On the 31st March, Professor Janice Carruthers was kind enough to give Christina Horvath and myself some time out of her schedule. Late on a Friday afternoon in Cardiff, we sat down to talk about collaboration, co-production and the potential for partnership working in Modern Languages research.
Janice is an investigator on one of the recently established Open-World Research Initiative (OWRI) grants. As AHRC Leadership Fellow for Modern Languages, however, she also has the opportunity to get a wide-ranging view of the state of play in the discipline across the UK.
To take OWRI first. These four large (£4m for each) projects are centred on Modern Languages but are fundamentally interdisciplinary and carried out in collaboration with a huge raft of non-university partners. These range from local schools and sixth form colleges, to NGOs such as the Scottish Refugee Council, from community interpreters to global publishing houses working on bilingual dictionaries, from GCHQ to city and county councils. The projects also include a wide range of arts practitioners including writers, theatre- and filmmakers, musicians, and exhibition designers who will be taking the experience of language research into new creative dimensions.
A key goal for the OWRI projects is to shift the perspective of Modern Languages as an “extra”. They aim to show not only how linguistic diversity is already embedded in everyday life in the UK, but also how essential languages are for the UK’s relationships with the rest of the world. The partnership working in OWRI is an essential part of demonstrating of how and where language skills and research meet real-world contexts.
In England, however, these projects have a lot of ground to cover both in terms of shifting the public perception of language skills, and in relation to educational policy. Since 2004 it has no longer been compulsory to take a language at GCSE level and there are clear indications of falling numbers in both schools and universities. In England funding was not renewed for the popular ‘Routes into Languages‘ programme after July 2016. As a result the number of opportunities for young people in England to discover other languages and cultures are shrinking. Although these problems are found across the UK, there are some positive signs in Scotland and Wales, both of which have strong language policies. In Scotland in particular, there is a much a closer relationship between schools, local authorities and the civil service around foreign language-learning, Janice explained.
The question of the role of language in Britain’s economic development is becoming pressing. Janice pointed us towards the British Academy’s project on language skills for employability, trade and business: Born Global. The project’s 2016 report cites other surveys that indicate a mounting crisis in British language skills. Exporters claim that both language and cultural barriers are inhibiting them from overseas sales (1). 15% of employers found language skills difficult to obtain in job applicants (2). 60% of employers found that the modern language skills were a quality lacking in school leavers (3).
There is also, however a pressing need for a better appreciation of the value of languages in civil society. 19% of primary school children in the UK have a first language other than English. A recent blog post from one of the OWRI projects Creative Multilingualism reported on the intervention in an Oxford school by a Polish poet Wioletta Greg. For many children, this event was the first time they had heard their first language spoken in school, as a volunteer described: “It was fascinating and moving to witness their sudden realisation that Polish could be a viable and valuable medium of creative expression, and not just a hidden language that’s never spoken or heard in a classroom.” In our interview, Janice also recounted the value that modern languages researchers can bring to exploring community cultures in politically contentious fields such as Northern Ireland.
Building on our conversation with Janice, as part of Bridging the Gap Christina Horvath will be organising a day workshop which showcases and interrogates the existing collaborative research by modern language researchers in the GW4 group. It is intended that this can provide the basis for a stronger network across the four departments. It may even be the start of a local ‘Great West’ strategy for languages that takes up one of Born Global‘s key recommendations: that universities continue to carry out the work of Routes into Language by promoting the value of learning languages within their regions (4). The vibrancy and variety of co-produced research already underway in the GW4 universities certainly has the potential to inspire young people, and to create a civic culture across the Great West that celebrates Modern Languages as a gateway to global participation.
- (1) Business is Good for Britain (2013). London: British Chambers of Commerce. Cited in British Academy (2014). About Born Global. London: British Academy.
- (2) UKCES Employer Skills Survey: UK Results. Evidence Report (2015). British Academy (2014). About Born Global. London: British Academy.
- (3) Inspiring Growth (2015). CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey British Academy (2014). About Born Global. London: British Academy.
- (4) British Academy. (2016). Born global: Implications for higher education. London: British Academy.