Yaron Matras

Yaron Matras

Professor of Linguistics, The University of Manchester (Leader of the Multilingual Communities Strand, and Founder of the Multilingual Manchester Research Unit)

In its call for an Open World Research Initiative (OWRI), the AHRC invited proposals for a “new and exciting vision for languages research in response to the challenges and opportunities presented by a globalised research environment and multi-lingual world”. The scheme aims to promote engagement with Modern Languages, broadly defined, and so implicitly at least to counteract what is perceived as an alarming decline in the interest and commitment of higher education institutions in the UK toward the study of Modern Languages. Explicitly, OWRI encourages the intertwining of research with public engagement, a theme that all four consortia that won grants in the competition – those led by Cambridge, Oxford, King’s College and Manchester – have built into their programmes in a variety of ways. There is little doubt that, irrespective of the degree to which the scheme will be successful in reversing or even halting the continuing decline of Modern Languages uptake, it will have instigated a trend to re-shape attitudes and approaches to policy impact and public engagement within the Modern Languages community; that is, in my opinion, a very good thing, not only in the instrumental sense of helping Modern Languages academics reflect on how to build impact into their research (and thereby avoid being seen as pariahs, within their institutions, who are unable to demonstrate impact), but also in a strategic and conceptual sense: The link acknowledges that the decline of Modern Languages is not a problem that starts with teaching or research, or even with student numbers, but one that relates to societal attitudes toward language heritage and language skills, and that in turn teaching and research have a responsibility to help shape such attitudes and to ensure that society appreciates the benefits of language diversity and the cultural diversity that it represents.

Whilst the winners of the OWRI awards have understandably tended to praise the scheme for its potential to inject some new vitality into the Modern Languages environment, some of those who have remained on its fringe but still very much in the centre of organisational efforts to promote Modern Languages have articulated critical reflections and even concerns: Does the concentration of the scheme’s funds in just four centres mirror or indeed reinforce the trend toward concentrating Modern Languages disciplines in just a small number of the country’s universities? Does it strengthen the view of languages as an elitist indulgence? Does it even limit the scheme’s ability to address the causes for the decline in student numbers, student quality, and thereby sustainability of Modern Languages that are affecting most other higher education institutions in the country (though not necessarily all of those that are award-winners)?

OWRI’s reference to the “multi-lingual world” in the context of globalisation can certainly be interpreted as wide in scope and remit. Unlike other academic initiatives of recent years, it does not focus on the benefits of languages for diplomats and CEOs, nor does it necessarily define multilingualism as the stacking of the respective single language expertise of individual colleagues in a collaborative venture. Instead, it can and should be taken to include the repertoires and everyday practices of what we have recently come to refer to as “ordinary working people”. That language is an issue of public debate and public interest can easily be read off the pages of news bulletins of the past year, starting with Nigel Farage’s false claim that there are “entire areas in our cities where nobody speaks English” (the reality is that there are large areas where many people speak many languages, including English), and on to Arlene Foster’s polemical response to requests for an Irish Language Act saying that “more people speak Polish than Irish” and subsequently demanding, though merely as a form of counter-attack, a Language Act for Ulster Scots (instead of offering support for a Minority Languages Act that would protect and promote Irish, Polish, Ulster Scots, and other smaller languages in the territory). That the legacy of conflict is now being mapped onto languages might explain why the isolated hashtag #ilteangachas (Irish for ‘multilingualism’) renders scores of online posts, while my recent message that contained both #ilteangachas and #manyaleid (my own constructed word for ‘multilingualism’ in Scots) side by side received just four re-tweets over a whole week.

In thinking about our strategies to link research and teaching with public engagement and impact, we must therefore consider carefully who the intended beneficiaries of the OWRI cash injection are: Is it the sector of Modern Languages at higher education institutions, whose demise we are hoping to prevent, in other words, are we protecting ourselves, or are we seeking a strategy that will benefit society as a whole? Are we not being a bit self-centred when we speak about a “crisis of Modern Languages” in the UK, rather than acknowledging that the country itself is in a crisis, engulfed by the rise of linguaphobic rhetoric? Thinking of the issue in those terms, OWRI is already proving to be an excellent way to spread good practice around the model of the civic university to those corners that may not have yet felt the pressure to embrace it. For example, Cambridge’s recent launch of an online publication on language policy that targets a broad audience, and Oxford’s use of local cultural venues (the Ashmolean) to engage community audiences with languages, including language taster sessions, all testify to an effort to break away from the confines of traditional research and reach out to other audiences. The Manchester-led consortium is drawing for similar activities on the rich track record that Multilingual Manchester has been developing and implementing for several years now, with support from the University of Manchester’s Social Responsibility agenda.

Another way in which OWRI can alleviate concerns around the elitist image of Modern Languages is re-distribution of funds. Both Oxford and Cambridge are introducing subsidiary grant schemes that will allow institutions that are not directly affiliated with the OWRI scheme to benefit from some of its resources and from opportunities for collaborative exchange. The Manchester-led ‘Cross-Language Dynamics: Re-shaping Communities’ had built such a re-distribution model into its concept and is allocating nearly a quarter of its budget to a ‘flexible fund’ to which some nine institutions who are not among the core partners have access. This approach is exciting, but it also brings with it challenges. It requires the consortium management not just to lead on the research and impact design but also to act as a grant-awarding and review panel, without the privilege of hiding behind the safety of anonymity that the peer-review procedure normally affords. Work with a diverse range of institutions often requires an intense mentoring effort and engagement with different norms of research design, planning of milestones, and budget monitoring.

In this way, an element of diversity is built into the consortium’s work, which corresponds to its intellectual diversity: Cross-Language Dynamics is venturing beyond the traditional and mainstream understanding of Modern Languages by placing a strong emphasis on the languages of the ‘East’ – Russian and Arabic in particular – and on the languages of local communities, including smaller, stateless and regional languages such as Kurdish and Romani. It also embeds its research into local communities, working in partnership not specifically with high society and Whitehall-affiliated agencies but with local public service providers and voluntary sector initiatives as well as with major cultural assets. It is a programme, whose individual projects are, broadly speaking, aligned with two themes: The performance of boundaries, as expressed in music, cinema, theatre, poetry, creative writing, and media, thus exploring the aesthetic dimension of multilingualism; and the real-life practice of urban multilingualism, as manifested in the repertoires of communities and individuals and in institutional language provisions that ensure service accessibility and the cultivation of heritage and skills, thus focusing on what might be regarded as the more practical-utilitarian aspects of multilingualism.

Since the inception of OWRI, society’s concept of an Open World has come under attack and fallen into an even deeper crisis than the one that inspired the scheme in the first place. Our engagement is now even more desperately needed in order to counter the narrative that claims that “we shall prosper because our language is the language of the world” by restoring values of humility and curiosity within our public discourse. It’s not just about the future of Modern Languages departments, it’s about the present and future of society as a whole.