"Modern languages is at a crossroads," warns Professor Kohl

Modern languages 'at a crossroads' - new project launched today

Matt Pickles

Today is international languages day. But in the UK, modern languages is “at a crossroads”, according to an Oxford University professor. Katrin Kohl, professor of German Literature, says the perception of languages in schools and society is suffering.

Today, she and her fellow researchers have launched a major four-year research programme to investigate the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity. The project, called Creative Multilingualism, will explore how being able to speak more than one language can make us more creative. There is much more information about the planned research on the project’s website.

Professor Kohl tells Arts Blog a bit more about the project:

"Modern Languages is at a crossroads, and an ambitious research project will seek to give new impetus to the subject by putting creativity at the heart of it. This runs counter to the way languages are currently perceived, both in schools and in society – as a subject that consists merely of a bundle of practical skills. Research on Creative Multilingualism is designed to open up and showcase the cultural and cognitive riches associated with linguistic diversity, in order to reinvigorate the subject across the educational and academic spectrum and in society.

The researchers will be working on projects that are designed to investigate the creative roots of Modern Languages in the humanities, and explore the role of creativity in the interdisciplinary reach of languages as the communicative medium that characterises us as human beings.

In schools, Modern Foreign Languages has been suffering attrition for years, with the Government’s decision in 2004 to make inclusion of a language at GCSE optional leading to a significant and ongoing drop in take-up and in progression to A level. Together with league table pressures and the complexity and teaching-intensive nature of the subject, this has impacted negatively on Modern Foreign Languages departments in schools, and in turn caused some fifty university departments to close.

The falling number of Modern Languages graduates has contributed to an intensifying teacher shortage, with Brexit uncertainties now impeding recruitment from France, Spain and Germany. These factors have contributed to an unprecedented crisis in the subject, with a danger of meltdown especially in the state sector.

But we also need to ask ourselves why children and young people have been voting with their feet, and what’s been happening with the subject itself. We need go no further than the A level syllabus in force until this summer to find that the subject has been drained of academic substance. It restricts assessment to the ‘four skills’ of speaking, listening, reading and writing while reducing cultural content to a ‘carrier’ of language that is not assessed. This is like calling an A level subject “Maths” when actually it only consists of Applied Maths.

Moreover, at a time when the rise of global English has reduced the incentive to learn languages for native speakers of English, it has restricted the subject to its driest parts, with too few lessons per week to ensure sufficiently swift progress to sustain motivation. This reductive development has also opened up a gulf between Modern Foreign Languages in schools, and Modern Languages as they’re taught and researched in the humanities sections of Russell Group universities.

The Arts and Humanities Research Council is now investing an unprecedented £20 million into multi-institutional and interdisciplinary research as part of its Open World Research Initiative. This is designed to transform and invigorate Modern Languages research, and incentivise academics to work with partners that can help to raise the status of languages across UK society.

Four major collaborative research programmes led by Cambridge, King’s College London, Manchester and Oxford are being funded over the next four years to build a stronger and more vibrant identity for the subject, and to open up Languages to include ‘lesser taught’ ones in schools such as Mandarin and Arabic, and encourage cooperation between university departments in (European) Modern Languages and departments that teach Asian and African languages.

The Oxford-led programme entitled Creative Multilingualism includes researchers from Birmingham City University, Cambridge, Reading, SOAS, Pittsburgh, and the University of California, Santa Barbara. Together they have expertise in over 40 languages, which they will draw on as they conduct their research on the interaction and interdependence of linguistic diversity and creativity. They will be focusing on different aspects of language, ranging from the relationship between language and thought through to the interaction between languages in literary texts and theatrical performances.

A project on translation will investigate how moving from one language to another not only results in a transposed text, but also opens up new dimensions of meaning that lay hidden in the original. An empirical study conducted in UK classrooms will compare learning outcomes between functionally oriented tasks and tasks involving linguistic creativity.

A vital part of Creative Multilingualism is its work with partners including the British Council, the Association for Language Learning, English PEN, GCHQ, Business in the Community and a wide range of schools. In conferences, workshops, a Multilingual Music Fest, after-school clubs, a Linguamania event in January 2017 and a Road Show planned for 2019, participants of the programme will collaborate to showcase and explore linguistic creativity, make the value of community languages more visible, and give a more imaginative dimension to career choices involving languages.

Above all, they will seek to generate enthusiasm for the value of languages as a fascinatingly diverse medium of communication that allows us to express our cultural identities creatively, individually, and in original ways."