Yaron Matras

Yaron Matras

Professor of Linguistics, The University of Manchester

A spectre is haunting the UK Modern Languages community: a feeling of being under siege. The principal source of the anxiety is the continuing decline in student numbers both in secondary schools and in higher education. This gives rise to a fear of diminishing resources and dismantling of departmental structures, coupled with frustration that the intellectual and practical contributions that Modern Languages make to academic enquiry and society as a whole are not being fully appreciated.

The AHRC’s OWRI scheme has set out to inject new energy into Modern Languages; one might go as far as to say that it is expecting participants to contribute to a regeneration of the field. One pathway that is being actively embraced across the various projects is to give more visibility to MLs by partnering with cultural initiatives and engaging with community audiences and various levels of policy. Discussions also continue to emphasise the need to attract more pupils and students into the traditional ML programmes.

A recent government initiative received much applause on social media from academic colleagues in MLs: It presented a cluster of nine schools across the country as a new ‘National Language Centre’ that would improve the teaching of Spanish, French and German in order to “help deliver the skilled workforce we need and build a Britain that is fit for the future.” There was surprisingly little expression of scepticism in regard to either the selectivity of the schools chosen to lead the initiative, or the focus on just three languages. Nor could I find a single critical remark from the experts directed at the ignorance-give-away declaration that the programme would “raise the standard of teaching in languages based on the Latin alphabet like French, Spanish and German.” (Note for cretins: Languages are not based on alphabets; they employ alphabets).

Understandably, since the ML community feels that it is fighting for survival, it seeks comfort in every gesture of acknowledgement. Perhaps this leaves little time to reflect on the traditional model of delivery and organisation: Taken for granted is a structure that gives priority to the (standardised) languages, culture and history of past European imperial powers, usually within sub-discipline boundaries that mirror those that once divided these powers.

In what follows I’d like to sketch an alternative way of approaching the study of languages: one that engages with the socio-cultural reality of language diversity and reaches out to local communities especially in larger, super-diverse urban centres, paying attention to the effect of globalisation at home. I propose to embed language and culture studies into a new Locality Studies: a field that would focus on the investigation of globalised cities, their super-diversity, and the intertwining of a range of linguistic and cultural practices in metropolitan areas. It’s a logical step from a trajectory of past epistemologies that have sought to utilise the study of language and culture in the service of the nation. After presenting a typology of such studies I call for a new epistemology, one that serves the city rather than the nation, one that takes an interest in drawing comparisons among cities and promotes and cultivates transnational city networks.

Managing globalisation at home

A couple of years ago I joined a group of research associates and students for a meeting with a team of managers and senior officers at Greater Manchester Police Headquarters. They wanted to discuss how to improve the police force’s communications with Manchester’s diverse population groups. They wanted to know which languages are spoken in Manchester and where. They wanted to gain a better understanding of the difference between languages and dialects. They wanted to know which languages are ‘rare’ – difficult to find an interpreter for, or lacking conventionalised systems for reading and writing or even just literacy opportunities – and which might lack terms such as ‘hate crime’ or ‘domestic violence’. They wanted advice on how emergency call handlers might be able to identify the language of a caller who doesn’t know English so that they can find the right interpreter, and how best to manage three-way interactions involving interpreters. We had similar meetings with other professionals – teachers, speech and language therapists, patient experience managers, museum directors, librarians, and city council officials.

The questions that they asked are all connected to the study of modern languages: literacy and oral traditions, access to media and native-language creative platforms, translation and interpreting, dialect variation, bilingualism, cross-cultural communication, and more. I say ‘modern languages’ with no capitals, because the questions were not specifically about “languages based on the Latin alphabet [sic] like French, Spanish and German”, but about languages in general; and when they did target particular languages, then the focus was on those of immediate relevance to the local community (among which are also French, spoken in Manchester by a sizeable population of African background, and Spanish, spoken by Spaniards and Latin Americans as well as by Pakistani and Romani immigrants who resettled from Spain). Expertise relating to languages is required by public service providers in order to effectively engage with clients in the global city of today. This means that such expertise can be an asset to those seeking to take on managerial roles in public services. The country, and in particular cities, need experts in managing globalisation at home.

The utility clause: A typology of language- and culture-based area studies

In the words of School Standards Minister Nick Gibb, who is responsible for the launch of the new ‘National Centre for Languages’, an “outward looking global nation needs a new generation of young people comfortable with the language and culture of our overseas trading partners.” The rationale for teaching languages is framed within the interests of the nation rather than the individual learners.
If before the Enlightenment foreign language skills were a pre-requisite for education, overseas exploration turned the world’s languages into objects of investigation and a prism through which to gain insights into human cultural diversity. Compilations of language samples assembled by people like von Humboldt and von der Gabelentz were cultural science parallels to Darwin’s Beagle expedition collections. Language skills first began to serve the state when acquaintance with local customs became a key to exercising control in overseas colonies. Edward Said described Orientalism as the study of the imaginary Other, which helps Europe define itself while scripting an ideology to support colonial bureaucracies. Orientalism, according to Said, is the epistemology of asserting authoritative control over the Orient. That makes it perhaps the first utility-driven model of language and culture studies, a ‘Colonial Studies’ concept replicated for Africa, South Asia and other spheres of colonial power influence.

The antithesis, Postcolonialism, inspired the emergence of what we might call (drawing on notions introduced by Gayatri Spivak) ‘Subaltern Studies’: disciplines dedicated to using academic space to question hegemony. Scholars in African American Studies, First Nations Studies and Native American Studies often deny that there is a form of objective analysis that is not embedded into a relationship of power, and seek instead to replace one form of subjectivity by another. This has led to accusations of identity politics and the filling of academic posts based on individuals’ ancestry or membership in an oppressed minority group. As anthropologist Michael Stewart says, it’s an approach that claims that who is talking is more important than what they’re saying.

At the other end of the spectrum we find ‘Enemy Studies’, designed to deliver analysis to guide policy and intervention in conflict zones. This was the function of Eastern European studies in the West during the cold war and often of the transformation of Oriental Studies into Middle Eastern Studies. Israel is a case in point, where Middle Eastern Studies is tightly intertwined with the political and military intelligence establishment, successfully encouraging the study of Arabic language at schools and university and even scripting significant parts of the teaching curriculum to ensure that school language qualifications in Arabic meet the needs of intelligence gathering objectives. It is a model that faces no shortfall of student enrolment, and yet it offers learners practically no opportunities for immersion in communities of Arabic speakers, although these make up around a fifth of Israeli citizens (even without counting the population of the Palestinian Occupied Territories).

The emergence of post-1990 Central Asian Studies reflects a crossover between ‘Enemy Studies’ that are supported by governments in pursuit of defence-strategic considerations, and what might be regarded as a somewhat softer version of interventionist enquiry, which we might call ‘Sphere of Desired Influence Studies’. Justifications put forward for the relevance of Latin American Studies, Eastern European Studies, Middle Eastern Studies, and East Asian Studies have often flagged both economic and security considerations. For example, a report by the Institute of Latin American studies from 2014 emphasises the region’s economic importance as well as its role in producing “an estimated 65–70 per cent of the cocaine on British streets”. Among the experimental trends that impacted the UK higher education environment during the past two decades was the re-packaging of many such programmes as ‘Language-based area studies’ (LBAS) or New Area Studies, alluding to a need to establish regional expertise that is appropriate for the post-cold-war era.

An interesting case is the transformation of Balkan Studies from a form of ‘Colonial Studies’ with its centre in the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the First World War, into a kind of ‘Irredentist Studies’ with centres across the individual countries of the region itself. This might be seen as a kind of internalised colonialism that sought to reclaim ownership of material identified as shared cultural heritage that pre-dates and thus crosses the boundaries of new nation states.

‘Subaltern Studies’, ‘Enemy Studies’ and ‘Sphere of Desired Influence Studies’ have all been challenged to explain the utility rationale behind their structures. By contrast, the institutional groupings and discipline boundaries that host the teaching of Western European languages remain stable (save in those institutions where they are integrated into a ‘Sphere of Influence’ rationale as part of European Studies, often in conjunction with political science and business studies), even if they too have had to undergo their share of reviews in regard to sustainability and provisions. These are the former ‘Coloniser Studies’, which derive their raison d’être from their past trajectories of asserting power and hegemony and are now designed to safeguard and promote national identity in their own respective countries, much like English Literature and English History at UK universities. Their steadfast integrity as separate programmes for Italian, German, or French draws on the inertia of their historical legacies. Their utility value is described at best in vague generic terms such as “reaching out to the world” or “developing critical thinking”.

Non-Territorial Language and Culture Studies

An intriguing comparison can be drawn to two fields of enquiry that have emerged largely outside and beyond the ‘Coloniser Studies’ framework: Jewish Studies, and Romani Studies. The original purpose of setting up Judaic studies programmes was to give a secular academic perspective on Jewish religion and history and to offer an alternative to the tradition of centuries of rabbinical studies, which in turn is closely focused on a particular, tightly codified corpus of texts. It is thus a somewhat exceptional model of ‘Our Own Heritage Studies’, characterised by a quest for emancipation from the stringent confines of the community’s own traditional authority rather than from the Othering and hegemonic control by outsiders. There is no denying that the proliferation of Jewish studies programmes also reflects a national awakening ideology, particularly since the establishment of the State of Israel. Yet the field is characterised precisely by its focus on institutional and literary practices outside of Israel and by its application of a secular (non-theologian) paradigm to the study of religion.

Romani Studies has its roots in the Gypsy Lore Society – an international circle of aficionados and eminent academics – in the late nineteenth century, which undoubtedly drew inspiration from ‘Colonial Studies’ but searched for insights into a marginalised minority at home rather than overseas. Critics have branded that venture ‘Gypsylorism’ and described it in terms of Said’s Orientalism. The late 1980s saw a re-grouping as a network of scholars based at academic institutions, many embracing co-production partnerships with Romani communities around topics such as the documentation of past persecution or language codification. In the absence of a territory, nation state, or religion as a point of reference, the discipline’s principal ontological demarcation line has been based on outsiders’ perceptions of certain populations as ‘Gypsies’. For a short period of time, between 2011-2015, the European Commission ran an Academic Network on Romani Studies hoping to benefit from policy advice in connection with a European Framework for Roma Integration, and there was a hint at a utilitarian ‘Desired Sphere of Influence’ approach. But that was cut short not least as a result of the emergence of a ‘Critical Romani Studies’, a brand of ‘Subaltern Studies’ led by individuals who self-identify as Roma and vow to “re-claim post-colonial space”.

Re-thinking locality

In her article on Questions of Locality, Doreen Massey reviews arguments for and against the concepts of Locality as embedded in geographical studies. She argues that Locality is in fact the opposite of parochial as it views places through the lens of their links to the wider world. A comparative and internationalist outlook on place has a strong innovative potential for theory, as local changes can be viewed in the context of world events, and the particularity and uniqueness of singular places can be analysed as the product of a succession of factors. A place can thus serve as a laboratory for the impact of forces of change.

Since 2010, Multilingual Manchester has been engaging in an experimental model that introduces a language dimension into laboratory urbanism. Our archive of student reports shows the potential for learning through research that is offered by engagement with locality issues. Our new Data Tool demonstrates the contribution that languages research can make to the vision of Smart Cities beyond the physical dimension, while the LinguaSnapp mobile application for mapping urban language landscapes captures the role of language diversity in linking cultural and commercial networks across places with the locality.

The combination of hard data with ethnographic observation methods and critical analysis of narratives and performances of language and identity is opening up new avenues toward understanding notions of ‘community’ and the relationship between place and cultural spaces. Moreover, it opens up opportunities for cities to be regarded as inherently multilingual spaces rather than nation-based population centres. In the context of the geo-political developments of the past couple of years, international networking of multilingual cities offers an alternative to the return to nation state isolationism.

There is therefore mileage in re-thinking not just the utility-based notions of area studies, both old and new, but also the value of continuing ‘Coloniser Studies’ in their traditional format. Both stand to benefit from a renewal that would involve embracing locality and laboratory urbanism and linking the study of language practices – be it grammar and literacy, performance and thought, or media and policy – to the everyday reality and language repertoires of local multilingual communities. There is value in integrating more methods of data collection and analysis from the social sciences, engaging with a broader range of languages and forms of cultural production, and embracing immersion opportunities in local communities.

The impact potential of collecting the kind of knowledge that is sought after by managers who run the city’s public services, and the career prospects that are opened up to graduates of programmes that revolve around such enquiry, are both obvious. The integrated, holistic view of languages as belonging to the local community can promote a new appreciation of languages: They become the emblem of local diversity and identity rather than overseas trophies, and a sustainable resource in the city’s own development rather than primarily tools to exert influence abroad.