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Public events


Festival of Ideas

17-30 October 2016

Bookings open on Monday 26 September


Here's a round-up of the talks and activities relating to language sciences.


Monday 17 October

Stone Paper Cloud

From 17-27 October. For times refer to the Festival of Ideas programme.

Computer Laboratory, William Gates Building, JJ Thomson Avenue, CB3 OFD

An Assyrian clay tablet ‘discovered’ through the portal of its digital namesake is missing. Artist and festival award-winner Sally Stenton has enlisted help from Cambridge archaeologists and computer scientists in her search for its temporal, spatial and virtual whereabouts.

Artwork created in association with Professor Ann Copestake and Dr Augusta McMahon

Part of Art Language Location


Tuesday 18 October

Do tests help or hinder learning?

Cambridge Assessment Headquarters, Group Archives Room, 1 Hills Road, CB1 2EU

Examinations are often dreaded by students and cause stress for parents. Shouldn’t more time and weight be given to teaching and learning rather than on assessment? Over the many years it has been delivering assessments, and as part of its work with ministries of education, Cambridge English Language Assessment conducts impact studies to determine the impact of exams on learners and learning. In this session, we look at some of the evidence and discuss ways that exams can help and hinder learning. Presented by Gad Lim, Principal Research Manager.


Wednesday 19 October

Migration and language: ancient perspectives

St. John's College Old Divinity School, All Saints Passage, CB2 1TP


Classicist James Clackson discusses what we can learn from the ancient Romans and Greeks about the impact of migration on language. How is this relevant to contemporary concerns about immigration and language change?


Friday 21 October

The MML Annual Lecture: Language as a tool for a foreign correspondent

Faculty of Law, 10 West Road, CB3 9DZ


Former BBC foreign correspondent, and new Master of Peterhouse College, Bridget Kendall draws on 30 years’ experience in the field to discuss how language skills remain a critical weapon in a foreign correspondent’s toolbox, to delve deep into another country’s politics and culture, secure access to top decision makers, develop empathy and stay safe in tricky situations.

In the old TV series Star Trek, the space voyagers of the Starship Enterprise were rarely at a loss when it came to communicating with strangers. Whatever planet they beamed down onto, they would switch on a universal translator and by the magic of clever technology, speak fluently to any aliens they found. Now science fiction looks like becoming reality. Instead of leafing through a dictionary, an English speaking tourist in Budapest or Tokyo can ask a local for basic directions or make sense of a menu with the help of a translation app. School children can chat on Skype with pen pals on different continents, each speaking their own language, translated by machine.

So in this brave new world, does investing the effort in mastering a foreign language make sense? Very definitely yes, says former BBC foreign correspondent  Bridget Kendall. In this year's 2016 Annual Lecture for the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages she draws on thirty years' experience in the field to describe how language skills still remain a critical weapon in a foreign correspondent’s toolbox; to delve deep into another country’s politics and culture, secure access to top decision makers, develop empathy and, in tricky situations, to stay safe.


Saturday 22 October 

Language, movement and migration


Room S1, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, CB3 9DT

Translator and literary critic Ángel Gurría-Quintana talks about the challenges of translating into English Dulce Maria Cardoso’s The Return, an award-winning novel about the white colonists forced to flee Angola after its independence from Portugal.

In the summer of 1975, in the bloody run-up to the independence of Portugal's African colonies, half a million mostly white colonists were forced to flee Angola and Mozambique and resettle in Portugal. They were called 'os retornados' (the returnees), though most had not been born, and hadn't ever set foot, in the 'motherland'.

Dulce Maria Cardoso's partly autobiographical novel tells the story of one of those returnees, teenage Rui, as he comes to terms with the harsh realities of becoming a forced migrant in a country that doesn't want him, while grappling with the experiences of coming of age.

In his talk, supported by CRASSH and Cambridge Conversations in Translation, literary critic and journalist Ángel Gurría-Quintana will discuss some of the challenges posed by the translation of a novel that reflects its characters’ geographical uprootedness and linguistic hybridity.

A taste of Latin


Museum of Classical Archaeology, Sidgwick Avenue, CB3 9DA

Have you ever wanted to learn Latin? Join Dr Charlie Weiss as he brings the language to life in this taster session aimed at people who have learnt little or no Latin before.

For ages 14+.

**Language Detectives, 11.00am-4.00pm**

Faculty of English, 9 West Road CB3 9DP

Drop-in activities, 10-16, Rooms GR06/07; Talks Room GR05

Join us for a day of exploring language and languages. From language in the mind, to language on the move, and language and machines. Drop-in or stay for a talk!

Languages in the mind: What’s going on in our heads when we talk? Try your hand at a psycholinguistic experiment!

Lingquiztics: The return of the popular family quizzes - linguistics style!

Multilingual Cambridge: Contribute your own language data to our language map, and find out more about the languages you can see and hear around Cambridge.

Neurons vs neural nets: Compete against deep learning models trained for linguistic tasks to see who triumphs!

The sounds of speech: How do we make sounds? Explore the wonderful world of phonetics!

Talks, GR05
11-12 'Speak, friend, and enter': Tolkien as a gateway to linguistics (age 12+)
The fantasy languages of renowned author (and professional linguist) JRR Tolkien are used as a starting point for an exploration of the exciting world of language in real life.

12.00-13.00 Rumours, Diseases and Drugs: Tackling Textual Data for Knowledge Discovery in Health (age 12+)
This talk explores the wealth of textual ‘big data’ about our health in social media, news and articles and how computational linguists extract patterns to help make new scientific discoveries.

14.00-15.00 Talking heads: short talks on linguistics (age 14+)

  • Different languages, different selves? A look at the recurring idea that Japanese (and other Asian) people have different concepts of ‘self’ from Westerners due to linguistic differences. Are the stereotypes really true?
  • A piece of cake? How do children learn to comprehend idioms, especially if they are on the autistic spectrum?
  • Event and its aspects How do different languages talk about events with their verbs?

15.00-16.00 The end of English dialects? (age 12+)
Do they still pronounce their 'arrs' in Cornwall and call splinters 'shivers' in Norfolk? We use a smartphone app to map the changing English dialects from the 1950s to 2016.

Taster session in modern Greek


Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages, Sidgwick Avenue, CB3 9DA

Don’t get lost for words in Greece! Join Dr Regina Karousou-Fokas for this enjoyable and welcoming introduction to the Modern Greek language where you will have the opportunity to learn about the language and develop basic language skills. By the end of the session you will even be able to write your name and greet Greeks in their native language.

This event is suitable for absolute beginners, no prior knowledge of Greek is necessary but a passion for learning languages will help!

Dr Regina Karousou-Fokas is an Affiliated Lecturer at the University of Cambridge teaching Modern Greek Language and Linguistics in the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages. She has been involved with teaching Greek as a foreign language in the community since 2004 and at all levels in tertiary education since 2006.

Can emotions travel from one language to another?


Little Hall, Sidgwick Site

Edward Sapir, the influential American anthropologist and linguist affirmed that 'the worlds in which different societies live are distinct worlds, not merely the same worlds with different labels attached'. If this is the case then how can we communicate at all across languages? The Russian language in particular has resources for expressing emotions that English does not share. How do the translators cope?

Natasha Franklin graduated from the University of Voronezh, Russia. She is Senior Language Teaching Officer in the Department of Slavonic Studies, having previously worked as Lector of Russian at the University of Oxford. She teaches and examines Russian language at all levels, and her particular is language acquisition through translation into the target language.

Artificial intelligence: its future and ours


McCrum Lecture Theatre, Corpus Christi College, CB2 1RH

Join an expert panel comprising John Wyatt, the Faraday Institute; Abigail Sellen, Microsoft Research Cambridge; Adrian Weller, machine learning researcher; Margaret Boden, cognitive scientist; and Jaan Tallinn, founding engineer of Skype and co-founder of the Future of Life Institute, answer questions from the audience on the implications of artificial intelligence.

This will be an interactive event: you will be able to interact with the panel through social media apps as well as participating in a digital survey exploring your opinion at the end of the panel. We also hope to screen a short documentary film on AI and robots currently being made by Dr Beth Singler of the Faraday Institute and Dr Ewan Smith of Pharmacology, as a part of the Wellcome Trust/Cambridge Shorts scheme: ‘Could, and Should Robots Feel Pain?’, although we intend for the panel to consider many different topics related to Artificial Intelligence.


Sunday 23 October

Talk with your hands: communicating across the sensory spectrum

Espresso Library, 210 East Road, CB1 1BG: From 23 October - 7 November. See online programme for list of times.

Speech and sign language are often wrongly assumed to be directly translatable. By combining innovative graphic overlays, interviews with recognised scientists and perspectives from the deaf and blind communities, this film reveals and makes visual the subtleties and diversity embedded in our everyday communication.

This special multi-channel, exhibition edit of the film is designed to be fully accessible to the deaf and blind communities whilst offering new sensory insights to those who are both hearing and sighted. The project is a collaboration between neuroscientist Craig Pearson, linguist Julio Song, film-maker Toby Smith and is catalysed by the Wellcome Trust and Cambridge University. 


Wednesday 26 October

Vikings in your vocabulary: how Old Norse words moved in


Faculty of English, 9 West Road, CB3 9DP

Richard Dance uncovers the hundreds of words that the Vikings gave to English — from the basic and everyday to the rich vocabulary of dialects and medieval poems.


Thursday 27 October

The effects of profound early deprivation on brain and behavioural development

6.00-7.00 pm

Bateman Auditorium, Gonville & Caius College, Trinity Street, CB2 1TA

In this talk, Professor Charles A. Nelson, Harvard University, discusses what happens to children whose experience after birth deviates from the norm; specifically, infants who experience profound early neglect. In the Bucharest Early Intervention Project three groups of Romanian children are being studied: infants abandoned to institutions and who remain in institutional care; infants abandoned to institutions but then placed in high quality foster care; and infants who have never been institutionalized. These three groups have been studied for the past 16 years and in this talk he discusses the findings from a variety of domains (including but not limited to IQ, attachment, and brain development). This work will be considered within the broader context of the 140 million parentless children around the world, 8 million of whom are being raised in institutional settings.

Non-bookable. A number of tickets will be available on the door on a first-come basis.

JPG RGB Small with BorderSupported by the Economic and Social Research Council.


Saturday 29 October

Bilingualism, literacy and cognition


Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, CB1 1PT

Join Cambridge Bilingualism Network for a discussion on literacy for bilingual children and the emerging evidence on bilingual cognitive advantages with Roberto Filippi (Anglia Ruskin University) and Ianthi Tsimpli (University of Cambridge). Plus, Wendy Bennett (University of Cambridge) will talk about an exciting new project on multilingualism in UK and beyond.

Speak like a Viking


Faculty of English, Room GR05, 9 West Road, CB3 9DP

Brittany Schorn charts the course of the Vikings through English words that we still use today, and helps you pick up a little Old Norse along the way.


Talks from previous Festival of Ideas


Professor Usha Goswami (Centre for Neuroscience in Education) presents research on dyslexia (starts 26 minutes in).



Dr Claire Dembry of Cambridge University Press and Robbie Love (Lancaster University) present fascinating insights from a new project to compile a publicly-accessible database of spoken British English. How has British English changed since the last time a similar project was carried out in the 1990s?  Find out how you can get involved by contributing recordings to the project.




For more audio recordings from this year's Festival, visit