When I joined the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) as a visiting fellow in the fall of 2016, my intent was to find the right place to work on my manuscript with the provisional title ‘Geopolitics of Memory and Transnational Citizenship. Thinking Local Development in a Global South‘. I take memory as a powerful dynamic engine to deconstruct citizenship while connecting beyond borders. I am currently at the end of a chapter about diaspora politics and the particular involvement of Haitian-Americans in the past US election.
I quickly immersed in this dynamic and friendly academic environment, host of several centres of particular interest to me such as the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory. I attended a one-day workshop titled ‘Reconfiguring Black Europe’ where I challenged the many categories too reductionist to grasp human complexity. I also participated for the first time in the two-day conference of the Society of Postcolonial Studies. It was a great opportunity to interact with scholars with whom I shared my positionality as an independent researcher originally from Haiti. It was a great opportunity to introduce my first monograph along with the re-editing of my late dad’s Geographical Dictionary of Haiti. At the School of Advanced Study, the Institute of Modern Languages Research offers a great site to make interesting contacts through the rich events it organises and sponsors. On March 31 2017, I’ll present a paper entitled ‘Circularity, Creolization and the Spatial Practices of Belonging’ where I aim to uncover how the interdependence of territories from both Commonwealth and Francophone Caribbean collide to meaningfully expand a creolized world.
After being awarded my PhD in Political Geography at the University of Poitiers (France) in 2013 and living for about four years in the Gulf, I was looking for a multicultural environment where I felt at ease with an interdisciplinary background which encompasses migration and environment studies, civil society and south-south cooperation. Today, I am quite enthused with the progress of my manuscript given the precious help I got in proofreading. IMLR is truly an ideal site of cutting-edge interdisciplinary research for a citizen of the world whose research interest spans from the Caribbean to the Gulf passing through Europe.
Clara Rachel Eybalin Casséus, IMLR Visiting Fellow, 2016/17
The next call for applications for both funded and non-funded Visiting Fellowships is now open! Full details of application procedures are available online. The deadline for applications is 31 March 2017, for the fellowship to be taken up between September 2017 and June 2018.
Kate Willman is a Visiting Fellow at the IMLR during the academic year 2016/17. Here, she gives a personal insight into being awarded a Visiting Fellowship and the benefits gained, both to her research and to the IMLR.
After being awarded my PhD in Italian Studies at the University of Warwick about a year ago, I was looking for an academic home while I prepared my doctoral thesis for publication and embarked on a new research project, so the fellowship at the Institute of Modern Languages Research was the perfect fit. My forthcoming book based on my doctoral research addresses the recent literary phenomenon known as the New Italian Epic, a label used to describe a corpus of hybrid texts mainly published after the year 2000 in Italy, which merge genres, styles and media, and whose writers aim to effect change in society by depicting and re-assessing the past and present. My new comparative project draws on the New Italian Epic texts that employ what has been called autofiction, blurring the boundaries between the author’s real-life experiences and fictional elements, but I am now interested in looking beyond Italy to examine the explosion in popularity of this mode of life-writing in the 21st century, with a focus on work in Italian, French and English. My fellowship at the Institute is attached to the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing, as I’m particularly interested in how women have employed autofiction in recent years. Like many research projects, this interest sprang from a sense of annoyance, in this case after reading a blogpost on The Guardian website that asked ‘Is auto-fiction strictly a boy’s game?’, in which the author observed that, despite ‘a surge in popularity of late’, those authors who insert a character bearing their name into a work tend to be men. On the contrary, a huge number of women writers have employed autofiction in innovative and experimental ways to explore subjectivity and selfhood.
I don’t think I realised just how useful the fellowship at the Institute would be, not only from the point of view of the shared office space and access to Senate House Library, but also in terms of having a range of experts on hand for friendly and practical advice and discussions about research. Being a fellow at the Institute means coming into contact with researchers from across the different institutes housed at the School of Advanced Study and from beyond, as well as having access to a wide variety of academic and public engagement events. The Institute is truly interdisciplinary, so it’s a great place to look beyond the confines of a national culture or to find out about a new discipline to incorporate into your research. Since starting here in September, I’ve not only attended a number of diverse events, but I’ve also made friends and contacts with whom I am already planning future collaborations.
Part of the fellowship is the opportunity to organise an event, but I’m actually organising two, as fellows can book a room and invite speakers on a subject that interests them. My event as part of my fellowship is a half-day workshop on Friday 10 March 2017 entitled ‘Women’s Self-Representation in the Digital Age’, when the other speakers and I will be looking at autofiction not only in terms of books, but also across platforms, from online videos to social media to images, exploring how the advent of the internet and the growth of celebrity culture has influenced representations of the self in the 21st century. On Tuesday 14 February 2017, I’m organising an event entitled ‘What Is A Modern Author? Evolutions in Authorship from the 19th Century to the Present’, when there will be five speakers offering snapshots from different points in the modern period that examine the impact of developments in the book market on how writers have portrayed themselves in their texts, negotiated their role as public figures and been perceived by the reading public. Preparing these workshops has given me more experience of organising events and brought me into contact with researchers working on comparable topics, as well as helping me to take a significant step forward with my new postdoctoral research project.
Kate Willman, IMLR Visiting Fellow, 2016/17
The next call for applications for Visiting Fellowships is now open! Full details of application procedures are available online. The deadline for applications is 31 March 2017, for the fellowship to be taken up between September 2017 and June 2018.
The seminar took its cue from the fact that in England, Modern Languages, along with area studies and related languages, were considered “Strategically Important and Vulnerable Subjects” in the 2005 report of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE). The aim of the day’s discussions was to investigate the notion of ‘strategically important’ languages, in a comparative perspective focusing on the UK and France, and the impact of that notion on higher education and research, as well as school education.
The introduction by Christine Lorre-Johnston recalled the existence of the parallel institutions that frame research and teaching in the UK and in France. The first panel, on European languages, was chaired by Janice Carruthers (Queen’s University Belfast) and Ricarda Schneider (Sorbonne Nouvelle). Andrew Hussey (University of London Institute in Paris) started with Juan Goytisolo’s novel Landscapes after the Battle (1982) to destabilise the notion of linguistic identity in France in the 21st century, with the omnipresence of Arabic. Catherine Davies discussed “The Growth of Spanish and Portuguese in the UK,” pointing out that because British universities are autonomous, government “encouragement” is not enough to sustain language degree programmes: dialogue with university management is important. Tatiana Matzenbacher (Sorbonne Nouvelle) stressed the diplomatic and political importance of learning Portuguese. Godela Weiss-Sussex (IMLR) described various initiatives that have been taken to emphasize German culture in an effort to counter the decline in the number of students of German.
The next two panels, chaired by Charles Forsdick and Stefan Sperl (School of Oriental and African Studies [SOAS]), dealt with non-European languages. Stefan Sperl explained how the SOAS Arabic Programme aims at transcending stereotypes for indigenous (English-speaking) students, and at gaining comparative perspective for heritage students (with an Arabic background). Luc Deheuvels (Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales [INALCO]) retraced the long history of the teaching of Arabic in France, and pointed out that even though Arabic is taught in some 20 universities in France, there are still few Arabic teachers in secondary schools. Stephen Hutchings (Manchester), discussing Russian in the UK, evoked two current concerns: the notion of ‘securitisation’ of public discourse, and the need to explore the possibilities of research and teaching across language areas, because transnational and transcultural exchanges have spawned new geopolitical configurations. Nalini Balbir (Sorbonne Nouvelle) analysed the status of Hindi as a ‘rare’ or ‘small’ language in France, except in overseas departments with a population of Indian origin: in Guadeloupe, Hindi is taught at secondary level, and at the University of Réunion, a diploma in Hindi is available.
A whole panel, chaired by Charles Forsdick, was devoted to Chinese. For Derek Hird (Westminster), one challenge is to integrate Chinese language and another area of study, to offer a larger range of combined programmes. Li Wei (University College London) focused on the English Baccalaureate that was created in 2011, enabling high school students to join the “Mandarin Excellence Programme,” in the context of the ‘Golden Era’ between the UK and China. Joël Bellassen (INALCO) described the surprisingly long history of teaching Chinese in France, a language that ranked 5th in secondary schools in 2007, and has kept gaining ground since then. Because Chinese is so different from European languages, a better reference framework is still needed for it in the European Common Framework for languages.
The third panel, on “National Strategies,” was chaired by Janice Carruthers. Clíona Ní Ríordáin (Sorbonne Nouvelle) insisted on the need, in the case of the Irish language, to disentangle language from religion and politics and to acknowledge the presence of various traditions. Bernadette Holmes (Speak to the Future, UK) brought out the importance of a second language from employers’ viewpoint, and the value for young people of having cultural insight into another culture. Jocelyn Wyburd (Cambridge) explored the utilitarian aspect of the term strategic, including the importance of languages in the Army and the British Listening Services.
Catherine Davies chaired the fourth and last panel on “Strategic Usage of Languages.” Hilary Footitt (Reading) discussed the importance of languages in NGOs and the sense of temporality attached to it, of the need to learn a language now. Christopher Stone (Wolverhampton) noticed the same sense of immediate necessity with sign languages, often for economic reasons, notwithstanding the fact that sign language is a language of its own. Anna-Louise Milne (ULIP) evoked the variety of linguistic experiences that English students have when they spend three years in Paris, and how it changes their relation to the language. Charles Forsdick closed the seminar by stressing the need for a shift from ‘strategically important’ languages to the strategic importance of languages. He emphasised the intrinsic value of studying languages, as opposed to its utilitarian value, and the need to challenge the ‘linguistic muteness’ in research, policy and practice.
The Cold War left indelible marks on many cities. My new co-edited volume, Cold War Cities: History, Culture and Memory (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2016), investigates global and local Cold War polarities with a view to countering received paradigms.
City living and urban culture are relatively novel and advantageous stances from which to explore the Cold War and its legacy. Our aim is to integrate memory and history in order to shed light on the histories, memories, daily lives and forms of cultural exchange, consumption and production across and within cities during and after the Cold War. In particular, we focus on magazines, films, photographs, commercial fairs, choral societies, as well as memorial sites such as monuments, artefacts, cemeteries, ruined industrial sites and museums.
Several chapters address collective memory as a social framework through which individuals organise their history. Jan Assmann elaborated on the relationship between social and public memory, introducing the notion of ‘communicative memory’ to indicate memories orally mediated between living generations and ‘cultural memory’ to indicate monuments, museums, commemoration, rituals and a variety of cultural products. Assmann’s conclusion that cultural memory transcends human generations and is accessible across time is particularly pertinent to our aims. Mindful of this research, our book examines a large body of work, both public and private, material and immaterial, including commercial mobilisation of the past, tourism, commemoration and leisure time activities.
We examine twelve cities: Belgrade, Berlin, Bologna, Cairo, Helsinki, Izmir, Pripyat, Richland, Tampere, Trieste, Vienna and Vilinius. Our cities sit at the epicentre of the Cold War, contended in Second World War and post-Second World War geo-political negotiations (Vienna, Bologna, Berlin and Trieste). These cities are misaligned within their particular local and regional contexts, re-configured to suit a new state identity or subsequently pushed to the margins of history. As a result, their Cold War credentials were and, in many cases still are, skewed and ambiguous, yet absolutely key. These are nodes of ideological and geo-political confrontation. As such, they deserve reassessment. Other cities included here bear a complex and dynamic relation with Cold War history and memory, whether as a result of their technocratic stakes (Richland and Pripyat), shifting peripherality (Cairo, Izmir and Belgrade) and interfacing from within the Eastern (Vilnius) or Western (Helsinki, Tampere) Blocs. Several cities are explored through the lens of the Cold War for the first time here.
Without presuming to exhaust what remains a vast and complex field, Cold War Cities: History, Culture and Memory aims to reinvigorate Cold War historiography. Our examination of city life at this key juncture in world history and its construction and transmission in memory opens new perspectives.
Dr Katia Pizzi, Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies, and Director of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory, IMLR
This term, a student of mine decided to write her dissertation on the topic of language change prompted by mass migration and, having spent her Year Abroad in Germany, she opted to look at the impact of the migrants’ languages on the German language. Her research, which will be as linguistically oriented as it is culturally, is underway and I look forward to her observations on one text in particular. It is Israeli author Tomer Gardi’s novel “Broken German” (Graz: Droschl, 2016 ), the story of Radili, a young immigrant of Jewish-Romanian descent in an unnamed German-speaking city. We follow Radili on his visit to said city years after he’d spent his youth there, trying to consolidate his memories of growing up as fair game for Neo-Nazi thugs and, at the same time, as an adolescent having the same dreams and problems as every other teenager in the world. “Broken German” presents an interesting take on German-Jewish history with elements of crime – and a coming-of-age novel intertwined with aspects of an urban novel – all of it positioned off the beaten track of Eurocentric, realist writing.
What makes Gardi’s novel so interesting is his language. He uses a style that emulates the ‘broken’, grammatically incorrect yet understandable German of migrants who live in Germany or Austria and only use the basics of language in order to get by, to communicate and to survive. Most of these men, women and children, who have often been coerced to leave their home country by political or economic crises or war, don’t seem to be, and should not have to be, principally concerned with mastering the intricacies of elaborate stylistic embellishments or, indeed, the often counter-intuitive German spelling and case-endings – at least not for the purpose of engaging with the German-speaking world around them. That said, everyone who agrees with the common Western European and particularly German understanding of literature which, in its reliance on the written word, subscribes to an aesthetics of ‘Sprachkunst’ (linguistic artistry) and ‘Sprachgewalt’ (eloquence, but in German associated with power and violence –‘Gewalt’), is bound to take issue with a literature that puts more emphasis on basic communication than on the ideal of linguistic accuracy.
“Das ist kein Deutsch!” (“This isn’t German!”), Gardi lets the Nazi-thugs who chase Radili and his friends around the block shout. But it is German – the kind of German that has established itself alongside the norm of a linguistic standard which, itself, has always been subject to change and fluidity.
What Tomer Gardi’s novel “Broken German” does, is to challenge the notion of language standards in its grammatical brokenness beyond the measure of avant-gardist writing, as it is commonly known and often showcased in literary competitions such as the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize, one of the most prestigious and long-running literary competitions in the German-speaking world.
The Austrian Bachmann prize event provides the stage annually for a competition between often rather conventional texts in contrast to texts and reading performances that truly challenge the audience (such as Rainald Goetz’s literally bloody reading in 1983, or Urs Allemann’s very controversial literary account of a pedophile’s thoughts in 1991). The event takes place in the southern Austrian town of Klagenfurt– Ingeborg Bachmann’s birthplace (hence the name) – at the shores of Lake Wörth, and is regarded as a seismographic measure instrument of what is rocking or about to rock the German literary sphere. At this year’s Bachmann Prize the jury made a point in highlighting a new literary paradigm in the making – the so-called migrant writer. They awarded the prestigious main prize to British-Ghanaian writer Sharon Dodue Otoo, who lives in Germany and writes in English and German, and they labelled Tomer Gardi’s text “***”, a text without a title , an “aesthetic landmine” in the discussion, much to the delight of Klaus Kastberger, the jury member who had suggested Gardi.
That Gardi’s entry, a dialogue between mother and son in said ‘broken German’ that Otoo, for example, does not use at all, centres on the ‘babylonian’ aspect of language. “Wir sind babylonisch.” – “We are babylonian”, his character says and represents this stance in the way he speaks and programmatically hurts the minds of all of us who are so used to be bound and directed by the rules of language. What makes Gardi’s writing eminently political and very effective is the simplicity of his approach: it’s not only the characters’ stories that show the brokenness and fragmentary nature of their existence, it is their language too, that breaks and is mended in the wrong places. No one has a ‘mother tongue’ anymore, Gardi lets the son in his nameless story say: “Meine Muttersprache ist nicht die Muttersprache meiner Mutter. Die Muttersprache meiner Mutter ist nicht die Muttersprache ihre Mutter. Die Muttersprache ihre Mutter ist nicht die Muttersprache und so weiter. Und So viel viel weiter. (“My mother tongue is not my mother’s mother tongue. My mother’s mother tongue isn’t her mother’s mother tongue. Her mother’s mother tongue is not the mother tongue of and so on. And on and on and on.”)
Comparatists and literary scholars in the field of Modern Languages have long taken note of the reality of this category of writing that thematically centres on the lived experience of migration or bi-lingual upbringing, cultural displacement . The existence of a poetics of ‘migrant writing’ is currently being debated and new terrain is being explored. What has become clear in the past ten to fifteen years, is that there is a great number of authors whose work is the literary representation of a linguistic process of change and adaptation. It is a change that is very real and that concerns us all, because language is central to our existence and, in its ever fluid state, bears a lot of surprises. Who would have once thought that linguistic hybrids, spoken by minorities at first and by many later, such as all the cross-overs of English with the regiolects, dialects or socioloects of non-European countries would find their way into the literary canon – look at celebrated pidgin Youruba-English writing by Amos Tutuola (Palm Wine Drinkard, 1952) for example? Who would have thought that a novel in ‘broken English’, that simulates the English language learning process of a Chinese native speaker within the narrative framework of a love story – I am thinking of Xiaoli Guo’s success from 2008, “A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary of Love” – would sell very well and prompt critics, albeit reluctantly, to grapple with linguistic problems to get to the heart of a good-quality love story?
The world is changing, and so is Europe. And the literary establishment’s flinching at linguistically more radical writing by authors who let us participate in their migratory experience, is symptomatic for a declinist discourse that seems to stand in the way of finding the cultural and political tools to adapt to the situation of a world in which 240 million people are on the move . The discussion around Tomer Gardi’s text in the German-speaking media shows that there is a need to demonstrate willingness to engage with societal change on various levels – also, and especially on the level of language – before we become able to successfully respond collectively and individually to the challenge. Once more, literature is the field that invites and provokes us to cross it with an open mind, dodging the mines, bullets and pitfalls of populism, fear and short-sightedness. Without ignoring the importance of continuity and the preservation of tradition, Gardi, Guo et.al. invite us to engage with what is transient, fragmentary and looking for stability in our human condition.
Dr Dominic Glynn, lecturer in French at the IMLR, was invited to speak about the Ferrante furore at the Battle of Ideas, held at the Barbican 22-23 October 2016. Here, he summarises his thinking on a subject that has sent pulses racing.
A bit of background: The identity of popular Italian writer known as Elena Ferrante, author of the highly successful Neapolitan Novels, has long been a mystery. Now an investigative journalist, Claudio Gatti, claims to have revealed her true identity and provoked outrage in the process.
I can’t help thinking Roland Barthes, who proclaimed the death of the author, will be turning in his grave following this revelation which shows that authors are very much alive. Or this one is in any case. Instead of a hologram, we have a real person as Elena Ferrante makes way for Anita Raja. Or so we are led to believe by Claudio Gatti. If we assume Gatti’s revelations are correct (and he is certainly adamant that they are), then we have to consider the following two issues.
The first is a general issue about how we read literature. To what extent do we need to know an author’s biography to understand a literary text? The second is both a personal issue and a general issue. It’s a personal issue for Anita Raja, since whether or not she is the woman behind Elena Ferrante, people will start to scrutinise her life. And it’s a more general issue about what we want our investigative journalists to look at?
Regarding the first issue, there is certainly an appetite for literary biographies, biographies of writers. This is all well and good, and some writers had fascinating lives. But it is not because they had fascinating lives that they were good writers – many people with fascinating lives are bad writers. And it’s not because some writers had, what we might call rather uneventful lives, that they didn’t write exciting fiction. Jules Verne, for instance, hardly travelled, yet wrote great adventure novels.
The big problem here is that it is easy to conflate the author with their narrative persona, and the author as a real person with their public persona used for marketing purposes. Gatti, it seems, falls right into the trap. One the one hand, he accuses Anita Raja of being inauthentic, since she was brought up in Rome, yet writes about Naples. And on the other hand, he looks for clues in Raja’s life that might support his case. For instance, he argues that the fact ‘Elena’ was one of Anita Raja’s aunt’s names and Nino, the name of a love interest in the novels, was the family nickname of Anita Raja’s husband, Dominico Starnone, helps prove his case.
We have to be careful about looking for biographical elements in a work, because it’s as if we’re denying its literary and fictional qualities. Looking for biographical clues stops us from considering all the different ways fiction is playing with us as readers. Biographical explanations only paint a small section of the overall picture.
Regarding the second issue, Gatti used the methods of an investigative journalist (these are usually quite underhand) to obtain information about financial transactions between publisher Edizioni e/o and Anita Raja as well as details of purchases by Raja and her husband.
Certainly, we have had many instances in recent years of whistle-blowers, leaks or investigative journalists using undercover and underhand means to reveal political, economic or social scandals. But there is a difference in using such methods to reveal unsavoury truths about the leaders that govern us, or to find out that we’re being spied on all the time by the NSA, for example, and exposing the private life of someone who writes novels.
I don’t doubt that a number of people are delighted by the news, and that they wanted to find out who she is. Gatti, himself, justifies using such methods by the fact that Ferrante is a bestselling author, arguably the most read Italian in the world at present. His readers have a legitimate right to know, he claims, what her identity is.
I don’t think I’ve ever bought a novel and thought that in so doing I gained an automatic right to know about the author’s life. Deborah Orr, in The Guardian, even argued that Gatti had violated her right not to know Ferrante’s real identity by violating Raja’s private life. I wouldn’t go that far, but I would say that we don’t gain that much by relating Ferrante to Raja. Raja, on the other hand, has a lot to lose, starting with her privacy. And if only for that reason, I would strongly suggest that Gatti’s actions were not justified.
Dr Dominic Glynn, Lecturer in French Studies, IMLR
The aims set for this multi-strand project are ambitious: we hope to develop new models for understanding the relationship between language and communities and to raise awareness of the importance of language learning – in the words of the project leader, Professor Stephen Hutchings: ‘to position languages at the core of a changing world’. The leaders of the three main strands of enquiry outlined the vision and the agenda set for the four-year duration of the research programme:
The multilingual strand, led by Professor Yaron Matras (Manchester), will build on the hugely active and successful ‘Multilingual Manchester’ initiative, which has made great steps already towards making people understand that language variety is not divisive but, on the contrary, has the potential to bring people together in a celebration of diversity. Professor Matras and his team vow to continue their work of ‘eradicating people’s fear of linguistically diverse environments’.
The transnational strand at Durham which comprises, among others, highly complex and intriguing sub-projects on diasporic communities of Russians (‘Global Russians’) and on the rhetoric and social media narratives of the so-called Islamic State organisation, will investigate the significance of language in building (or proclaiming) communities across national boundaries.
Finally, the translingual strand, based at the School of Advanced Study’s IMLR and led by Professor Catherine Davies, contains enquiries into the use of languages other than the mother tongue – and beyond this, into the relationship between minor/minority and majority literatures. Other sub-projects look at activist sub-titling of films as a means to building translingual networks and, moving away from the spoken or written word to language that is sung, experiment with the impact of language on music in two new opera projects that are being developed in conjunction with the Royal Opera House and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Two early-career performers, one first-year student and one recent graduand of the Guildhall School’s opera course, treated the audience to excerpts from the forthcoming opera ‘The Tale of Januarie’, a work based on ‘The Merchant’s Tale’ from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The libretto – written in Middle-English – conveys the astonishingly multilingual nature of medieval language. (Did we really hear a love-song to a young woman addressed with the French endearment ‘cherie’ – juxtaposed with that same young lady’s exasperated reply from the only place that grants her peace to think, the – equally French-rooted – ‘privy’?)
Musicians from the Xinhua Chinese Association
Closing the day’s events in style, musicians and dancers from the Manchester Xinhua Chinese Association performed traditional songs, orchestral pieces and an exuberant fan dance. The ethereally uplifting and vibrant sound of the popular piece ‘Clouds Chasing the Moon’ set an appropriate tone for the optimistic and energetic start of our four-year research project.
Dr Godela Weiss-Sussex, Reader in Modern German Literature, IMLR
Professor Peter Ives (The University of Winnipeg) writes about the event ‘Modern Languages, Global English and the Future of the EU’ held at the IMLR in September 2016
Antonio Gramsci, early 1920s
Antonio Gramsci is one of the most influential Italians of the 20th Century. But what could his writings composed in fascist prison cells in the late 1920s and early 1930s have to tell us about multilingualism and global English in this post-Brexit world? This was one of the questions that brought me from Winnipeg, Canada where I teach Political Science to Senate House in London on a beautiful, sunny Wednesday in September of this year for a conference hosted by the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) and the Centre for the Study of Cultural Memory.
There were also other related questions around which Alessandro Carlucci (University of Oxford), Katia Pizzi (IMLR) and Giancarlo Schirru (Università di Cassino e del Lazio Meridionale and the Istituto Gramsci) organised the lively and stimulating conference, “Modern Languages, Global English and the Future of the EU.” Michele Gazzola (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) presented research showing how crucial the EU’s official multilingualism policy is for the democratic enfranchisement of EU citizens. Federico Faloppa (University of Reading) illustrated the obstacles that refugees and immigrants to Italy face despite their often diverse and extensive multilingualism and communicative skills. The day-long conference concluded with a provocative talk by Arturo Tosi (Università degli Studi di Siena and University of London) drawing on an essay by Italo Calvino moving beyond questions of multilingualism as the collection of skills in various languages and towards translation and the relations among and in a diversity of languages.
The papers and extensive discussions emanating from them throughout the day weaved in and out of many topics concerning the politics of language, the impact of the increasing prevalence of English – perceived or real, the role of multilingualism, democracy, inclusion and equality. One thing that most of the participants agreed on was that there is a danger of language policy reinforcing bureaucratic elitism that can alienate ordinary people and further divide and stratify – to use Gramsci’s terminology – differing sectors of the populations of Britain and European countries. This can be as true of the liberal left political forces as it is of the neoliberal right.
There was perhaps less agreement on whether the context of Italy in the late 19th and early 20th century that Gramsci was most concerned about is at all comparable – or contains insights – for the situations we face today. Giancarlo Schirru drew on Gramsci’s analysis of north-south relations and language politics in Italy to argue that if Europe is a linguistic and social community then English is the only candidate to be a truly popular, common language. In a quite different vein, my own paper focused on how Gramsci’s most influential concept, hegemony, has been used extensively by critics of global English to emphasise the ways in which people are forced to consent to learn English or given little choice but to use English if they wish to be successful. I noted that while such critics provide important analyses, if we look more thoroughly at Gramsci’s writings on language we see that he was actually in favour both of a common language for Italy as well as working towards common languages internationally. His criticisms of how Italian was being standardised and propagated focused on the selection of just a single vernacular or dialect, that of the middle-class of Florence, and an attempt to spread it throughout Italy almost as if it were a foreign language. This does not, however, mean he was critical of the eventual goal of a truly popular common language for Italy, nor of government intervention in fostering such a common language. Gramsci emphasised that we need to focus on the specific forms of such common languages – he urged that they be truly popular and also that their propagation should not be premised on the eradication of multilingualism or the decline of vernacular languages or what are often called dialects.
It seems to me that the incredibly important differences between Gramsci’s historical context and ours especially concerning levels of literacy makes such lessons more, not less, important for us. Of course, this does not mean that Gramsci has all the answers for us, not by a long shot. But his approach helps us gain a deeper understanding of key issues. For example, Michele Gazzola criticised the empirical accuracy of many media and scholarly assessments of English proficiency among Europeans. Gramsci’s perspective adds to this important empirical issue the extent to which many Europeans learning English in schools perceive it as a language not related to their lives and experiences or a language being imposed from above.
Of course, such issues are crucially important as the UK withdraws from Europe. English will move from being the main language of British citizens who had been a significant portion of the EU population to a language of the Irish and Maltese but an important lingua franca of many elites in Europe. This may likely exacerbate the linguistic divides between elites and the general citizenship in ways Gramsci warned against. However, it could also open spaces for us to rethink how we understand multilingualism in very concrete situations such as supporting and assessing immigrants and refugees, as Federico Faloppa highlighted. It may also be an opportunity to reconsider the importance of translation as more than a technical operation of professional translators and more as a possible way of thinking about multilingualism, as Arturo Tosi suggested.
The great value that the Institute of Modern Languages Research provides with its support of conferences like this is that it enables us to think through such crucial social issues with scholars and researchers from a host of different disciplines, places and perspectives. The Director of IMLR, Catherine Davies, who opened and attended much of the day’s events, provided essential support for the success of this conference.
‘I don’t do blogs’. This limpid excuse won’t pass muster with our doughty administrator, and so here are some opening words to inaugurate our Institute of Modern Languages Research‘s blog. Blogs are twenty-first century inventions, as is the IMLR. In fact the word is first recorded in 1998, when I was in my mid-forties and still putting pen to paper – hence the reluctance. Apparently ‘blog’ derives from ‘web-log’ or ‘weblog’, logging your movements on the web. Before the mid-1990s it meant nothing – bloke perhaps or, in the plural, Joe Bloggs? And now, this neat little word, so typical of English, has been adopted by most languages: ‘un blog’ in Spanish, where writing them is ‘blogusimo’ and the people who write them ‘blogueros’; ‘discuter de blog’ in French, and a pithier way of saying ‘digitale Netztagebücher’ in German (as ‘app’ a pithier of way of saying ‘Anwendungen für mobile Endgeräte’). But in Arabic (in Roman script) ‘blog’ is ‘mudawwana’. What’s ‘blog’ in your language? Is it easily pronounced? In Spanish it can be assimilated without too much fuss, though there are rather few Spanish words beginning with ‘bl’ + vowel: interestingly, only 15 or so starting with ‘blo’.
Apparently, to write a successful blog you must have one very specific message. So my message is this: the Institute of Modern Languages Research, located in the handsome Senate House of the University of London, Malet Street, Bloomsbury, is open for business. There are not many of us (5.5 academic staff and 2 administrators), but we are government-funded and we are here for you, so use us. What can we offer? Bespoke, personal attention, one-to-one advice, heaps of experience, some space and, above all, potential funding.
Bring us your ideas for conferences, workshops, seminars or public engagement events on any topic to do with research in Modern Languages. We like taking risks, working across languages and disciplines, trying something new. We want to hear from researchers, postgraduates and undergraduates, journalists, publishers, writers, translators, government agencies, the general public – anyone in the UK and beyond who is interested in the serious and rigorous study of the languages, cultures, histories and societies of the non-Anglophone parts of the world which, believe it or not, are still vast and flourishing.
If you are on research leave and would like a London base and access to the Senate House Library, check out our visiting fellowships scheme. This scheme is particularly useful for postdoctoral researchers who have yet to find an academic or related post. A visiting fellowship with a prestigious institution such as the IMLR will allow you to keep up your research profile, turn your thesis into a book, write those articles, organise a conference or workshop and make key contacts. You may be stacking shelves at Tesco to keep the wolf from the door, but this makes no difference – you can still keep up your research and build up your CV. We will support and encourage you in every way. This is what we are here for.
Catherine Davies, Professor of Hispanic and Latin American Studies
Director, Institute of Modern Languages Research