-Brazil, and was designed to allow for different levels of access and engagement.

The ‘top’ level provided an intense, three-week residential language training programme for 12 students in each pathway. Students were in residence from Monday – Thursday, and attended full-day language courses delivered by language specialists. The Mandarin programme was delivered in Edinburgh; the Portuguese programme in Glasgow. During this time, students were accommodated in hotels, with cultural activities programmed throughout the training, e.g. dinner at Chinese/Brazilian restaurants, a tea ceremony, film screenings, Brazilian music and dance. A key aim and outcome of this stage of the programme was the creation of an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional community of peers. Peer support became vital as the intensity of the training increased.

The residential element was followed by weekly lunch-time language cafés facilitated by international postgraduate students who were native speakers in Mandarin or Portuguese, as well as monthly Saturday language workshops. The language learning continued to mid-May, with the language specialists creating a specific on-line learning package to support self-directed study.

The final component of this ‘top level’ of activity was a ‘study abroad’ trip of up to one month, with up to £2000 available to successful applicants to cover travel and accommodation. 10 students from the programme have been supported to spend time in either China or Brazil. All of these students had continued with the language programme through to mid-May. They will each produce a blog or other form of documentation of their experiences, to be shared with a wider public.

The second level of access to the programme was a touring cultural programme of activity, which visited each of the universities who were part of Speaking My Language. The programme of activities varied, but typically included an introduction to a film, a film screening, an academic paper, and a more social activity (e.g. calligraphy or capoeira). As far as possible, graduate researchers were engaged to deliver the academic contribution (e.g. the academic paper or an introduction to the screening). These events were open to the public as well as to Speaking My Language students.

Unexpected Challenges of the Programme

  • The original intention had been to run the residential workshop Mon-Fri. However, feedback from language trainers suggested that four days a week would be intense enough – and they were right. The students reported that it was exhausting, though rewarding. Mon-Thur residential activity also allowed students to use the Friday to check in with supervisors, attend to their PhD, etc.
  • Securing university accommodation for three weeks over the summer proved impossible. Hotels were easier to book – and I think this made it even more of a special event for the participants.
  • Students’ circumstances changing during the programme: one withdrew from his PhD programme, another had to leave before the end of the programme because they actually got a job in a Chinese university (they proposed that having completed the Mandarin training made a huge difference.)

My top tips for applicants

  • I had planned to have two interns working with me to deliver the programme. They proved invaluable and the experience also proved invaluable for them in terms of skills development.
  • I had not planned to engage graduate students as language café facilitators but it proved to be a great success – they enjoyed spending time with the students and it definitely made a difference to the students’ progress to have a weekly session.
  • Delivering a programme that addresses ‘niche’ needs is best done across a number of institutions. Had this been delivered by a single institution it would not have recruited enough students to have been viable. Offered across six institutions, we received more than double the number of students we could accommodate – transforming an unviable activity into a competitive one.
  • I built into the budget subsistence money for each participant, meaning that they could eat together every night without worrying about the cost. This proved crucial to building a peer community of students drawn from different institutions and disciplines.

Surprises

The level of commitment shown by many of the students. The experience does seem to have been transformative for some participants (here is one example of a blog prompted by learning Mandarin. Although students who decided not to go to China or Brazil were not obliged to continue with the programme beyond the residential language course, some continued to attend the facilitated sessions.

Speaking My Language is led by Professor Deirdre Heddon, Dean of Graduate Studies for the College of Arts, University of Glasgow, in collaboration with the Universities of Dundee, Edinburgh, St. Andrews, Stirling, and Strathclyde.

Speaking my Language.