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National Museum of Languages to boost British multilingualism

Published 25/09/2016

The aim is to boost language skills across the country
The aim is to boost language skills across the country

Britain's first ever National Museum of Languages will soon be coming to high streets across Britain, as part of efforts to make the country multilingual.

The new pop-up museum will have a physical presence in regional centres as well as a major batch of online learning resources.

The project is part of the new MEITS (Multilingualism - Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies) project based at the University of Cambridge, and funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Regional centres will be based in shops in high streets in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Cambridge and Nottingham.

Further centres are being planned elsewhere.

Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Professor of French Philology and Linguistics at the University of Cambridge and the principal investigator of MEITS, said the museum was important to engage the wider public in languages.

She added: "When we started, we found it very surprising that there are museums for dog collars and lawnmowers, but there is no National Museum of Languages in the UK, and we thought that was a real gap.

"We wanted to plug that gap with a pop-up museum and give people a chance to reflect about questions around multilingualism, identity, and diversity, and about their own language skills."

The move has been announced to coincide with Monday's European Day of Languages.

Professor Ayres-Bennett said the MEITS project aims to instil a greater understanding of the health and social benefits of learning a language, particularly to help resolve conflict in troubled areas of the world.

She added that languages can have a role in building peace and cohesion.

One project will be introducing Irish language and culture to the protestant loyalist community, including working with former paramilitaries. "We want to show that Irish is all around them in place names, as part of their linguistic landscape, that it is rooted in their daily experiences," said Professor Ayres-Bennett.

"We also want to teach them some soft diplomatic skills in Irish to give them more confidence when negotiating in a cross-community situation.

"Language learning there is helping to build peace in what historically has been a very fractured community."

She added: "In the UK there is a widespread misconception that speaking English is enough and that monolingualism is the norm.

"In fact, more than half of the world's population speaks more than one language on a daily basis, and in the UK nearly one in five primary school pupils has a first language other than English.

"Our project aims to demonstrate the value of languages both to individuals and to society, and the importance of speaking more than one language, or being multilingual."

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