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Living Languages

The blog for the Institute of Modern Languages Research

Transnationalising the Word: The Present and Future of Education in Modern Languages

Transnational and decolonisation approaches are shaping the present and future of Modern Languages, which makes the dialogue between research and teaching more important than ever before. Marcela Cazzoli and Liz Wren-Owens discuss whether we are ready for the challenge.

The keystone Transnational Modern Languages project was fundamental in encouraging an overdue transformation in the discipline, identifying a set of issues that research and teaching in Modern Languages would need to challenge to remain sustainable and relevant and to ensure that the true value of the discipline was clearly legible to those outside the subject area. The TML project enabled us to reframe the disciplinary framework of Modern Languages, arguing that it should be seen as an expert mode of enquiry whose founding research question is how languages and cultures operate and interact across diverse axes of connection. Central to the debate was the interrelationship between languages and cultures and the necessity to leave monolingual traditions behind, to uphold the real picture of how languages engage with the contemporary global world.

Those of us teaching in schools of Modern Languages have known about this first hand: we are incredibly lucky to be surrounded by different languages and immersed in a wealth of linguistic and cultural diversity that we sometimes take for granted. Yet, our curricula may still hold us back, reflecting a vision of Modern Languages teaching and research that sees culture through the lens of language, and language through the lens of skills. The (Re)Creating Modern Languages project (Beaney et al, 2020), for instance, has provided guidance on how we might think about revising our curricula, identifying areas to consider in terms of structures of programmes, engagement with the wider socio-cultural perspective, the scope of our cultural focus, and identifying (and overcoming) barriers to change.

If we are serious about engaging our students with a discipline that reflects the reality of the transnational, translinguistic, and transcultural world of today, a global understanding of languages that works in synch with decolonising approaches is crucial. Are we committed to tackling the linguistic indifference of postcolonial studies? How complicit are we in allowing Anglo words and Eurocentric frameworks to dominate the narrative of practices and identities?  Decolonisation projects developed in universities across the UK have provided further support to transnational approaches, as they both aim to decentre and challenge methodological nationalism and propose an inclusive view of multilingualism and multiculturalism.

How do we use transnational and decolonising approaches to design our teaching? The Transnationalising the Word symposium began a conversation that has hopefully raised awareness and provided some reassurance that it can be done. The well-thought out presentations, linking research with practice, provided examples and insights for the way forward. We have been able to ask ourselves very useful and, at times, uncomfortable questions that can help us think through how we might revise our programmes or curricula. In his opening paper, Decolonising the Chinese Curriculum: Indigenous Epistemology and Translanguaging, Danping Wang discussed how different epistemological approaches can reframe the learner-teacher relationship and asked us to unlearn our current assumptions and open up our imaginations. This notion of unlearning and opening is a powerful notion that can shape our approach not only to questions of transnationalising and decolonising our curricula, but in thinking through our teaching more broadly. Other presentations throughout the day further probed how connections and collaborations might be fostered between languages and culture, and the ways in which languages other than English are valued as effective means of resistance to (mental) colonisation. Excellent projects were showcased which suggested practical ways of shaping our teaching and, importantly, our assessment, to enable students to engage with the ways in which culture shapes languages and both are informed by power dynamics often linked to colonial histories. Alexandra Lourenço Dias’ Decolonised Dictionary of the Portuguese Language Project, for example, explored how students can reflect on the interrelationships between language, culture, and power through the development of an exciting new resource that focuses on terms are that articulated differently in parts of the Portuguese-speaking world based on the local culture and their history. Angela Viora’s presentation, Cities, Landscapes, and Ecosystems: Exploring Contemporary Italy Through Local Responses to Global Challenges. Creativity, Interdisciplinarity, and Decolonisation and Salvatore Campisi’s Reflecting on and Challenging Narratives of Italy and Italian with Students opened up questions of how transnationalising and decolonising the curriculum might enable us to re-think the cultural materials that we study. They offered fascinating examples of how street art, itinerant performers, oral histories sourced by students from the local community, rap, and public statues and memorials can be leveraged to encourage students to reflect on transnational and decolonising histories. Viviane Carvalho da Annunciação’s work on Decolonising Portuguese Language Classes explored the extent to which the diverse backgrounds that students bring to the classroom are reflected (or not) in pedagogical practice and examined how our practice be adjusted to enable and empower students from minority backgrounds, from the study of languages in schools through to undergraduate programmes.

A few presentations offered useful insights into how the publications emerging from the Transnational Modern Languages project, in Liverpool University Press’ Transnational Series, might provide teaching tools as we re-think our approach to teaching language, culture, and history. Derek Duncan & Jenny Burns’ presentation on Thematic Cartographies: Transnational Modern Languages and Cecilia Piantanida’s Hybridity and Transnationalism in the Modern Language Class suggested ways of challenging student preconceptions of cultures and nations by adopting a transnational and decolonising approach to teaching, thinking through how idealised and essentialised notions of specific cultures can be leveraged by the far-right.

The symposium was a valuable source of inspiration, exchange and connection. The conversations begun on the day will no doubt develop and evolve in fruitful ways. We would like to thank all contributors, including our excellent presenters and colleagues who participated in the rich discussions. We would also like to thank the IMLR and UCML for their support in bringing the symposium into being. We are keen to use this as a starting point for further work on the way in which transnationalising and decolonising approaches can further enhance our teaching, and look forward to talking, listening, and learning more.

Dr Marcela Andrea Cazzoli, (Durham) Associate Professor (Teaching) / Director of UG Education

Dr Elizabeth Wren-Owens (Cardiff), Director of Postgraduate Research and Deputy Head of School


An Olympic Opening Ceremony with a Difference: a Spectacle of Revolutionary Struggle in the Robert Lucas Papers

As the insistence that politics should be kept out of the Olympics comes under increasingly scrutiny, Miller Archivist Clare George looks in the IMLR’s archives of German-speaking exiles, at records of an Olympics Games ninety years ago which was an expressly political act.

In July 1931 the second International Workers’ Olympiad was held in Vienna by the Sozialistische Arbeiter-Sport-Internationale (SASI) as a celebration of international solidarity rather than competition. With over 100,000 athletes from 26 countries, the event was far bigger in terms of participants than the International Olympics Committee Olympiad in Los Angeles the following year.

RLU/1/2/1 Typescript summary of Scene 1 of Das Spiel der Viertausend

As with the IOC Olympics, the artistic opening ceremony to the Games in Vienna projected a cultural narrative onto the event, but unlike most such ceremonies since 1936 at least, its theme was not the host nation’s achievements and triumphs but international revolutionary struggle. Das Spiel der Viertausend (the Pageant of the Four Thousand) was created by Austrian socialist journalist and writer and later refugee, Robert Ehrenzweig, to unite participants and spectators in the story of the liberation of the proletariat against capitalist oppression.

Four thousand volunteers from the Austrian Social Democratic Party performed in the spectacle as craftsmen, farmers, soldiers, cobblers, weavers, spinners, blacksmiths, tailors, telephonists, typists and other workers. An instruction booklet published by the Party set out Ehrenzweig’s stage directions for the players, furniture and props, which included 12 tables, 24 typewriters, 4 megaphones, 40 stools and 40 distaffs. It also explained how costumes would be allocated. Outfits for craftsmen, farmers and weavers would be provided by the organisers, for example, but the 80 young socialist actors playing fascist paramilitaries would need to bring their own black shirts.

RLU/1/2/1 Instructions for participants, published by Vorwärts

In the centrepiece of the arena a mass of scaffolding was erected decked with billboards promoting the instruments of the market system: ‘stock exchange’, ‘shares’ and ‘balances’, and topped with the cold giant face of capitalism. A Berlin newspaper reported the ‘overpowering first impression presented to the audience on entering the stadium: the vast arena, in the middle of which loomed the Tower of Capitalism, the colourful ring of the masses around the outside’.

RLU/1/2/5 Preparing the set: constructing the Tower of Capitalism (Photograph by Leo Ernst / Albert Hilscher)

Lucas had already established himself as a writer of political cabaret satirising the right wing of his Party, but his Olympics opening production was theatre on an entirely different scale. Das Spiel der Viertausend was one of the largest mass spectacles that had ever been staged. Organisers had planned two performances, during the opening and closing ceremonies – but the demand for tickets was so great that a further two performances had to be arranged hurriedly at the last minute. In all, more than 260,000 viewers saw the production over the course of the four performances. Around 20,000 of them had forged tickets, according to the Vienna police!

RLU/1/2/5 Lucas (centre), with director Stefan Hock (Photograph by Lechner-Willinger)

Three years later, with the establishment of the Austrofascist regime in 1934, Ehrenzweig left Austria for the UK, where he changed his name to Lucas and eventually found work with the BBC’s German Service. The records in this archive are a reminder of an international mass movement that was well-organised, strong and deeply rooted in working-class culture. The International Workers’ Olympics aimed to push back against the wave of nationalism that was then sweeping through Europe and beyond and provided an opportunity for athletes from different counties to compete against each other within the ideological context of international socialism and strengthening solidarity.

The papers of Robert Ehrenzweig /Lucas were kindly donated in 2015 by his sons David and John Lucas. A catalogue is available online here: and the material is open for consultation in Senate House Library. A film of the 1931 Vienna International Workers’ Games can be seen here:

Dr Clare George, Miller Archivist (Research Centre for German & Austrian Exile Studies)

Freud’s Archaeology. A conversation between analysis and excavation

IMLR Sylvia Naish Fellow, Frederika Tevebring, discusses Freud’s parallels between archaeology and psychoanalysis. Special Issue of American Imago, vol. 78, no.2 (Summer 2021)

In the summer of 2019 the Warburg Institute, in collaboration with the University of Chicago and the Freud Museum, hosted the conference “Freud’s Archaeology,” exploring Freud’s self-proclaimed “obsession” with antiquity and the importance of archaeology in his conceptualisation of psychoanalysis. From this event, a special issue was conceived that will appear in American Imago.

Freud’s library, as well as his own texts, are replete with references to excavation, buried cities, and to the works of archaeologists and philologists. Following his father’s death in 1896 he became an avid collector and began to crowd his office and consulting room with archaeological objects. His favourite statuettes – fondly referred to as his “old grubby gods” – were arranged in neat rows on his desk so that they could gaze over him when he was writing. His collection never spilled over from his working space into the family’s living room and, similarly, his regular trips to Italy were undertaken with colleagues (or his brother) rather than in the company of wife and children. Freud’s relation to the ancient Mediterranean was deeply personal, but linked to his identity as the founder of a new science. The work of archaeology and psychoanalysis, he insisted, was in fact “identical.”

Figure 1 so-called Baubo statuette. Terracotta votive from Priene, modern-day Turkey. Excavated in 1898. Berlin Antikensammlung

For Freud, psychoanalysis and archaeology both share the task of retrieving memories out of sedimented depths and incorporating these memories into the present. This parallel is often glossed as a “metaphor,” perhaps most famously in Donald Kuspit’s 1989 essay on archaeology as the “mighty metaphor” of Freud’s work. “Metaphor,” however, simplifies the unique ways that Freud deploys likenesses and parallels in his writing. A metaphor is commonly understood as an illustrative comparison between something well-known and something lesser known. Freud, however, often insists on identity rather than comparison. Moreover, when he presents us with parallels such as an “exact correspondence” between the relatively recently excavated “Baubo” figurines (Figure 1) and his patient’s Oedipally-informed visual obsession (“A Mythological Parallel to a Visual Obsession,” 1916), we can no longer be certain which of the pair is supposed to be the well-known, and which the lesser-known example. Is archaeology elucidating psychoanalysis or the other way around?

In Freud’s Archaeology, the authors’ backgrounds in archaeology, classics, art history, and German literature shift the focus away from treating archaeology as a self-explanatory practice; instead, these diverse perspectives help to situate Freud’s interest within the history of the discipline, his intellectual milieu, and geopolitical circumstances. Like any of his bourgeois contemporaries, Freud received an education with a strong foundation in classical literature and would have been introduced early to the idea of Greece and Rome as the “childhood” of modern European culture. Freud’s archaeology is hence, without a doubt, a Eurocentric one: it excavates the biography of the – implicitly male – European subject who has claimed the classical past as his heritage. Archaeology had developed hand-in-hand with European colonial interests and took for granted that Europeans were best positioned to explore and safe keep the heritage of the world. Neither is Freud particularly interested in the discoveries of prehistoric central Europe. The archaeology he refers to is undertaken in exotic locations by larger-than-life personalities – such as Howard Carter or Heinrich Schliemann – to the admiration and media attention of the nation back home.

However, while Freud considered human culture to develop in an analogous way to individual maturation, the psychosexual framework of his developmental narrative by necessity gravitated towards the dark and uncomfortable. In texts such as Totem and Taboo, he insists upon a common primitive heritage from which all socialized humanity emerged. Contemporary excavations, such as Sir Arthur Evans’ descriptions of goddess-worshipping Minoans on Bronze-Age Crete, inspired Freud to ask about the lingering residues from a shared past that he – and most of his contemporaries – described as feminine and irrational. While Freud would agree with the common narrative of history as progressive rationalisation, he differed in his conviction that earlier stages were never completely done with. We, individually and collectively, carry our unruly, uncivilised past with us.

Dr Frederika Tevebring, 2020-21 Sylvia Naish Fellow, Institute of Modern Languages Research