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It's language, Jim, but not as we know it

One university is boldly going where no teacher training course has gone before - into the Klingon world. Ann Barnes beams up for a ride.

If the BBC's new sports presenter Gary Lineker and Wimbledon's Vinny Jones could speak the same alien language they may have the following conversation: Vinny Jones: "bljeghbe'chugh vaj blHegh" (Surrender or die!) Gary Lineker: "boch ghlchraj" (Your nose is shiny.) Vinny Jones: "bljath 'e' ylmev" (Shut up!) But only die-hard Star Trek fans would immediately recognise that the language was Klingon. It certainly kept a group of PGCE modern languages students in suspense for over a week.

In most PGCE modern languages courses, students experience the role of a language learner by being taught a little of an unfamiliar language. Among the 40 or so students on the course at Warwick University this year, it was hard to find a language that no one had any knowledge of - from Arabic to Chinese, Czech and Swedish, someone had a smattering.

But, would they know any Klingon, the language spoken by the former arch enemies of the Star Trek crew? Some Trekkies claim to be fluent, but none of the students had added this talent to their application forms. Klingon, then, was the answer.

In July, Heather Ashman, head of modern languages at Rowley Regis College, Sandwell, had taught a beginners' Klingon lesson to Year 9 pupils as a part of a "space day" using Klingon dictionaries and cassettes, now on sale, to prepare the vocabulary and structures. The pupils had loved it and had been especially motivated by the "cultural" details they were given.

The Klingon experience for the student teachers, building on this idea, forms part of an introductory week where the students' awareness is raised on fundamental issues in language teaching and learning by taking part in simulations and activities.

They compare their experiences and draw out principles. Last month, the Klingon session followed on from some Gaelic and Danish, but the students were not told what language they were learning. They were taught a few basic Klingon phrases (a greeting, asking and giving names and the numbers one to five) in an active lesson, involving pairwork and role-play.

Students used masks of Gary Lineker, Barry McGuigan and even Barbara Cartland to add variety when practising giving and asking names. They took it seriously and retained the language excellently - when questioned after a week, most believed they had retained at least 80 per cent and many had been revising.

These points were discussed how meaning can be conveyed through the target language without recourse to English (hard for the teacher when there is no word for "goodbye" or "thank you"); how word-for-word translations can be confusing and may distract from the social function of a phrase (the greeting taught in the lesson literally means "What do you want?"); how the writing system may mislead learners, necessitating careful modelling and practice before the written word is introduced.

A week later, the students were intrigued as to the identity of the language and were promised that all would be revealed when a speaker would visit a session. Before this visit, they were asked to answer the following questions: What language was it or to which language family did it belong? How much of it have you retained? How did you feel during the lesson? What did you learn about language teaching and learning?

The "winner" as far as guessing the language was concerned was Icelandic (eight students gave this as a possibility), with the singer Bjork suggested as a possible visitor. Other guesses included Thai, North American Indian and Inuit.

During the lesson students were enthusiastic, but a few had been uncomfortable. Some felt not knowing the language had been motivating, as a sense of mystery was created, or, as one student put it, "You felt as if you were on a voyage of discovery."

It was encouraging that students had picked up teaching strategies, including use of visuals, humour, encouragement, and pupil involvement. Many had been practising it during the week and some had even taught it to others.

Then a speaker of the mystery language interrupted the session, greeting the students and requesting names from some of them, who responded successfully.

The reaction to the revelation that it was Klingon was a mixture of shock, groans, disbelief and, for some, embarrassment. One student in particular was worried: "What on earth am I going to tell my wife? I've been teaching her this all week."

Ann Barnes is a lecturer in modern languages (teacher education) at the University of Warwick

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