Like languages? Then you’ll probably know that every year on 26th September, it’s European Day of Languages! Last week, some of us from uTalk went to Europe House for the European Commission’s annual event and learnt a bunch of fascinating new facts about languages from all over the world.
The event was supposed to start at six, but we were told we could arrive from five to mingle and get our hands on some free goodies—pens, badges, you name it! After a brief detour caused by a closed street for filming (some period piece by the looks of it!), we made it to Europe House with, thankfully, plenty of time to spare.
It’s at Europe House that the European Commission holds most of its events, including one for European Day of Languages every year. In 2018, the event centred around indigenous languages of the UK, but this year was a little different.
We grabbed our swag and found our seats to wait for the first talk, from Dr Mandana Seyfeddinipur, the director of the SOAS World Language Institute, to begin.
Her talk was on endangered languages—the current general state of them and how linguists try to record them so that even if there are no native speakers left, the language is not entirely lost. This was a very interesting talk, especially since, at uTalk, we’ve been trying especially hard of late to support and promote endangered languages. It was also an eye-opening look into the state of languages in the world today and we learnt a lot of interesting facts, like:
- A place that has more diversity of plant life will also have more diversity in the languages spoken there.
- 25% of the world’s languages have 1,000 or fewer speakers.
- Half of the world’s linguistic diversity will be lost in the next 80 years.
- There are likely around 800 languages spoken in Papua New Guinea.
- The World Federation of the Deaf lists around 300 sign languages, but we don’t actually know how many there are—and, due to an increase in cochlear implants as well as other factors, all sign languages are endangered.
She also spoke about why languages are lost—shifts from one language to another are the main cause, and there are very few cases where languages are revitalised to the point where they’re thriving again (Hebrew being the most famous exception), but there are still opportunities to awaken those ‘sleeping’ languages—for example, Cornish. Linguists are sent to try and document endangered languages, but without the support of the community speaking the language, there is, sadly, little that can be done. We did also see some interesting photos of the equipment that field linguists take with them when they go to record an endangered language—there’s a backpack full and, when they return, all the data fits on one SD card, a far cry from the tapes Dr Seyfeddinipur said she used to receive before memory cards existed!
After learning about all this, we took a break and had some food—and played the fun ‘Milk for Multilingualism’ quiz, which was a lot more difficult than it seemed at first! The game is to guess which languages are represented on 30 different milk cartons from across Europe. We didn’t manage to get all 30, but we gave it a good try!
With our break over, we all took our seats again and we were back into it. The second half of the evening focused on Romanes, the language spoken by the Roma people and we heard from three different men: Virgil Bitu, leader of the GR8 political movement and Roma activist, Professor Thomas Acton OBE, the UK’s first professor of Romani studies, and Damian Le Bas, a writer who explored his Roma heritage most recently in his book, The Stopping Places.
Virgil Bitu gave an impassioned speech about the state of the Roma people and the Romani language, which was also a great segue into Professor Acton’s introduction to Romanes. He spoke about the origins of the language—it is believed to have begun being spoken in the eleventh century—and of the stereotype of the Roma people, which is around 300 years older than the language itself!
We then went on to learn some basic Romanes phrases (‘Sar san?’ – How are you? ‘Miri anav si XX.’ – ‘My name is XX.’) and assisted Professor Acton in singing some traditional Romani folk songs (we sang the drone chorus and he sang the actual words!), all of which was a lot of fun! Plus, although Romanes looks completely different to English, it wasn’t too difficult to pronounce the new words we learnt, which was definitely a surprise.
Damian Le Bas finished up the talk—well, before the questions, anyway—by illustrating his heritage as being both English and Rom, pointing out the fact that usually, the first thing he has to tell people is that the Romani language and the Romanian language are not the same! He also talked a little about the dialect of Romanes he has learnt, as some of the phrases Virgil had been through with us were different to the ones he knew.
We finished up with a Q&A session and Paul Kaye, the European Commission’s Language Officer in London, pointed out that this was likely the last languages event that would take place at Europe House or be organised by the European Commission for European Day of Languages. Sad news, for sure—but hopefully we’ll be able to find another event to attend next year, though it seems unlikely it would be as interesting as the evening we had last week!
Did you do anything special for European Day of Languages? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter if you did—we know lots of schools had activities planned! And, if this has piqued your interest in learning a language, then check out our app: we have the 24 official EU languages, as well as 16 other European languages and, well, about 100 more on top of that!
(Plus, if you come from the blog, you might even be able to bag yourself a cheeky discount on our subscription plans!)
We hope everyone had a great European Day of Languages—we’re already looking forward to next year!