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Book of the week: the strange song of language

Listening to Lorca: a journey into language By Eric Hawkins Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research pound;15. TES Direct pound;14 (020 8324 5119)

Eric Hawkins was a young student of Spanish at Cambridge in 1935 when he took a coal boat to Spain. One night in Santander, he listened to Federico Garcia Lorca reading his ballads in his "dark, warm, disturbing, unforgettable" voice; the poems shadowed by premonitions of his own death and of liberty in Spain.

This is the most vivid moment in Eric Hawkins's lively autobiography. Hawkins is the son of a Liverpool woodcarver. His foreign-language journey began at the Liverpool Institute where, in September 1924 at the age of nine, he was taught the international phonetic alphabet.

The journey then zig-zags forward. Hawkins started learning Spanish under a brilliant teacher, Arthur Killingley, then went to Cambridge where he also read French. He thought of a career in the Foreign Office, but public-school men such as his Cambridge acquaintance, Guy Burgess, were preferred. So he became a teacher. He felt he needed a third language, so he went to Germany in the summer of 1936.

In 1938 he married Ellen, a Danish librarian, who had listened with him to Lorca in Santander. When the war came, Ellen was trapped in Denmark. He did not see her, or his daughter Anne, for six years. His experiences in action - in North Africa, where he was wounded by a mine, and in Anzio - are briefly but tellingly described.nbsp;

After the war he became a headmaster at 34 (Oldershaw grammar school, Wallasey). Later, he worked alongside Harry Re, the dynamic professor of education at the new University of York.

He believes that language "sticks" when the learner "has to grasp, or express, meaningsnbsp; personally" and pushes for "performance" of language rather than "rehearsal". He feels that Chomsky's language acquisition device, the mechanism which allows young children to acquire language rapidly, may not be available to adolescents and adults. So an analytical, grammatical approach must play a role in language-learning.

To him "the strange song" of a foreign language is vital: "As the song leads out into uncharted waters, it challenges parochialism and invites us to question, opening our hearts and minds to the real challenges of difference."

The last programme in Eric Hawkins's series, Journey into Language, is repeated on Radio 4 FM, 7.45-8.05pm tomorrow

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