Universiteit Leiden

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‘Language is part of your identity; we need to teach children this from an early age’

Language is omnipresent: when you talk, app or meet in Teams. Understanding how we communicate with one another and what communication does to us is essential. In her inaugural lecture, Nivja de Jong will call to redress the balance in society − in terms of both prestige and money − between the sciences and the humanities.

If it were up to Professor of Second Language Acquisition and Pedagogy Nivja de Jong, different types of research and teaching would receive equal recognition. ‘Unfortunately, the balance is skewed in our society. At secondary school already, the Culture and Society profile is seen as a last resort: you choose it if you can’t do any of the rest. When as far as I am concerned it is an equally important and challenging profile.

‘The humanities are worth just as much as other sciences’

‘To give an example: a techie can develop Twitter or X or AI tools for communication but it’s equally important that we understand how we communicate with those tools. Another example is the equal importance of developing vaccines and communicating about them. Humanities are − in terms of both money and prestige − worth just as much as other sciences. I think the Executive Board should be more mindful of that.’

Fascination with second-language acquisition from an early age

De Jong’s fascination with language in general and learning a second language in particular developed early in her academic career. ‘I was captivated by linguistics and then specifically the real-time processes that have to take place in the brain to speak a language.’ All the branches of linguistics come together in her chair at Leiden University: language as a structural, cognitive and social phenomenon.

‘Second language acquisition and pedagogy: naturally interdisciplinary’ is the title of her inaugural lecture on 8 March. The word ‘naturally’ can be read in two ways here. That is intentional, De Jong explains. ‘Language pedagogy in particular is interdisciplinary because it brings together linguistics and the other educational sciences. But there’s also the other meaning. The positive: naturally as in of course it’s interdisciplinary. It’s good and essential to work across disciplines.’

On the brink of more interdisciplinary collaboration.

In her inaugural lecture, De Jong will stress how we are on the brink of even more interdisciplinary research. ‘I’m looking forward to bringing all those worlds together on 8 March. I’m obviously not going to achieve that in 45 minutes but it’s the perfect moment to mark this.’ 

This collaboration is needed because much of the research in De Jong’s discipline is still about language proficiency. ‘Then you squash language. Language is part of your identity. It’s linked to your emotions and culture.’ This broad take on language is already acknowledged in the reform of secondary education. ‘Soon your school-leaving examination will be not only about your French proficiency but also about how you have learned about language as a phenomenon and French-speaking cultures. There isn’t much research into how to teach that, so it’s important that second-language pedagogy works with disciplines that understand language as content, such as linguistics, but also as culture, such as media, literature and history.’

The ultimate goal is for a fascination with language to begin at secondary school already. ‘That you manage to get pupils to find language interesting as a phenomenon. That they understand it is an aspect of identity and which culture is part of that and that language always plays a role. If we achieve that, then we have come full circle.’

Text: Margriet van der Zee
Photo: Unsplash

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