Sisters Only Language Summit: An Interview with Desta, from Languages through Music

The third Sisters Only Language Summit is taking place on 30th January 2021 and uTalk are excited to be sponsoring the event for a second time! Last July, we sat down with Desta, one of the organisers and the founder of Languages through Music to ask her about herself, her business, and what she thinks the summit is going to be like.

So, Desta, here’s our first question: how did you first get into language learning? 

I moved around a lot with my family as a child, living in Thailand, Barbados, La Côte d’Ivoire, Jordan and France before the age of ten. I had French classes from about six years old but hated it. My teachers were pretty strict; lessons never included anything fun – always grammar and tests.

Which languages have you learnt and to what kind of level?

English (mother tongue), French, Portuguese (fluent), intermediate Spanish and Dutch, basic Thai, Tigrinya (I can read but can’t speak much), Turkish and Arabic. I just started Amharic and Swahili too! 

Wow, how did you learn them?

Most of my learning has been from music, either as a fan or performer, but also: French at school and living in Brussels and Abidjan. Portuguese from a year in Brazil, working at The Theatre of the Oppressed. Spanish from trips to Spain, Cuba and Colombia. Dutch from living in Brussels and an intensive course ages ago. Thai – I was born in Bangkok, my mum is fluent and I take lessons twice a week. Tigrinya, my father is Eritrean and I’ve taken lessons on and off for years. Turkish – I adore Istanbul and have spent a lot of time there, even did backing vocals for a Turkish popstar – once you learn 20 songs in any language I feel you have a lot to get by on. I did a one month intensive course at a school there too. I am currently taking Arabic lessons (have done, on and off, for years!) and also lived in Jordan as a kid, still close with childhood best buddies from there.

So, which one is your favourite?

Probably Portuguese! It was the easiest for me to learn and Brazilians often tell me I speak it well (because they are just generous and lovely like that!). I had a great time learning it because Lusophone music is brilliant (Brazil! Cabo Verde! Angola!) and living in Rio de Janeiro for a year. It’s a beautiful sound! and it was the very first Language through Music workshop I offered.

Have any of your hobbies helped you to learn languages better, and how?

It was really when I found French music I liked when I was a teenager (Saian Supa Crew!) that I really started appreciating the language and wanting to learn it. I then became a professional musician, and doing backing vocals for artists who spoke different languages really helped me language-wise too. Since then I’ve discovered that music not only makes it a lot easier and enjoyable to learn a language, but it is really effective, which is why I started Languages through Music.

What else made you want to start Languages through Music?

They’re my two favourite things! And they tie in nicely with my other favourite things, like travel and learning about history and different cultures.

What was it like when you began?

I started just with Portuguese, in London in 2014. I ran my first workshops at Memrise and Language Studies International (Goodge Street). It was really great to see the classes appealing to different kinds of learners (including people who didn’t consider themselves musical at all, who didn’t particularly enjoy singing), and to people who felt left out of traditional language classes at schools. I had feedback from students with dyslexia who said it made them feel included, since they could listen to the songs, watch the music videos and get to know the language without having to just read all the time.

I guess I was surprised it wasn’t easier to find language classes that really focused on learning through music, since they seem like such a natural combination to me. I really enjoyed putting together workshops for festivals, like Africa Utopia (Southbank Centre) and Afropolitan (BOZAR, Brussels), putting language learning into a more relevant and exciting context, and learning from other teachers and artists. Now I teach online a lot more than in person, and have created or collaborated on lots of different resources for a wide range of languages.

Why do you think languages and music work so well together?

Songs tell stories, and humans learn best through stories, without a doubt. Music taps into our emotions and our memory like nothing else. It’s also easy – we all have YouTube, Spotify… we can put together a great playlist to enjoy and slowly start breaking down the keywords and phrases of each song. Music is accessible to everyone, and, much like language, is a portal to different countries and cultures.

What’s your best tip – music-related or not – for someone who wants to start learning a new language?

Besides music, I really like watching films in the target language with the subtitles in the target language too (there’s a useful Language Learning with Netflix extension). I also think writing a little bit each day helps, and finding the right apps/websites/communities to connect with. Sometimes I prefer different apps, depending on the language! I love that uTalk has such a wide range of language though, that is what first attracted me to it.

Now, onto the Sisters Only Language Summit. It’s being organised by yourself (of course!), Shahidah of Black Girls Learn Languages, Tamara of Learn Spanish con Salsa, and LeDonna of Discovering Language. What originally brought you all together? How did you find each other?

Yes! I am really excited about the second event on July 25th. To be honest I don’t remember how we first connected – just destiny haha. I was part of Shahidah’s online community Black Girls Learn Languages, and then I connected with Tamara since we both teach through music. LeDonna I think met Tamara at LangFest in Montreal. And the rest is social media connecting/Zoom history! I can’t wait to meet them in real life!

Why did you all come together to organise the summit?

We’ve been speaking since late 2018, catching up once or twice a month on life and languages! From the beginning we talked about how great it would be to have an event for and by Black women, since we never felt really represented or heard at any of the international language events. Then since we were all in lockdown, we figured it might be the time to try an online event! Eventually though, our dream is to have an in-person event, of course!

How did the first one go?

The first event was awesome – emotional! We had four workshops, three amazing panelists for a talk, and breakout rooms for people to practice various languages. The chat and the playlist during each break were great, it felt like a party full of friends from Milwaukee to Tokyo!

What are you hoping will be the outcome of this summit and what are you all aiming for long-term?

I am hoping for it to continue growing as a space to feature and celebrate Black womxn who are passionate about languages. It will be a space to connect, share, inspire, discuss and learn in a safe and uplifting environment created by and for Black womxn. Long-term I would love to see SOLS travel to different cities each year…COVID-19 allowing!

How can non-Black women or people not of African descent support the summit?

We are happy to see many people in the polyglot community have been realising the lack of diversity in the language learning event world- posting about it and making more of an effort to amplify Black voices, invite Black speakers to their events, etcetera. Shout out to @lindsaydoeslanguages, @multilingualmarissa and @kerstin_fluent!

Non-Black womxn can:

1) Sponsor a student to attend by buying a ticket

2) Feature Black womxn polyglots and ‘langpreneurs’ on their platform

3) Partner with Black womxn with language learning platforms (for example, on joint product promotions/affiliate relationships, etc)

Your support is appreciated! We are really happy to have uTalk as a partner for our event. Thank you so much.

Thank you Desta! If you are a Black woman or a woman of African descent, then click here to get your ticket to the event. Otherwise, we hope you’ll support the Sisters Only Language Summit in one of the ways Desta mentioned above.

You can find the summit’s website here, or check out its Instagram page here.

We look forward to seeing how well the summit has gone! 

[Note: Links and introduction have been updated to reflect the January 2021 event.]

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