25 September 2020

Selected as one of eight early career researchers to partake in a British Academy project seeking to revitalise the uptake in Modern Languages from primary school to university and beyond, Dr Joanne Brueton has spent much of the summer launching initiatives that will galvanise collaborations between policy makers, secondary schools, and academic researchers. Here she recounts some of the ongoing work:  

On July 9th, a team of eight researchers from different universities across the UK gathered together at a virtual conference hosted by St Catherine’s College, Oxford. Despite being unable to indulge in the habitual wining and dining of a post-conference meal, this was a richly productive occasion that brought together fellows of the British Academy, professors of languages, the Chair of the University Council of Languages, outreach coordinators and subject leaders in education to contest the monolingual paradigm that has taken hold in many institutions in the UK. We shared screens, proposals, and examples of best practice, learning about two grass-roots programmes: the AHRC-funded Baudelaire song project hosted at the University of Birmingham, that introduced Key Stage 3 students at local schools to new song settings of Baudelaire’s poetry; to the Queen’s College Translation Exchange, that has built a community of adults and young people who share a love of international literature and translation. We worked on how to articulate a national strategy for languages that would be bold, creative, and even disruptive, driving home the ethical imperative to learn and value languages in a fragmented world in need of greater social cohesion and better communication.  

Along with the 7 other early career researchers, we pitched how we would utilise our research to drive language education. Projects spanned from a classe promenade in the footsteps of ‘emancipatory’ teacher Célestin Freinet, to bringing laughter and comedy in Renaissance Europe to bear on questions of social history; decolonising the languages curriculum through the study of marginal artistic forms such as rap, activist writing, and creole theatre, to rethinking the politics of cultural production in the reductive space of ‘Francophonie’. With some productive pointers on how to transform these ideas into a viable event for Year 12 students in state schools around the UK, we have now started furiously contacting networks of schools to set up a day-long event next Spring.  

Alongside, we have been curating a repository of texts for teachers or motivated learners to use as a way of expanding linguistic and cultural knowledge. Replete with key elements of vocab, a brief gloss, and a few questions, the text-a-week programme has already seen lesser known excerpts from Montesquieu, Hugo, de Beauvoir come together with contemporary, non-metropolitan writers such as Abd al Malik, Sony Labou Tansi, and Abdellah Taïa. The approach is thus productively decentred, pointing students in the direction of cultural artefacts that have been liberated from the straitjacket of the canon well before university study. We are in the process of creating taster sessions and lesson plans for Year 12 teachers, a competition on how to rethink languages at Key Stage 3, and a handbook for how to orchestrate outreach projects as a researcher. Watch this space for further information on this in the coming months.

Collaborating with, and learning from, brilliant colleagues across different institutions in different language siloes stages just the kind of collective action we need for language advocacy to be successful. Let’s just hope we can progress beyond the virtual and onto a real life encounter soon…