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Recipes for Success in Language Learning

Gill Ragsdale first learned the value of cooking with students when she worked with refugees in Calais

It was early 2016 in the Calais Jungle camp. Shelters were few: it was cold and often wet. We had students asking to learn English and French but in no mood to learn grammar or long lists of vocabulary.

Opportunities for role plays were limited. But there was one topic that interested absolutely everyone: food.

Food and cooking have become mainstays of many refugee education projects and it’s a great topic for the English classroom more generally.

Recipes use relatively predictable and restricted vocabulary that can be easily adjusted for language level. The grammar can also be constrained to the imperative: ‘First chop the onions. Then fry them in oil.’ This creates a good opportunity to work on pronunciation, word stress and intonation using authentic materials: ‘Chop the tomatoes and add them to the onions’.

I first used cooking for language-learning while working alongside Kate McAllister with a community of male Sudanese refugees in Calais who had organised themselves around a small communal kitchen with a cooking rota on the door. It was very primitive. It was only a small garden shed with two gas burners run from a gas tank, but some great meals were cooked there, usually with very limited ingredients.

Kate planned lessons around simple French and English recipes (like Poule au Pot – poached chicken) in exchange for Sudanese recipes from our students. Recipes were presented with simple diagrams and pictures, to be annotated in English and/or French and Arabic.

“We talked. We learned. We cooked. We laughed. We ate. It was a good day.”

Cooking is also a great opportunity to take students shopping – an authentic task of buying real food. Best of all, these lessons went beyond language learning, fostering a sense of community in the class.


Language teaching through cooking has now gone high tech, with apps such as the freely available https://linguacuisine.com/.

I spoke to Paul Seedhouse, Professor of Educational and Applied Linguistics at Newcastle University, about his new Linguacuisine project, which enables students from all over the world to learn languages by exchanging recipes. How did he first get the idea?

“About eleven years ago I went to the computer science labs at the university, and they had something called the ambient kitchen, which was nothing at all to do with language learning – it was for people with dementia. The idea was that it would talk them through cooking a meal. So, when I saw that I saw immediately that this would be a very good idea to use for language teaching for two reasons.

“First, everywhere in the world there are very strong links between language, food and culture and this would then maximise those links. And second reason is that this is a very good application of task-based learning.

“It’s actually taking the principles of task-based learning and teaching out of the classroom and into the kitchen. Generally, the principles are used in the classroom and you’re not actually producing anything real, whereas in the kitchen you are producing something real and then you are eating it… and it brings in the cultural aspects of the foreign language as well.”

The app was developed with a grant from the EU and launched in October 2018. The instructions are in several European languages, while recipes can be uploaded in any one of a long list of languages. Recipes are uploaded as a series of very short videos with accompanying text and lists of ingredients and utensils.

“Breaking the task up into short steps like this makes it easier for learners to digest,” noted Paul.

I was interested to hear that Paul had involved local refugees and asylum seekers in developing the app. “This offers a two-way process, as normally refugees learn English and don’t get to do anything from their point of view.”

This also means that they can put their own recipes, from their own countries and own cultures, on the system and English speakers can learn about them and where they’ve come from.

The app can even be used in mainstream schools: “Schools could cook the recipes as part of a French or Spanish food technology lesson.”

The app is still very new, and the more recipes uploaded the better the resource will be.

Food sharing is one of the oldest social activities, and while teachers may despair at the potential mess of using food in the classroom, I recommend actually doing some real cooking and food sharing. It promotes a much needed but neglected aspect of education generally: social and emotional learning. This is not only good for the mental well-being of your students, but promotes more efficient learning: a win-win.

NEXT:  How To Cook Up an English Class

Image courtesy of KATE McALLISTER
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Gill Ragsdale
Gill Ragsdale
Gill has a PhD in Evolutionary Psychology from Cambridge, and teaches Psychology with the Open University, but also holds an RSA-Cert TEFL. Gill has taught EFL in the UK, Turkey, Egypt and to the refugees in the Calais 'Jungle' in France. She currently teaches English to refugees in the UK.
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