Let’s talk about wider cultural dialogue

Modern languages needs to become a broader interdisciplinary field unbound by national limits, argues Charles Burdett

February 25, 2016
Mark Airs illustration (25 February 2016)
Source: Mark Airs

In the very near future, the Arts and Humanities Research Council will announce the large projects that it will finance over the next four years as part of its Open World Research Initiative.

The scheme seeks to provide “a new and exciting vision for languages research in response to the challenges and opportunities presented by a globalized research environment”. While the individual projects will no doubt be excellent, they will also address a range of broader issues at the heart of the study of modern languages today.

In common with any other subject, modern languages needs to articulate a strong sense of what it stands for (especially considering the national decline in its provision) and why it is important. Equally, in an age that is increasingly defined as post-national and mobile, all research and teaching must confront the reality of globalisation. If one works on a European culture – and I write as an Italianist – then one has, more and more, to explain its relevance in global terms.

But anyone who sets out to contribute to the articulation of a new vision for languages research has to address the question of disciplinarity. It is now generally agreed that the best research interrogates its own methodology, explores its relations to its social and cultural contexts and reflects on the impact that it will have on its audiences. Indeed, one of the functions of any piece of research is to comment on the disciplinary framework of which it is part. The purpose of research is not only to suggest new objects of study, but also new ways of studying. Yet this is where modern languages faces something of a dilemma.

On the one hand, one might argue that within modern languages a set of distinct methodological operations are conducted (comprising, broadly speaking, literary and cultural studies, linguistics and history). One might go on to suggest that it is not really appropriate to speak of modern languages as a “discipline” and that the very diversity of approach that one finds within any school of modern languages leads to a vibrant field of study.

On the other hand, however, it is clear that modern languages does constitute a discipline: it represents a community of researchers and students; it is identified as such by universities, by its users and indeed by research councils. Moreover, as a result of institutional configurations, what were once very distinct disciplinary approaches are brought more and more into a productive dialogue with one another.

However you articulate a sense of disciplinarity, there is no doubt that modern languages needs to be clearer about its objects of study and the methodological principles on which that study is based. Research has become inherently interdisciplinary and yet, at a time when interdisciplinarity is generally prized, the range of objects and methods of enquiry developed in modern languages is not entirely clear to potential students, to funders and to the wider community.

As part of a group of researchers engaged in a project with the rather grandiose title of “Transnationalizing Modern Languages”, I would argue that we need to think urgently about how the elements of what we do within modern languages come together. That issue forms the basis for an event the project team is organising at the British Academy. It is also at the heart of a new series on transnational modern languages that Liverpool University Press will be publishing over the next few years.

Modern languages is generally seen as an area of study for specialists working in discrete fields associated with nation states. The editors of the series believe instead that it needs to be articulated as an expert mode of enquiry whose founding research question is how languages and cultures operate and interact across diverse axes of connection, which may flex according to historical, geographical, economic, political or cultural conditions. The aim of the series is thus to suggest how the study of modern languages can be construed and practised not as the enquiry into separate national traditions, but as the study of cultures and their interactions. It will focus on the centrality of language and culture as situated sets of practices whose performance is crucial in all areas of social life, from individual experience to the building of local and virtual communities.

Yet this question of how cultures operate and interact, the series will also argue, needs to take a foundational place not only within modern languages, but also within enquiry across the humanities and social sciences into intersubjective and social experience.

Charles Burdett is professor of Italian at the University of Bristol. He is part of the project team for the event “Transnationalizing Modern Languages: Reshaping the discipline for the 21st century”, to be held at the British Academy on 26 February.

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