Dr Joseph Ford believes that falling admissions to modern languages (ML) programmes at UK universities and the ongoing threat of closure to some departments, makes it incumbent on academics to consider their research within the wider teaching landscape. ‘Doing so’, says the early career researcher, ‘will help promote it as a discipline that offers students the unique opportunity to develop a sense of their own culture at a time when such perspectives have been sorely lacking.’

While familiar with research-led teaching, many of us are less attuned to what happens in schools and colleges, and the impact our research can have on teachers and students working towards language GCSEs, A-levels and the International Baccalaureate. Notwithstanding the structural nature of the crisis of falling admissions in modern foreign languages (MFL) and ML (while increased university tuition fees mean students now perceive languages as a luxury, MFL struggles to train and recruit teachers to maintain provision at GCSE and A-level), the threat posed to the survival of the sector is real. It is more important than ever for universities to invest in the people who keep our discipline alive.

On 11 May, speakers at the ‘Environmental and medical perspectives on modern Francophone culture’ conference ran a series of post-16 schools’ engagement workshops at the University of Bristol. Many of the city’s teachers and students attended, giving scholars an opportunity to reach out to teachers and students working in MFL.

Given the recent introduction of translation to the A-level syllabi (students now have to translate short passages of text in the exam), it was decided that translation should feature in each workshop either in its literal sense of moving from one language to another, or in its figurative meaning of encounter between unfamiliar cultures.

The first session, led by Dr Holly Langstaff (Oxford/Warwick), focused on encountering texts in unfamiliar ways. Participants were asked to consider how the fly in Duras’ Ecrire and Camus’ L’Etranger – one of the set texts popular with exam boards – prompted students to rethink the human-nature encounter in texts that might not ordinarily be conceived as making a commentary on the environment.

Modelling the critical and creative potential of close reading, Dr Langstaff explored some of the benefits of looking at seemingly insignificant and yet recurring figures in texts that might allow us to reframe commonly received meanings. Is it possible to take our current moment of environmental crisis and think differently about the kinds of human-nature encounter we see in Duras and Camus? What are the ambiguities, ambivalences and paradoxes that emerge when looking at a literary text through a different lens? And do these ambiguities tell us something about an enduring instability of literary language?

Split into parallel sessions, the second set of workshops looked at translation, which was used by Dr James Illingworth (Exeter) as a way into Colette’s Le Blé en herbe. This workshop focused on select passages that encouraged teachers and students to consider how the French author’s text interweaves reflections on environmental and gender politics, as well as her literary style. The session introduced students to the notion of ecofeminism, and provided a number of different translation strategies designed to present translation as a pedagogical method that goes beyond a mere rendering of meaning to think more broadly about themes and literary technique.

In my own session, I used two different translations of L’Etranger ­– Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 version and Sandra Smith’s most recent 2012 rendition – to get participants to think more closely about the use of language in the original text. Aware of the challenges students often face in reading literary texts in the original language, and their tendency, even at university, to read texts in translation, the session modelled what it might mean to bring the translations back into the classroom, using them as tools to encourage comparative analysis. Here, translation was revealed as more than a simple process of rendering one text in another language. Rather, teachers and students reflected on how translation could be deployed as a pedagogical tool to encourage a closer analysis of the original.

In the penultimate session of the day, Dr Arthur Rose and Dr Daniel Finch-Race (Bristol) used the film adaptation of Emile Zola’s Germinal (directed by Claude Berri and released in 1993) to encourage participants to consider the relationship between the background and foreground as one that is never predefined or fixed. Coal, and its extraction from the land, is a prominent feature in Zola’s novel and Berri’s film. The image of thick foreboding black smoke and the coalmine furnishes the film’s background, and contrasts with everyday scenes of miners drinking beer and farmers tending the pastoral landscape.

Rereading the film through the lens of our current climate crisis, teachers and students were drawn to the representations of extraction, the thick black smoke that pollutes the otherwise peaceful country landscape. Yet, while coal mines may be the most striking feature of the background of the film, they are not the only elements in the backdrop.

The pastoral landscape with the wheat that is a source for the beer consumed by the miners, is a clear sign that the land is exploited in other, more subtle ways. This deep and integrated reading of the backdrop provided students and teachers with a resource for thinking our current moment of crisis as visible over a long history of the extraction of resources from the earth. It also enabled them to think about the blind spots of some of those highlighting climate change: the very systems designed by humans to sustain life are the same ones that now threaten our survival as a species.

In the day’s final session a current student and the faculty engagement officer at the University of Bristol’s School of Modern Languages spoke of the benefits of studying languages. They paid particular attention to the opportunity to study a wide range of modules across different disciplines, the increased employability for language graduates and the prospect of working and studying abroad.

During fruitful exchanges with workshop leaders and organisers, teachers made it clear that, if students are to be persuaded to study languages to A-level, more needs to be done to tackle the irregularities in grade boundaries across subjects. In a recent letter to the Guardian, 152 university language teachers noted how the increased difficulty and inconsistency of grading in language exams has led to the demoralisation of students and teachers in MFL.

In the short-term, Ofqual, the exams regulator, should heed the call of teachers to amend grade boundaries and establish proper quality control in GCSE and A-level exams. Meanwhile, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages (APPG) has begun to make some inroads. While its National Recovery Programme for Languages (published in March 2019) is a welcome intervention, it focuses largely on making the ‘business case’ for studying languages.

There is, of course, inherent value in studying modern languages and cultures – not least because it allows us to step outside our own (increasingly) narrow notion of ourselves as a nation, to encounter the other, and to look back with a better understanding of, and a critical perspective on, our own culture and society. To continue to declare that English is, and will continue to be, a ‘global language’ is to be ignorant of the history and culture of imperialism that got us into this narrow mind-set in the first place. Britain no longer has a ‘glorious empire’, English is not ‘enough’, and studying modern languages and cultures can be part of, but is ultimately about more than meeting the needs of businesses after Brexit.

There is a clear need for universities and professional bodies to argue for structural reforms at a policy level and for groups such as the APPG to lobby government directly. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t more we can do within our schools and existing departments. The Bristol workshops came out of a set of conference papers that a group of early career researchers presented the day before. Much of the intellectual legwork had been done and that adapting this into a series of workshops involved less work than a standalone outreach/widening participation event. In effect, workshop leaders modelled the techniques they already use in tutorials and seminars.

‘Taster courses’ are now common across higher education, but many university departments do not include them in official workload allocations. Moreover, such activities are not usually designed to promote the ML discipline, but rather to compete with other institutions in recruiting students. If we are to reverse the downward trend in ML uptake at university, competition cannot be the driving factor. We need a cross-institutional united front at all levels of the profession, from school to university management and from professional societies to parliament.

Feedback from workshop participants noted that there is very little knowledge about what it actually means to study modern languages at university. The better we integrate our research activities with student outreach and enrichment events, the better we’ll be at spreading this knowledge.

Dr Joseph Ford joined the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) in January 2019 as an early career fellow in French. He specialises in contemporary Francophone literature and culture, with specific interests in Algeria and what has become known as the Algerian Civil War or Black Decade of the 1990s. His wider research interests are in postcolonial studies, world literature, literary translation, and French and Francophone intellectual culture of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Related information
Workshops were facilitated by early career researchers: Dr Daniel Finch-Race (Bristol), Dr Joseph Ford (IMLR), Dr James Illingworth (Exeter), Dr Holly Langstaff (Oxford/Warwick) and Dr Arthur Rose (Bristol).

The conference (and workshops), were generously supported by the IMLR, British Society for Literature and Science, Association for the Study of Modern and Contemporary France and the Centre for Environmental Humanities at the University of Bristol. Colleagues interested in organising similar events should contact modernlanguages@sas.ac.uk.