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Naomi Wells reports on the British Academy plenary round table hosted at the ‘Uncommon Ground: Modern Languages and Cultures for the 21st Century’ conference held at Durham University on 16-18 April 2018


Last month, Durham’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures hosted a conference aimed at addressing ‘the pressing ethical imperatives for the study of Modern Languages and Cultures as a diverse and yet coherent discipline in a world which is increasingly – and acrimoniously – divided’. The landmark conference was also intended to act as a platform for establishing a regular UK-based gathering of the Modern Languages research community to promote the productive exchange of ideas across language and subject boundaries. Central to the conference’s vision for the future direction of the discipline, as articulated by Durham’s Head of School Janet Stewart, was the idea not of promoting uniformity but rather of highlighting a commitment to recognising but not reifying disciplinary diversity.

The closing panel of the conference, sponsored by the British Academy and chaired by Nigel Vincent, addressed more directly the ongoing questions and debates surrounding the disciplinary identity of Modern Languages. Speakers were drawn from across languages and institutions to share their experiences and reflections on the definition of Modern Languages as a discipline. Neil Kenny (Oxford), Lead Fellow for Languages at the British Academy, opened the panel with his own working definition: ‘The study of languages and of their associated cultures and societies from simultaneously the inside and the outside’. Kenny foregrounded the interaction of the insider and outsider perspectives as central to our approach and analysis in Modern Languages, thus emphasising the importance of a heightened awareness both of our ‘embodied’ immersion in the languages we study and of our linguistic, cultural and/or geographical mooring in the UK.

Jonathan Long (Durham) equally emphasised the need for a broad and inclusive definition for Modern Languages, explaining how no discipline is required to agree on a single shared methodology or object of study. Instead, Long emphasised that what holds us together are the shared practices of knowledge exchange, for example through subject associations and conferences such as this. Paul Starkey (Durham) followed by offering distinct definitions of ‘a discipline’, contrasting the definition based on shared faculties, subject associations and journals, with the idea of a discipline as a form of authority imposed through rigorous training and potentially elements of ‘policing’ of disciplinary boundaries. Starkey also highlighted the Eurocentrism common to definitions of Modern Languages in the UK, with Arabic, his own language of specialisation, until recently located elsewhere in Oriental or Area Studies departments.

Michelle MacLeod (Aberdeen) drew attention to Gaelic and other Celtic languages which equally often lack prominence in Modern Languages discussions. MacLeod explained how the minoritised status of these languages had meant significant funds were now available for language policy related research, but this needed to be balanced in the curriculum with more traditional areas of study such as literature. Gerda Wielander (Westminster) also highlighted the connections between the study of Chinese and political priorities, clarifying the distinction between Area or China Studies, where the language was often considered marginal, and Chinese Studies, where language learning and knowledge is central.

Wielander highlighted differing institutional definitions of Modern Languages, drawing on her own experiences in a post-92 university setting. Despite these differences, she emphasised the value and importance of sharing resources and skills across Modern Languages, and of a shared disciplinary identity to guard against the threat of being easily subsumed under other disciplines. Closing the panel, Charles Forsdick echoed the importance of external visibility and internal credibility for Modern Languages as a discipline, drawing attention to the risk of performing our disciplinary diversity as fragmentation. He also stressed the importance of developing a stronger sense of our disciplinary history beyond a focus only on contemporary events, mentioning the 1918 Leathes Report and Nicola McLelland’s work on the history of Modern Languages teaching in the UK. Bringing us back to Kenny’s proposed definition, Forsdick drew on the work of Mary Louise Pratt to highlight that central to Modern Languages research and teaching is the idea of ‘knowing languages and knowing the world through language’.

In sum, while the panel offered very distinct perspectives from across a range of languages, experiences and institutions, there was a shared emphasis on the value of articulating and communicating our disciplinary identity. Equally, the breadth of subjects covered and productive discussions held across the plenary sessions and panels I attended over the three days of the conference served to highlight the vibrancy and value of the work and debates which take place in the ‘uncommon ground’ across which Modern Languages scholars teach and research.

Naomi Wells, Post-Doctoral Research Associate (Translingual Communities, European Languages and Digital Humanities), IMLR