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Public Events

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Here's a selection of language-related talks and events presented as part of the Festival. For the full programme visit the Festival website.

Booking is open!


Wednesday 17 October

Mother Tongue Other Tongue celebration event

4:00–7:00pm * pre-book

Buckingham House, Murray Edwards College, Huntingdon Road, Cambridge CB3 ODF

A celebration of multilingual poetry, with performances of poems by young winners of the Routes into Languages East Mother Tongue Other Tongue competition. Presented by UK Slam Poetry Champion Joelle Taylor, who will also be performing some of her poems.

Thursday 18 October

The MML Annual Lecture: Multilingualism and language learning - exploring boundaries, rethinking extremes

5:00–7:00pm *pre-book

McGrath Centre, St Catherine's College, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RL

What is normal and what is extreme: knowing many languages or just one? Preserving a mother tongue or losing it? Mixing languages or keeping them apart? Thomas H Bak, University of Edinburgh, addresses these questions, integrating insights from anthropology to neuroscience.

Friday 19 October

Raiders of the secret scripts


Museum of Classical Archaeology, Sidgwick Avenue, Cambridge CB3 9DA

Crack the code and break the cipher of ancient languages, from Greek to Latin and beyond! Our objects are covered in hidden messages, concealed in their inscriptions and their unfamiliar alphabets. Grab a glass of wine and try your hand at our cryptic challenges.

Saturday 20 October

Languages: your passport to the world


Alison Richard Building, Sidgwick Site, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT

We use languages every day, probably without even thinking about it... but what can we learn from the stories that lurk beneath the surface of our common knowledge about languages? For example: which are the hardest languages to learn? Can a language ever be ‘pure’? How and why is the language we use in a text message or on social media different from the way we speak?

Explore the weird and wonderful world of languages, travelling around the different activities, receiving a stamp for each one that you visit. How many can you collect? These activities, which are perfect for late-primary/early- secondary students, include:


The human brain is history’s oldest codebreaker! Come and find out exactly how your brain helps you to learn languages. What techniques does it use to ‘break the code’?


How do we judge people based on how they speak? Do we prefer to listen to people we think sound similar to us, rather those we think sound different? Do we consider some people speak ‘better’ than others?


When translating from one language to another, can we really get across exactly the same message? Can a translation ever be ‘perfect’? How can we translate really specific expressions, names and even accents? For example, is Harry Potter still called Harry Potter in translations around the world?


Is the way we speak just the same as, or completely different from, the way we write?


Which are the hardest languages to learn? And the easiest? Does it depend on what our first language(s) is?

You might think that you only speak one language, like English; maybe, though, you know more languages than you think. Can you recognise words that are borrowed from other languages?


From really common languages, to much rarer ones, do you know how many languages there are in the world? Are some in danger of dying out? Why might that be?

Exploring the architecture of political concepts on social media


Alison Richard Building, Sidgwick Site, 7 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DT

Recently, lexicographers have begun to use computational methods to get a picture of a word’s meaning through its use. This is straightforward for concrete everyday objects and actions, but abstract political and social concepts have complex meanings that often differ according to the perspective or ideology of those using them. Talk by members of the Concept Lab, a linguistics research group.


Little Hall, Sidgwick Site, Cambridge CB3 9DA

Caroline Egan examines the relationship between language and empire through grammars of Amerindian languages produced in the early modern period.

Tuesday 23 October & Wednesday 24 October 

Reading a cuneiform inscription


Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, Downing Street, Cambridge CB2 3DZ

Decipher the mysterious cuneiform signs and discover the enigmatic Sumerian language. Find out how to read a 4000-year-old inscription.

Wednesday 24 October

The long and the sort of it: words and their extremities


Room GR06/07, Faculty of English, Sidgwick Site, 9 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DP

Discover the early languages of medieval Britain and Ireland through their rich and colourful vocabularies – long words, short words and perhaps some words for things you weren’t expecting!

Thursday 25 October

Hero(ines) for my daughters


Room G.19, Museum of Classical Archaeology, Sidgwick Avenue, CB3 9DA

Patrick James tells the story of the life and legacy of Agnes and Margaret Smith, the ‘Sisters of Sinai’, known for their discovery of the earliest translation of the New Testament gospels into Syriac. Find out how they were brought up by their widowed father to be pioneers among philologers and linguists.


Saturday 27 October

What makes a good joke good?

2:00-2.45pm & 3:00-3:45pm *pre-book

Anglia Ruskin University, East Road, Cambridge CB1 1PT

In this (hopefully) amusing workshop, Michelle Sheehan and Vahid Parvaresh, from the linguistics section at Anglia Ruskin University, explore the science of what makes jokes funny. Starting with English, they dissect some award-winning jokes to see what makes them so good. They also review some groan-inducing ‘Dad jokes’ to see why exactly they provoke this kind of reaction in us. By the end of the session, you will leave the room with your sides split and a deep linguistic understanding of the science of English humour. Michelle and Vahid also review some jokes from different languages and cultures in an attempt to explain the famous adage that jokes just don’t translate.

Language skills for the 21st century

2:00-5:00pm *pre-book 

Room GR06, English Faculty Building, Sidgwick Site, 9 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DP

How can we inspire love for languages in young people and nurture strong linguists for our globalised world? Academics from linguistics, education and modern languages exchange ideas with teachers, parents and pupils in an afternoon of talks followed by an open discussion.

CBN at FoI