The Romance of Language

Dr Cathy Benson


What leads to successful language acquisition has long fascinated Dr Cathy Benson. Theories abound, and it probably has something to do with having a positive and open attitude, but to some extent it still remains a mystery. What is clear is that, as a teacher, Cathy has spent many years encouraging people to enjoy learning languages and cultures, approaching them with positivity and curiosity. As an applied linguist with a passion for her subject since the 1980s, she appreciates the intellectually open ethos within the language community and has been associated with the University of Edinburgh for decades, first as a student and then as a long-standing staff member.

Inspired by her former head of department, Michael Jenkins, who was closely involved with the Cara Syria Programme, and who encouraged his staff to do the same, she began volunteering in the early days of the Programme, in 2017. Seven years on, she still considers it to be “an amazing experience”. As well as delivering some Cara workshops in Istanbul, she volunteered to give weekly one-to-one English for Academic Purposes (EAP) tutorials and was partnered with Dr Fateh Shaban, a specialist in Human Geography. Since then, Cathy has also helped to widen access to other resources. She coordinates the University of Edinburgh’s doctoral writing courses, whose intended audience are the University’s own PhD students. However, she has been able to allocate a dozen places every year to Syria Programme participants on two of the online writing courses “Writing your PhD: Reviewing the Literature” and “Writing your PhD: Scientific Research”. “Although they are doctoral courses” she says, “they are equally suited to post-doctoral scholars who are engaged in writing up their research in the form of journal articles, for example. Last winter, we had to defer the places due to the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, which left so many of the Syria Programme Fellows and their families living in emergency accommodation, or even in their cars.” Cathy and her colleagues have found the Cara Fellows to be real assets to these classes, always ready to contribute their ideas, and it is always fascinating to learn about their research.

In late 2022, Dr Shaban was awarded a 2-year Cara Fellowship at the University of Kent, where he is now, lecturing and continuing with his research. He and his family seem to have settled very happily in Canterbury. He is an excellent language learner, and his English has developed to a very high level. He shares Cathy’s fascination with the nuances that can be expressed through grammar and asks very insightful questions; he also picks up idiomatic language very quickly. Over the years, their EAP meetings have become more like feedback sessions: “He might send me journal articles that he is working on, or a proposal, and I give him feedback on those, and we talk about issues that arise. I have also given feedback on his University of Kent lectures, which he rehearses with me; for example, I might comment on pronunciation, or point out where a little additional clarification is needed, but his English is now very good. The sessions are very relaxed and, I hope, productive. I have learned so much about Syria that I didn’t know before, and it feels as if he is part of the family. His lovely wife and children often come to say hello during our virtual lessons”.

She recalls that her love and appreciation of language started with her mother who, although she had studied history at university during the Second World War, was fluent in French. How was that feat accomplished? “The amount of exposure seems to be important, for example, by living in the country or by reading and listening, not only going to classes, but then you find people who have lived in a country for many years and don’t seem to be able to pick up the language. Language acquisition may still be a mystery, but probably a bigger mystery is why some people don’t seem to be able to learn other languages.” In her mother’s case, every year, she went to Paris for one week to stay with a friend …. For her mother, a week every year of speaking nothing but French was enough to retain her fluency.”

In the 1970s, after growing up in Liverpool, Cathy chose to study languages at Edinburgh University, specifically Spanish and French. She knew that she wanted to travel and, in those days, “becoming an English teacher was like a passport to travelling and working abroad. I think this is true for many of us in this profession.” On hearing about International House, a well-known language training organisation that provided her with four weeks of training in TEFL she relocated to Portugal under its auspices, working in Coimbra for four years, where she gained an R.S.A. Dip. TEFL and then in Girona, Catalonia, for two years. While she was there, she learned of the Instituto Anglo-Mexicano de Cultura, and decided to go to Mexico, where she taught all levels of English, first in Guadalajara, and then further south in the beautiful city of Puebla.

While working abroad, she began to embrace language as an academic subject, wanting to learn more about linguistic and pedagogical theory, as well as reflecting on her own experiences of language acquisition in Portugal and Spain. “I had studied Spanish, but when I lived in Portugal, I just picked up Portuguese.” She found the similarities and differences between these two romance languages intriguing and noticed how people’s attitudes towards languages and cultures influenced how they learned. So, she returned to Edinburgh’s Department of Applied Linguistics, gained an MSc in Applied Linguistics, and embarked on a PhD, researching the acquisition of second and third languages, specifically Spanish and Portuguese, the two languages in which she was most fluent. “I was working in parallel and now had children of my own. It took a long time to finish.” During her PhD studies, she spent a year at the Freie Universität in Berlin, whose language centre offered a couple of teaching places annually to Edinburgh doctoral students, where they could teach part-time with the stipend allowing them to continue their studies. The family were in Berlin when the wall came down, allowing them to witness history at first hand, but they decided to return to Scotland to provide some stability for their two young children, “to go to school and make friends and feel as if they belonged in one place”. Back in Scotland, Cathy began working at Edinburgh University.

Forty years ago, what started as the Institute for Applied Language Studies was a small offshoot of the Applied Linguistics Department: “The idea was to teach a range of languages as well as English and create a place where research in language learning could be done”. That is how it started, offering General English, EAP, and some ESP courses in Business, Medical and Legal English, as well as teacher education and professional development courses. “However, at a certain point, the University decided that we should be more linked to the University as a whole, and that our main focus should be on EAP, because of the growing number of international students.” The Institute was renamed English Language Education (ELE) and subsumed within the Centre for Open Learning, which Cathy initially considered “an odd marriage, but it’s been interesting, as we now have a wider range of colleagues.”

At any one time, up to 1000 post-graduate international students can be enrolled on pre-sessional courses, many of whom have offers for their intended programmes, but which are conditional on achieving the required English level (as measured by an internationally recognised test like IELTS) to proceed with their university study. The University now also accepts students who have taken ELE’s pre-sessional course and passed ELE’s in-house assessment, which reflects a high regard for the Centre’s expertise. According to Cathy, this also works best for the students because ELE’s assessments are more aligned with their degree programmes. “Instead of short essays, they write longer assignments, with references, and their speaking assessment involves giving a presentation and dealing with questions, which is much closer to what they will have to do when they study their respective disciplines at the University.”

Cathy likes working with an international student body, keeping her wanderlust alive. “Meeting all these students from different countries has always felt like a very good substitute for travelling even though we are no longer living abroad. The doctoral students can be from anywhere in the world, and I learn a lot about their subjects and disciplines. Working with international students is a great learning experience. Our courses are also open to local students, some of whom may have been away from academic study for some time, working in their professions, for maybe 10 years or more. They can feel just as daunted by academic writing as international students.” Cathy’s next project is to create a series of academic speaking workshops for doctoral students, as she believes oracy is something of a neglected skill. Hopefully, as with the writing courses, some of these may be useful for Cara fellows too. During the Cara Syria Programme workshops in Istanbul, Cathy was amazed by the enthusiasm and sense of humour of Syrian academics who have lost so much, as well as their interest in learning beyond their discipline, and above all their determination to rebuild their country. As we speak, Cathy’s colourful Zoom-filtered background comes into focus. Obviously, she is in Scotland, but she could be orbiting anywhere, and looking forward to what the future holds.