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Discovering a world of languages

Cambridge school kids

Cambridge school kids

In October 2019 the AHRC funded project, Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS), part of the Open World Research Initiative, opened the UK’s first Pop-Up Museum of Languages.  Launched in Cambridge, the ‘World of Languages’ has already travelled to Belfast, Edinburgh and Nottingham, and will appear in the Barbican Centre London on March 14 2020. We spoke to Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett, University of Cambridge and Principal Investigator of MEITS, about the reasons for the creation of the pop-up museum, the challenges encountered in delivering it, and tips for managing such a large public engagement initiative.

What is the background to the ‘World of Languages’?

MEITS is a large interdisciplinary research project that aims to demonstrate the value of languages to key issues of our time and the benefits of speaking more than one language – or of being multilingual. The researchers from the Universities of Cambridge, Queen’s Belfast, Edinburgh and Nottingham are working with a large number of non-academic partners, from large charities such as Age UK to grassroots bodies such as the Cambridge Ethnic Community Forum. Many research projects look to museums to partner them, but – in spite of the centrality of languages to who we are and how we think – there is no languages museum in the UK. We therefore decided to fill the gap and to create our own ‘Pop-Up World of Languages’ on the model of science activity centres. We hope that, in the long term, this may become the kernel of a permanent UK museum of languages.

Who were the intended audiences and what did you hope they would get out of it?

We wanted to reach not only those who are already interested in languages or who come from multilingual families, but especially those who are not interested in languages, and perhaps consider them overly difficult or elitist. Our core audience was 10-14 year olds. However, we used a ‘layering’ technique in designing the material, so there is ‘more advanced’ material for adults about the underpinning research, and fun activities such as fishing sea creatures out of a ball pool for younger children. We had a lot of families attend, ranging from toddlers to grandparents, all of whom could get something from the museum.

The activities were underpinned by two key messages: languages are fun and easier than you think. For instance, one activity shows that it is easy to acquire a basic knowledge of Chinese tones, whilst another asks visitors to ‘rescue’ words that are ‘lost in translation’, that is, for which there is no simple English equivalent. We also collected data about the languages visitors speak – 85 different ones in Cambridge – to emphasise that the maintenance of home languages is also vital.

How did you design the museum?

It was important to find accessible, ‘non-threatening’ venues that didn’t appear overly academic. In Cambridge we set up in an empty shop in a popular shopping centre which we know is favoured by young people. We had ‘road-tested’ the concepts at a number of public engagement events and with schools, so we had a clear idea of what worked and of especially the need to keep the messages very clear and simple. We worked with a professional exhibition designer who translated our ideas into eye-catching and impactful activities.

What were the challenges in developing the idea and bringing it together?

One challenge was to explain sometimes complex ideas – such as the cognitive benefits of language learning – in clear simple language and in blocks of under 150 words if possible! Our initial instinct was to include references and detailed information about the underpinning research, and we had to constantly resist this. Another challenge was moving from the design concepts to buying all the necessary equipment from sound boxes and headphones for playing samples of language to stop watches and colouring pencils – you need lots of lists and an eye for detail!

What has been the response from attendees?

The initial feedback to the museum has been very positive. We have had over 3000 visitors across the four sites so far and have organised a number of school visits with free transport offered. Quizzes and activities led to new discoveries and insights and we have evidence of inter-generational learning and stimulating conversations within families and groups. One visitor wrote, ‘I had preconceived ideas about languages and being involved in those games/activities changed my perceptions’, whilst another commented, ‘It has changed me. I found out that it is dangerous that languages can get extinct really easily’.

Do you have any tips for other researchers attempting similar initiatives?

Public engagement on this scale involves months of planning and a lot of hard work - I will never again complain about writing an academic article! – but it is extremely satisfying to see the enjoyment of families engaging with the activities and leaving with a more positive view of languages. We are reaching new audiences in ways we never expected, and I am even getting messages asking for support in getting similar initiatives off the ground from as far afield as Australia. Our team and especially the postdocs and PhD students were also changed by the experience. To quote one of them: ‘From a personal point of view, it was really refreshing to see young people getting excited about languages there were lots of interesting facts and stories presented in the museum which I feel sometimes we (as specialists) can take for granted. This gave me an opportunity to take a step back, see it through someone else's eyes and appreciate that it really is interesting and exciting!’

The ‘Pop-Up’ World of Languages will appear as part of a Celebration of Multilingualism in the Barbican Centre London on March 14, 2020. http://www.meits.org/events/event/celebration-of-multilingualism


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