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Living Languages

The blog for the Institute of Modern Languages Research

Languages in contact. New challenges for planning and policies

Katia Pizzi reports on the conference ‘Languages in contact: New challenges for planning and policies’, held in Gorizia, Italy on 19 January 2018


This conference was the fruit of a collaboration between Dr Katia Pizzi (OWRI Cross-Language Dynamics, Translingual communities) and SLORI (Slovenian Research Institute). The impetus was to create a forum of discussion on language education policies in the border region Friuli Venezia Giulia, at the Slovenian-Italian border. Three languages (Italian, Slovenian and Friulian) are spoken in the region, with translanguaging and code switching occurring on a daily basis. Yet the official language of schooling is Italian alone.

Two keynote speakers presented case studies from other parts of Europe mapping onto this region: Prof Janice Carruthers (QUB) used the MEITS project as a springboard to introduce issues of language and identity in Celtic languages, stretching from Breton to Irish. Prof Christian Voss (Berlin Humboldt) discussed the revitalisation of Slavic varieties on the Greek-Slavic border, especially Bulgarian as spoken by the Muslim Pomak community in Western Thrace, following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Papers that followed covered aspects of plurilingualism and contact in the Friuli Venezia Giulia region (Prof Fabiana Fusco), contact-induced change in Slovenian modality (Profs Franc Marusic and Rok Zaucer) and terminology as a device shaping the linguistic landscape of contact border areas (Dr Matejka Grgic). Given the urgency of this theme, the final discussion was vibrant, even heated on occasion. Good practice was shared and a variety of issues relating to history, identity, ethnicity and social class were raised and thrashed out.

The Director of SLORI (Prof Devan Jagodic) and Dr Pizzi gave welcome speeches. Dr Pizzi chaired the proceedings. The audience was mainly composed of school teachers, graduate students, linguists and interested non-academic public. They were extremely attentive and engaged in the topics discussed, raising articulated questions. The conference attracted much media attention and was covered in the Slovenian daily Primorski dnevnik and by the national evening news.

We are currently discussing and pursuing publication venues, in Trieste or London.















Dr Katia Pizzi, Senior Lecturer in Italian Studies, IMLR

From Conference to Publication

Women’s Ageing in Contemporary Women’s Writing, a One-Day Cross-Cultural Conference, 26 September 2015, King’s College London, leading to a special issue of the Journal of Romance Studies (JRS), Vol. 17.3, Winter 2017.

Many of the conferences and workshops held at the IMLR lead to publications, in particular to special issue of the Institute’s journal, the JRS. The conference below was held in September 2015 and, after a rigorous peer-review process, was published two years later as the special issue ‘Women’s Ageing in Contemporary Women’s Writing’, edited by Kate Averis and María-José Blanco. It includes six of the revised papers delivered at the conference plus an introduction. Here is the report of the original and very successful conference, written by Maria Tomlinson (Universities of Reading and Bristol) and Polly Galis (University of Leeds). You can see how a conference leads to a publication.


This conference, organised jointly by María-José Blanco (King’s College London) and Kate Averis (previously at the University of London Institute in Paris), explored the representation of women’s ageing in a variety of works by female authors from France, Spain, Algeria, Argentina, Mauritius, Germany, the United States, Canada, and Mexico. The event was supported by KCL, ULIP, the Centre for the Study of Contemporary Women’s Writing (CCWW) and the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR). Throughout the day the papers sparked lively, wide-ranging debates on the identity of older women and the ways in which they are viewed by society.
The first panel brought together three papers that examined the representation of dementia and Alzheimer’s in novels from France, Germany, and Argentina. Literary portrayal of the retirement home was a key theme explored in this panel, with the first paper discussing French society’s promulgation of derogatory labels such as ‘mouroir’ or ‘gagatorium’ when referring to a nursing home. The second paper considered the ways in which two German-language novels attempt to persuade readers to empathise with dementia sufferers and value them as people. The final paper analysed the endeavour of two characters to record their mothers’ life experiences before their memories faded away. In the discussion that followed, the attendees discussed the changing role of grandmothers and questioned how literature could challenge the negative medical discourse that surrounds elderly people.

The second panel brought together two papers that delved into literary depictions of the ageing female body as abject and undesirable. The first offered a cross-cultural comparison between two francophone novels, set in India and Algeria respectively, that both explored the shame of menopausal characters who are silenced by the societies in which they live. The second paper investigated three novels from France, providing an analysis of their depiction of the ageing woman’s body as monstrous yet docile. These papers engendered an animated discussion on Simone de Beauvoir’s ambiguous position on the menopause as well as the power of literature to fill the linguistic void surrounding the experiences of menopausal and postmenopausal women.

The third panel highlighted the paucity of discourse on women’s ageing available to older female authors. The papers presented drew attention to older women’s antithetical perspectives on mid-life and old age. Collectively, the panellists examined the works of US-born, Canadian, French and Spanish authors. The first theme that emerged from these papers centred on the position of the older woman as an asexual ‘Other’. Even though the Beauvoirian take on women’s ageing was shown to paint a negative portrayal of otherness, the notion of becoming an(Other) was also presented as a positive process. Similarly, while the climacteric and postmenopausal years were deemed a time of degeneration or stasis on the one hand, they were depicted as a transitive period of liminality on the other. This moment is a rite of passage during which the woman stands at life’s crossroads, awaiting her future. Central to this divide was the concept of grandmaternity, since becoming a grandmother is shown to signify both a potentially liberating and fruitful experience and an entrapment.

This paradox was emphasised in the fourth panel. Here too, old age was shown to embody both limits and possibilities. The corpus of works ranged from those of a Mexican artist, and an Argentinian-born French author. This panel rejected the conceptualization of old age as a stage of stagnation, and appealed instead to its transformative capacity. The transnational sources examined in this panel served to highlight how the fluidity of a multi-lingual and transnational identity dispels the stasis that is usually associated with old age. If the liminal space of old age was linked to grandmaternity in the previous panel, it was intimately yoked in this instance to the in-between space across languages, nations and temporal spaces.

The closing discussion aptly expanded on the recurring issues at work in each panel, beginning with the pour-soi, en-soi debate. In each panel a clear tension arose between the old woman as a figure of the other in itself (en-soi) and the subject for itself (pour-soi). This perspective challenged the notion of a moi permanent. Is it ever possible to speak of a permanent ‘I’ when our identity is multi-faceted to begin with, and when this is fragmented further through such developments as (grand)maternity, dementia, bodily changes and transnational movements? Or when, as Nora Levinton asserted, ‘we are memory’? The discussion then came onto a further fundamental question: how far is it possible to say that ‘we are our bodies’? As discussed throughout this conference, neglecting the importance of bodily experience can be limiting for narratives about women’s ageing, since the gendered body draws a definitive dividing line between the male and female experience of ageing. After all, women’s life stages are reinforced through corporal processes, such as menstruation, reproductive capacity and the menopause. In addition, the changes which affect the body inevitably come to affect the ways in which we experience the world mentally and emotionally. Yet, to focus too much on the body overlooks subjective agency. To insist on the Cartesian dualism that separates mind from body may actually facilitate our attempts to undermine a patriarchal discourse that reduces women of all ages to their body. Whether these dividing lines render a focus on the female body more or less liberating for female narratives on ageing was left as a subject for further debate, as was that of a moi permanent.

Nonetheless, this conference went a long way to fill in the gaps of existing discourse on women’s ageing by enabling a dialogue to emerge between antithetical perspectives, and by shedding light on creative responses to women’s ageing from older women themselves. In all cases, the panellists rejected a purely generational model of female identity, and a linear definition of what it means to be an ageing woman.

Maria Tomlinson (Universities of Reading and Bristol); Polly Galis (University of Leeds)

Imagining the Body in France & the Francophone World

Maria Tomlinson gives an overview of this postgraduate student-led conference held on 19 and 20 January 2018 in Birmingham


Conference organisers (l-r): Antonia Wimbush, Polly Galis, Maria Tomlinson

The interdisciplinary, cross-cultural, and bilingual conference ‘Imagining the Body in France and the Francophone World’ took place at the University of Birmingham on the 19th-20th January 2018. It was organised jointly by Maria Tomlinson from the University of Reading, Antonia Wimbush from the University of Birmingham, and Polly Galis from the University of Leeds. The event was generously supported by the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR), the Society for French Studies (SFS), the University of Birmingham and the University of Leeds. During the two days, delegates presented papers on a variety of different disciplines and cultural contexts. It was a celebration of the rich culture and diversity of the Francophone world. Topics ranged from Algerian women’s writing, eunuchs in 20th-century France, and dancing in the Moulin Rouge, to the photographic exploration of transgender identity. The conference included parallel sessions which each explored a different aspect of bodily experience. The papers sparked interesting debate which often continued into the coffee and lunch breaks. The conference also comprised of keynote presentations as well as artistic performances.

Dr Jacqueline Taylor’s plenary session on écriture féminine

Once the delegates picked up their custom-made complementary conference tote bags, everyone settled down to watch the first plenary session. Dr Kate Averis gave a thought-provoking talk about how ageing is imagined within contemporary women’s writing. Kate offered a fascinating insight into Douna Loup’s novel Les lignes de ta paume which celebrates the new forms of intimacy and creativity that women can enjoy in later life. Following Kate’s talk, there were various parallel sessions throughout the day. These included panels such as ‘Abject Bodies? Zombies, Eunuchs, and Menstruating Women’, ‘The (Fe)male gaze’ and ‘Breaking the Binaries of the Body’. Before the conference dinner at Côte Brasserie, the audience were treated to an engaging and interactive performance by Dr Jacqueline Taylor. Jacqueline encouraged the audience members to take off their shoes and sit in a circle around her. She performed her own version of ‘écriture féminine’ by reading from a hand-written scroll, pouring out a box of her personal notes, and showing images of artwork behind her.

The next day included a mixture of parallel panels and plenary sessions. Panel titles included ‘The Exoticisation of the Body’ and ‘Queer(y)ing the Body’. Artist Fiorenza Menini screened her sensual and captivating film Les Attractions Contraires. This was a privilege for all who attended. It was the first time Fiorenza had ever screened her film. The day ended on an absorbing and informative keynote talk by Professor Lisa Downing about right-wing women such as Marine Le Pen and Anne-Marie Waters.

Polly, Antonia, and Maria would like to say a big thank you again to the IMLR and our other sponsors, without whom the conference would not have been possible. They would also like to thank everyone who presented and contributed to the conference. This lively participation ensured that it was an event to remember! The organisers are currently planning a publication.


Maria Tomlinson, Teaching Fellow, University of Reading