Modern languages in the UK is at a crucial stage in its development, write Institute of Modern Languages Research director Professor Charles Burdett and Professor Claire Gorrara, dean of research and innovation at Cardiff University. If the discipline is to ‘thrive and survive’, how can it address the urgent challenges that we face?

There are, as is well known within the sector, causes for concern. This is exemplified by the decline in applications for university degrees in modern languages over the last decades. Yet, while recruitment figures at undergraduate level have fallen, research by the University Council of Modern Languages (UCML) demonstrates that this is not uniform across the sector. Rather, it might be more accurate to report that modern languages degrees are changing, diversifying, to cater for a changing student population and its priorities and preferences (see Report on Granular Trends in Modern Languages in UCAS Admissions Data, 2012–18, July 2021).

Indeed, there are examples of successful initiatives which demonstrate how the disciplinary field is adapting to change. These include the growth in university translation studies programmes which often require proficiency in two additional languages. Partnerships between schools and universities across the UK to support and motivate young linguists have shown strength and resilience at a time of national upheaval and transformation in our relationship with Europe (see the MFL mentoring project, active in Wales since 2015: MFL Mentoring – Modern Foreign Languages). Indeed, the UK’s departure from the EU has revealed just how connected we are with our nearest neighbours, economically, politically, culturally, and of course linguistically.

Yet, the disciplinary field of modern languages remains caught between the reassuring certainties of the past and the need to re-invent itself at a time of unprecedented cultural change for the academy. First and foremost, there is the question of the name ‘Modern Languages?’ Is this the most appropriate self-description for our times? Not only is the use of the word ‘modern’ increasingly problematic, but the description fails to mention that the study of culture is at the heart of the disciplinary field. It is not surprising, therefore, that those outside our community routinely assume that ‘modern languages’ is essentially concerned with language acquisition.

Closely associated with the issue of naming, is the need to better define the subject area. What is currently designated as modern languages encompasses an array of methodological approaches, areas of study, and objects of analytical interest. This is a strength of a discipline that is wide-ranging, porous, and open to different emphases and inflections wherever it is practiced. Yet, an overarching, powerful, and easily understood definition of the subject area is necessary when all subjects must make their case for value within a university eco-system where there are many competing demands.

Although modern languages overlaps, in many instances, with the territory of history, film studies, ethnography and sociology, it is not so broad a field that it eludes definition. What distinguishes modern languages is the integration of the study of language and culture, the development of knowledge of a given language/geographical area that is of such depth that the student and scholar see that field from without and from within.

A modern linguist sees underlying processes within cultural products and in the forms that realities of the past and present – with all their implications – assume. More and more, therefore, modern languages departments combine the study of a given geographical area with enquiry into the development of culture in global terms. Such studies concentrate on the movement across time of people, practices and ideas as they have shaped the humanly constructed world and, crucially, as they have perpetuated inequalities and systems that continue to haunt the present and to compromise the future.

If it is true that modern languages faces the challenge of how it articulates its coherence as an identifiable disciplinary structure, then it also faces the challenge of how to interrogate its methodologies. This has acquired urgency as scholars and students decolonise the curriculum and promote inclusivity in all areas of intellectual inquiry (see the work of Lisa Panford on this subject: ReflectED volume1,no 8).

Regarding the question of inclusivity, modern languages needs to continue endeavours that show how integrated the study of language and culture are and how such inquiry is grounded in the multilingual and multicultural realities we inhabit. One of the most urgent tasks that the discipline faces is to break down barriers between ‘classical’ and ‘modern languages’ and so-called community or heritage languages, which often imply stratifications of cultural value.

Concentration on renaming the field of study, interrogating its spheres of activity, and promoting inclusivity at all levels needs to be accompanied by a campaign for visibility both within the academy and within public discourse. The work of representative bodies, together with the outcomes of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s large-scale programmes, Translating Cultures (see Translating Cultures Theme: Final Report | The Institute of Modern Languages Research) and the Open World Research Initiative, have achieved a great deal in demonstrating the relevance of the field of study to the way in which people lead their lives (see Open World Research Initiative). This is work that needs to continue.

Ultimately, research leads to innovation in teaching practice and to changes in public perception. This is especially the case in an environment in which the impacts of research now need to be woven, from an early stage, into the very fabric of a project. If modern languages is to ‘thrive and survive’, then showing how its range of expertise can be deployed to address the urgent challenges that we face is imperative. In a world in which everyone is confronted by the evidence of accelerating climate crisis, by ongoing discrimination, and by the long-term effects of the pandemic, the study of how the world appears from multiple positionalities, from multiple cultural contexts, and from multiple points in time in, through and across languages has an invaluable role to play.

Professor Charles Burdett is director of the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Professor Claire Gorrara is dean of research and innovation at Cardiff University’s College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and chair of the University Council of Modern Languages (2018–21)


Image: © Professor Claire Gorrara