How learning languages makes you smart, successful – and a better citizen

Speaking foreign languages has obvious practical and intellectual advantages, and most of you will have noticed press reports that it is also beneficial for your brain, possibly even staving off dementia.

Reading_French_BordeauxThe effects on your cognitive ability and memory are easy to believe: the more you study languages, the easier it gets, whether they are related or not, and the more smoothly learning in general will grow.

Beyond that, recent research has shown that multilingual people are more creative and innovative! As teachers and social scientists, you probably agree with Amy Thompson’s article in The Conversation (12 Dec 2016) without hesitation.

But would you have thought that the study and, crucially, the practice of foreign languages increases your tolerance, as Thompson suggests?

Well, through enhanced cultural competence, obviously – each one of us can tell stories of being baffled by black tea of a murky white, black tea of a transparent red, cold coffee specialties, or the desperate search for soya milk… Good move also not to ask for a Turkish coffee in Greece or a Greek coffee in Turkey!

Beyond that, the tolerance of living with the unknown apparently improves your tolerance overall: If you can bear the stress of a conversation in which you do not understand every word – in real life or in a classroom – your skills will rocket, so will your self-esteem, so will your ‘tolerance of ambiguity’, as Professor Thompson puts it.

What about material advantages of mastering several languages? In her brief and engaging book Linguanomics : what is the market potential of multilingualism? (2017), available at the Newsam Library, Gabrielle Hogan-Brun discusses the benefits of foreign language skills for people’s career prospects and social life. She also depicts drawbacks or disasters where communication goes wrong — in the worst case in a plane crash.

Hogan-Brun also glimpses at the language practices and policies in many parts of the world and even in ancient times, beginning with the seafaring Phoenicians and the caravans along the Silk Road. She concludes that studying another language ‘is an ongoing journey of development, interaction and discovery’.

Linguanomics reports that the Swiss canton of Zurich has switched from French to English as a second language in 2006/07. Naturally, the second language will not be the last one: children are taught English from the age of 7 and French from the age of 10.

Tall blue volumes on library shelves.The German region bordering on France aims to make all its younger citizens fully bilingual by the middle of the 21st century. Saarland wants to be a gateway to France, while English will naturally also be spoken.

In fact, it is EU policy to teach children a third language, which makes the English term ‘second language learning’ incomprehensible to Europeans.

The Comparative Education Collection at the Newsam Library  holds a raft of books about ‘tertiary language learning’ and ‘multiliteracy’ in Europe. The EU’s guide to plurilingual education (2007) extols diversity and citizenship — and warns of merely economic preferences for a national language and, above all, for English.

Should the United Kingdom really leave the European Union, the number of native English speakers will, as one of our recent books alerted me, drop to 1%! Do you think that in the EU of the future, 99% of citizens will speak English anyway, whether as their first, second, third, or fourth language?

The languages you use will strongly influence your individual and collective identity. The Institute of Education holds books on language and identity in, for example, Switzerland (Langues à l’école : quelle politique pour quelle Suisse?, 2007), France (Identity, insecurity and image : France and language, 1999), and Germany (Language, Discourse and Identity in Central Europe, 2009, online).

In a previous blog post, I recommended Reading aloud as a way of learning a language as the next best thing after speaking, based on my personal experience. Now I add: As soon as you get the gist, read on without consulting a dictionary; in the same way, as soon as you can communicate at all, take a deep breath and speak.

BlogEdinLibYou may be interested in the Curriculum Resources section of the Newsam Library at the IOE, complemented by Mandarin books and CDs and constantly updated.

Do browse our Education in Literature Collection: behind the  children’s reading corner, novels from all over the world (in English) and films in foreign languages with subtitles wait for you.

For academic material, head to the Main Collection and have a look at classmarks ‘Men’ for foreign language learning and teaching. ‘Men Bat’ stands for cross-cultural competence, ‘Men Jab’ for language acquisition, and ‘Men Mar’ for applied linguistics. Consult the Explore catalogue straight away for thousands of resources available across UCL libraries and online.

weimar_goethe_wohnhaus_salve20150930The UCL Centre for Languages & International Education (CLIE) runs language classes and summer schools. I have also found the nearby private college, the City Literary Institute (‘City Lit’, est. 1919), helpful for language tuition and conversation.

As regards research in bilingual and multilingual language acquisition, education, and competence, some is conducted right here, at the UCL Institute of Education.

Let me end with a statement by Goethe, who, incidentally or not, was proficient in six languages: “Who does not understand other languages, knows nothing of his own”!

Illustrations: Sculpture by Jaume Plensa. Photograph: Christina Egan. — ‘Datenhandbuch zur deutschen Bildungsgeschichte’. Photograph: Christina Egan. — Education in Literature Collection, Newsam Library, UCL IOE. Photograph: Beverley Hinton. — Goethe’s house in Weimar, Germany, with Latin greeting on the threshold. Photograph: Hajotthu at the German language Wikipedia.

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Shock, horror … no money for some libraries

Informally when I visit other libraries, I view lean, striking modern designs or historic, revered rooms that are well-stocked and proudly displayed. In contrast, during my visit here in Lisbon, it was a bit of a shock to visit the Instituto Politecnico de Lisboa education library and to be informed by the librarian that they have had no funds for resources for the past six years.

On the shelves, I saw Portuguese and English language texts including IOE authors below, but nothing had been added for years including journals.  I was hoping there was better news about databases and I was told that the only database that students have access to is b-on which does not necessarily provide full text resources.


The school of education here has about 2000 undergraduate education students and 300 Masters students. They come to this lovely building below, but I’m perplexed how they can function without current resources although, no doubt, the Portuguese funding  situation is a complicated one that reaches far beyond education.

I came away feeling despondent until I realised that UCL may be able to provide some kind of support. Firstly, there are our dependable IOE LibGuides which are freely available to all and include a great deal of open access information. Secondly, there is the excellent UCL Press.

UCL Press is the first fully open access university press in the UK seeking to make its publications available freely to a global audience.  Wi-fi seems decent in Lisbon so as long as students want to or can read English, ebooks and ejournals can be accessed by anyone.

UCL Press has been very supportive of my Erasmus visit by providing me with UCL mementoes. Today, I’ll be distributing UCL Press bags with this quote from Daniel Coit Gilman (1878): ‘It is one of the noblest duties of a university to advance knowledge and to diffuse it … far and wide’.  I can only hope that the diffusion of knowledge will reach students in Lisbon.




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Erasmus, Freedom and Focus

There are 83 of us from universities around Europe here in Lisbon on an Erasmus Exchange Week.  I’ve talked to staff from Poland, Finland, Estonia, Germany, Lithuania, Slovenia, Turkey, Greece, Romania — a veritable Eurovision of delegates. Although we are all working in different university jobs, what binds us together is sharing, promoting and learning about different views of education around the world. (Views from Castelo de Sao Jorge below).

Today, the 25th of April, is a national holiday in Portugal– Freedom Day — celebrating the 1974 Revolution and the free elections that started a year later. As a group for part of the day, we joined Lisbonites visiting historic sites and as I talked to others, it occurred to me that although we are all from ‘free’ nations, we all have different notions of freedom.

At one pole, freedom can be a burden, and the other pole, it can be an exhilerating release. Most of us are probably in the middle — grappling with the choices we make which may be opposed to the choices others make. It seems so many countries are divided these days, and no doubt, this is the price of freedom of choice and of information.

And this is where I take heart in the freedom of information that our UCL libraries offer.  We can offer the parity of online access, the freedom of reading a myriad of subjects and the freedom to feedback.  This freedom, however, does not come without a price. Just because information is ‘free’, does not mean that it is current, relevant, authoritative, accurate or even fit for purpose. This is when we must apply the CRAAP test for evaluating information.

Limiting our search for information to what is current, relevant, accurate, authoritative and purposeful may narrow our view of a subject….

but it can also focus our searches and can  often lead us to new and undiscovered paths.


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Education in Germany – a long march uphill

If you believe that Germans have massive bowls of freshly-prepared muesli for breakfast, march through the forests and up the mountains in ergonomic sandals and up and down cold water-basins barefoot, and are partial to extremely emotional music about love and death – you are right. And you know more than I knew when I lived in Germany, because you do not notice what you grow up with: you think it’s natural.

If you have an idea that the German way of upbringing, education, and training is very different from the British one, you are also right. Schooling starts, for instance, much later and with shorter hours: most Germans still recoil from the thought of sending children to nursery school before the age of three, to primary school before the age of six, and to anything like full-time school before the age of ten, for secondary education.

The curriculum in Germany is broad, as regards academic subjects. If you leave school at 16, you will have a systematic overview of fields like history and biology and be likely to speak English and French fluently. If you want to reach university at all, there is no way round advanced mathematics, and if you are interested in a humanities degree, you better start learning Latin betimes.

Imposing Gothic-style university building, looking somewhat like a mediaeval castle.Department of Theology at the University of Marburg. (Main building 19th c., church 13th c.).

By Willow (Own work) [GFDL, CC BY-SA 3.0 or CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons.

You will have heard that vocational and professional training in Germany is lengthy and thorough, combining theory and practice. Teacher training, for example, lasts two years, and that after a degree course already covering education and social sciences as well as the subjects you want to teach. To become a library assistant, you would also have to train two years, after comprehensive sixth-form studies. Yet while qualifying, you would not pay for your education, you would get paid for your labour!

Germany also has a very special past, because it consisted of many – at times over a hundred – smaller states and more recently was divided for almost half a century. If you want to find out more about German society at the Newsam Library, check the UCL catalogue Explore and our shelves in the Comparative Education Collection. For more information, Barbara Sakarya has set up a whole LibGuide on International Education, to which I have contributed the Country Focus: Germany.

Tall blue volumes on library shelves.




The Newsam Library is one of the few places in the United Kingdom to hold volumes of the Datenhandbuch zur deutschen Bildungsgeschichte.

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Reading London

Orwell proof

Proof copy from UCL Special Collections of the work which was published in 1933 as Down and out in Paris and London Image reproduced courtesy of the Orwell Estate

Reading London

A London-themed celebration of reading aloud, and being read to, for World Book Night

Where: UCL IOE Library

When: Monday 24 April 2017 5.30-7.00pm

To celebrate World Book Night 2017 and to coincide with UCL Libraries’ East Side Stories: Londoners in Transition exhibition we are holding our third read aloud event on Monday 24 April. Come and listen to fellow audience members read poems, stories or passages from their favourite books. Readings will include extracts from George Orwell’s Down and out in Paris and London which is included in the exhibition. If you would like to read aloud yourself in any language (for approximately 5 mins) you would be very welcome. A London theme for your reading is optional!

Sam Duncan (IOE Dept of Education, Practice and Society) and Rebecca Webster (Head of Archives, UCL Library Services) will introduce the session.

If you would like to come along (to read or to be read to) please use the link below to book a place. If you would like to read please email Sam Duncan (

To book please click here.

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Focus on Greece

It’s so heartening to have such a diverse student population at UCL and to find out what wondrous things they do in their own countries.   The International Education LibGuide’s March Student/Country Focus features Maria Chalari from Greece. Below is just a taster….

Ya sas!

My name is Maria Chalari, and I am from Greece. I am a recent graduate of the UCL Institute of Education of the department of Education, Practice and Society. I completed my doctorate thesis in the Spring of 2016 under the supervision of Stephen Ball, and in August 2016 I was awarded the degree of Doctor in Education in the field of Sociology of Education. 

My research project aimed to explore how teachers experience the socio-economic crisis in Greece and the new challenges that stem from it; to discuss the purpose of education and the role it should play in preparing young people for this social, cultural and economic transition; to learn more about how we can build on the strengths of the present education system in order to create a system better suited to the current major societal changes and the challenging circumstances.

Throughout my study, I attempted to examine the consequences of the crisis at the time of the research, while also exploring the possibilities of a better world beyond the crisis. I also endeavoured to send a positive message, by helping educators understand the issues of teaching and learning and the purpose of education, and by encouraging them to think of practical and hopeful strategies for shaping alternative and better futures….

You can read more about Maria Chalari and education in Greece on the International Student/Country Focus page here.

You might also sample Maria’s suggested resource that can be found in the UCL IOE Library here:

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Genius, obsession and new beginnings- take a look at our new DVDs.

The lives of two brilliant mathematicians from India and the USA, a teenager’s determination for a better life through literacy, a newly unemployed man who enrols in a college to try and start a new life, a stifled Oxford academic’s obsession with a female student and a the adventures of a group of boys at a Victorian boarding school are among the subjects covered by DVDs recently added to the Library’s Education in Literature Collection. There are also films from Iran, Brazil and Italy.infinity

The Man Who Knew Infinity (2016) stars Dev Patel as Srinavasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) a shipping clerk from Madras whose passion for mathematics leads him to write a letter to G.H.Hardy (Jeremy Irons) a mathematics professor at Trinity College, Cambridge. Hardy brings Ramanujan to Cambridge, in 1913 to further his work in mathematics. Despite his support Ramanujan has to fight against the challenges of prejudice and racism.

The mathematician portrayed in A Beautiful Mind (2001) by Russell Crowe is John Forbes Nash Jr. (1928-2015). He made fundamental contributions to game theory, differential geometry and the study of partial differential equations. His brilliance was hampered by his long battle against paranoid schizophrenia. The film is directed by Ron Howard.

Precious (2009) directed by Lee Daniels, is a life-affirming story of an abused African-American teenager in 1980s Harlem whose life start to improve when she is offered a place at an alternative school. There Clareece ‘Precious’ Jones finds a mentor who helps her to overcome her illiteracy.

In Accident (1967) Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) is a middle-aged professor stifled by his marriage and his life as an Oxford academic. He becomes obsessed with his beautiful student Anna. His rivals for her affections are her young fiancé William (Michael York) and a more successful fellow academic Charley (Stanley Baker). The film is directed by Joseph Losey from a screenplay by playwright Harold Pinter.

Stalky & Co, is a six part BBC TV (1982) series set in the late 1890’s and based on the novel of the same name by Rudyard Kipling. It is set in a private boy’s school and recounts the adventures of Stalky (Robert Adie), McTurk (Robert Burbage) and Beetle (David Parfitt). The character of Beetle is said to be based on Kipling himself and Stalky & Co on his experiences as a pupil at the United Services College at Bideford, Devon. Be warned that sometimes these schoolboy’s attitudes and adventures feature revenge, hatred, violence and passion. There are copies of the novel in the Education in Literature Collection and in the Curriculum Collection.

The eponymous hero of Larry Crowne (2011) played by Tom Hanks loses his long-standing job and enrols in his local college to learn new skills.crowne He finds support from new friends and also develops a crush on his teacher (Julia Roberts). Tom Hanks also directs the film.

Talented violinist Laerte (Lazaro Ramos) fails to gain a place in the renowned Sao Paulo Symphonic Orchestra. Instead he has to teach music in a public school in Heliopolis, the biggest and most violent slum of Brazil. Gradually Laerte is able to gain the community’s trust through the transforming power of music. The Violin Teacher (Tudo que aprendemos juntos), directed by Sergio Machado, was the winner of the Best Brazilian Feature Film at the Sao Paulo International Film Festival 2015. In Portuguese with English subtitles.

Blackboards (2000) is an unusual film from Iran whose director is a young woman Samira Makhmalbaf. In the film a group of itinerate teachers wander the countryside near the border with Iraq looking for students.blackboards They carry their blackboards with them and find many uses for them- as a cover from gunfire, shelter from the weather or even as a stretcher. The teachers are eager to impart knowledge but find very few students. In Kurdish with English subtitles. It won the Prix du Jury at the Cannes Film Festival 2000.

Notte prima degli esami (Night before the exams) (2006) is an Italian teen comedy film about the adventures of Luca and his friends as they prepare for the esami di maturita (the Italian high school final exam). It is set in Rome during 1989 and features music by Europe, Duran Duran, Cecchetto and other popular 1980s bands.

The Education in Literature Collection contains novels ,plays, autobiographies ,poetry and DVDs which explores the educational experience at all levels and from the perspective of both pupil and teacher from many countries. The collection is shelved at the back of the Library Teaching Room on the 4th Floor of the UCL IOE Newsam Library and Archives.

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