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How can research in modern languages help us understand the relationship between languages and communities – and what role can it play in improving community formation? It’s the theme running through a major research project in which the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, is playing a central role.

The brief is to investigate the impact of modern languages research on challenges such as social cohesion, migration, business and diplomacy. ‘Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community’ (CLDRC), is one of four interdisciplinary projects to be given funding under the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Open World Research Initiative (OWRI).

Launched in October 2016, CLDRC is run by a consortium of three core institutions – the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), SAS, and the University of Durham led by the University Manchester. The four-year programme seeks to have a significant impact on the study of modern languages in the UK.

This multi-million pound project provides an unprecedented opportunity to demonstrate to government and the public that modern languages research is vital for deep and meaningful international understanding. Recognising that, as a result of decades of mobility and migration, we now live in a post-monolingual world, academics involved in the Open World Research initiative place particular importance on comparative inter-lingual research and the exploration of multilingual and translingual practices. As IMLR director and project co-investigator Professor Catherine Davies argues, ‘Only multidirectional communication across languages can lead to world peace and prosperity.’

One of the key research strands of the OWRI project, led by IMLR researchers, examines translingual communities from a variety of angles. Translingual communities can be groups that aspire to a form of community by transcending language barriers. Communities of opera audiences, for instance, are created through tools of translation, surtitling and social media use (research project led by Dr Paul Archbold and Professor Jane Winters). They can also be exilic or minority groups who use a majority language while still expressing their own community identity despite the language choice. An example would be the literary writing by German-speaking Jews (research project led by Godela Weiss-Sussex).

Looking at assimilation and dissimilation through literary lens
Headed by Professor Davies, the IMLR team includes Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex, Dr Katia Pizzi, Dr Paul Archbold, Dr Naomi Wells and Professor Jane Winters, the School’s chair in digital humanities. They will use case studies to question language’s importance in community formation and cultural activity.

One of the sub-projects in the translingual strand focuses on literatures of minorities. This is led by Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex, reader in Modern German literature at IMLR, Professor Margaret Littler (University of Manchester) and Dr Malachi McIntosh (University of Birmingham).

The content, circulation and reception of migrant and minority writing in Europe in the 20th and 21st centuries is an underexplored area of literary studies. But in view of the migration movements over the last few years there is now an urgency to change this as we seek to listen to, analyse and understand the voices of minority writers across European nations.  Nobel prize-winner Herta Müller, who moved from Romania to Germany and writes in German, is a high-profile example – but it is also important not to forget the long-established minority communities who have contributed to the patchwork of European literature in languages such as Basque, Gaelic, Galician and Occitan.

Using their joint expertise in German-Turkish, German-Jewish and Caribbean British literatures, they are investigating communities and literary writing, looking at literatures that represent communities (‘small’ or ‘minority literatures’) and literatures that resist, break up and question the understanding of clearly defined communities (‘minor literatures’, Deleuze).

Together with a team of researchers in language fields ranging from Icelandic to Ukrainian, and from Italian-language writing by Somalis to literature in French produced by Argentinians living in France, they apply a much-needed literary lens to the dynamics of assimilation and dissimilation and the practices of minoritarian literary writing across Europe.

Communities are not a given
‘The idea behind the project’, says Dr Weiss-Sussex, ‘is to remind us that communities are not a given but that our thinking, our understanding makes them into a unit. Therefore, our interest is in literature’s contribution towards this understanding of communities and its opportunities of shaking up these understandings.’

Within this framework three main areas are to be explored:

  • How literary texts – through their communicative and aesthetic possibilities – can focus attention on communities (or cultures) through their aesthetic and political power of representing them, depicting what may be seen as essential or typical. Depending on whether they pertain to small language communities or to minority groups who use a majority language, these bodies of texts are described as ‘small’ or ‘minority’ literatures.
  • How they can resist this quest for representation or the ‘duty of representation’ as it has also been called. Literary texts can work against the expectation of identitarian discourses and disrupt those discourses where they are seen to be restricting and not allowing for gradations, for fluidity, and for multiplicities of belonging (‘minor literatures’).
  • The research team also aims to analyse the external factors that contribute to certain literary texts being identified as belonging to a minority literature: literary markets and publishers’ strategies, public libraries’ awareness-raising activities, and also the modern languages curriculum.

An inaugural conference took place at the IMLR in February 2017. It brought together scholars from Europe and the US for two days of systematic comparative study of the content, form, status and reception of minor, minority and small literatures in Europe in the 20th and 21st centuries.

How minorities carve niches in the European literary landscape
Papers, discussions and round-table workshops focused on how minorities carve their representational niches in nations whose contours are being challenged; the material and linguistic ways in which the circulation and promotion of literatures in small and minor languages are changing the European literary landscapes; and the aesthetic means by which minor literatures make readers and viewers struggle to categorise texts, films and art, ultimately avoiding the finality of representation.

This international collaboration will culminate in a book that aims to gather and discuss literary narratives of communities that make up the patchwork quilt that is Europe. Eschewing the ideologically charged concept of national literatures whose assumptions of commonality need to be revised, it will focus on the cultural production (literature, theatre, film, visual arts) of minority and migrant communities and of the European peripheries. These provide more insight into the shifting and hybrid identities and spaces that characterise the Europe of the 20th and 21st centuries.

The Open World Research Initiative asks us to consider what opportunities exposure to other cultures and languages could provide – intercultural understanding, increased job prospects, feeling more comfortable visiting other countries and building our self-confidence in communicating with other people in our day-to-day lives. And we know this is true.

The challenge is to achieve all this through research which is more radically interdisciplinary than hitherto and more imaginatively collaborative with dynamic partnerships with other universities, with schools and, crucially, with non-academic organisations in the UK and abroad. This important project will not only reshape modern languages research, but will raise its profile and visibility and should help us all understand why languages matter so very much today.

More information
The Conference report
OWRI grant press release