By Caroline Wood
Saturday 14th April 2018, Weston Park Museum
Over 120 different languages are said to be spoken in Sheffield – a fact that reflects the diverse mix of cultures and communities that makes up our city. This can make it challenging to develop a scientific culture that feels inclusive for everyone. As Estrella Luna-Diez, BSA Sheffield volunteer and president of the Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK, explained: “It is known that children who are educated in a second language are four times less likely to pick up science modules in secondary school and therefore end up having a scientific career.” With this in mind, and inspired by watching her son grow up in a bilingual household, she developed the idea for ‘The Science of Multilingualism’. The aim was to celebrate the linguistic diversity of Sheffield whilst exploring the latest research into how speaking foreign tongues develops our brains.
The venue, appropriately, was Weston Park Museum, whose exhibits already showcase Sheffield’s rich cultural tapestry. As soon as visiting families arrived through the door, we gave them a crossword quiz designed by BSA volunteer Shauni McGregor. The answers (all foreign language words such as the Malay word for ‘statue’) had been hidden next to artefacts that described the word and the kids were very enthusiastic in finding them all. Once they had completed the quiz, they then headed upstairs to claim their prizes – only to find even more fun things to do!
We had taken over both of the museum’s upstairs Discovery Rooms and packed them with activities. Our visitors could take part in a real scientific experiment led by Dr Adnane Ez-zizi from the Out of Our Minds group at the University of Sheffield’s School of Languages and Cultures. “We asked people to do a memory task twice, rehearsing a list of items in their second language the first time and the second time in their native language” he said. “The idea was to show them that working memory performance depends on language since they tend to memorise things better when rehearsing with their first language.” For this task, both native English and native non-English speakers tend to score 90-95% correct answers in their native tongue. Curiously though, when rehearsing the items in their second language, the scores drop to 60% for native English speakers but only 90% in native non-English speakers. “This is probably because most of our non-English participants use English, their second language, on a daily basis. Whereas the native English participants have fewer opportunities to practice their second language, and hence are less fluent than non-English participants in their second language” Adnane explained.
Because context-based learning can be a very effective way of learning foreign languages, we had a range of activity stands where participants could try simple science experiments conducted either in Spanish, Bulgarian, Chinese or Arabic. So when Adnane was not testing people’s memories, he was on the Arabic stand performing simple demonstrations of physics using household items such as oranges, water bottles and balloons. We were also fortunate to be joined by volunteers from the Sheffield Confucius Institute whose activities explored the development of the Chinese printing industry and the engineering principles that allow us to build large structures such as overseas bridges.
At the Spanish activity stand, Margarita Segovia Roldán, who at the time of the event was working as a Postdoctoral Research Associate at Sheffield Institute for Translational Neuroscience (SITraN), had brought along some of the subjects of her own research. “We decided to use neuroscience as a topic to teach Spanish – after all, Professor Ramon y Cajal, the ‘father of neuroscience’, was the first Spanish scientist to win a Nobel Prize” she said. “Our visitors viewed brain cell samples under the microscope and learnt how to name them in Spanish. Many people were very impressed by the fact that most of the words are written very similar in English and Spanish!” There were more microscopes at the Bulgarian activity stand too, overseen by Svet Tzokov (who manages the Electron Microscopy Facility at the University of Sheffield). “At the Bulgarian stand we were observing the cells in an onion peel” he said. “The aim was to encourage children to try and look in a more scientific way at things at home, and at the same time for them to learn a little bit about the living cell and its structure. Some of the kids were really fascinated and wouldn’t go away!”
Because learning languages can be hard work, we had also laid out a spread of international delicacies hailing from the native countries of our featured languages. From Chinese spicy bean curd to Spanish chorizo and Bulgarian cheeses – everyone found something new to try!
With so much going on, it had the potential for organised chaos but it all came together thanks to Estrella’s vision and organisational mastery. “I believe the event was a complete success and met all our objectives” she said. “We taught people about the benefits of learning a second language including how your brain benefits from it. It was brilliant to see children from different countries and backgrounds engaging with scientists and having so much fun while learning!” The feedback forms confirmed this, with 100% of the respondents finding the event either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’. The event may have only lasted a day, but we hope we inspired many people to have a lifelong love of languages.
With thanks to all the volunteers who helped on the day: Estrella Luna-Diez, Antonio de la Vega de Leon, Margarita Segovia Roldán, Svet Tzokov, Nadeja Tzokova, Villy Hristeva, Shauni McGregor, Rebecca Hollely, Ellen Bradley, Alex Wolfe, Caroline Wood, Xinqun Hu,Feng Ju, Lizhe Wang, Junmin Xiao, Xi Liu, Adnane Ez-zizi, Ahmed MAA Elsheikh and Ahmed MME Azab.
This event was supported by grants from The Society of Spanish Researchers in the UK; the British Science Association and the Paisii Hilendarski University of Plovdiv. We would also like to thank Weston Park Museum for accommodating us and the Goethe Institut for providing badges for our goody bags.
To view more photographs from this event, check out the photo gallery on our Facebook page here.
About the Author
Caroline Wood is a PhD student studying the interactions between parasitic weeds and their hosts at the University of Sheffield. She first became involved with BSA Sheffield when she went along to the launch meeting ‘out of curiosity’ and has been involved in a number of events since. When she isn’t busy with her PhD or the BSA she is trying to learn French – partly inspired by the clear benefits languages have for the brain! She blogs at http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/ and you can also follow her on Twitter @sciencedestiny