Chartered Institute
of Linguists

My life with languages

By Professor Michael Kelly OBE, recipient of the David Crystal Award 2024

I fell in love with languages at the age of 11, in my first year at the Hull Grammar School, when I started to learn French and Latin. I was amazed that you could talk about things in such different ways. I soon realised that a door had opened into new worlds that I had never suspected. It turned out that I was quite good at learning languages, and I soon added German and a little bit of Russian. It was these new worlds that excited me, as I discovered new literatures and philosophies, particularly through French and German. I devoured translations from other languages that I couldn’t read in the original. How would I have read Dostoevsky, if not through Constance Garnett or David Magarshack?

I did my degree in French Studies, mainly literature and philosophy, at Warwick. The year abroad was optional at that time, and I spent a year as lecteur d’anglais at the École normale des garçons in Caen. I saw how the Second World War had affected Caen and its hinterland much as it had Hull and Coventry, with evidence of wide scale destruction and then rebuilding. It gave me a strong sense of what we later called the common European home. I could hardly have been in France at a more exciting time, as I was there for May 68 and got used to the acrid smell of tear gas. After graduation, I was fortunate to get funding for three years to do a doctorate. I worked on the French Catholic intellectual, Emmanuel Mounier, whose humanistic personalism was very influential in the Second Vatican Council.

At the same time, I began doing some undergraduate teaching and at the end of my grant, I was appointed to my first academic post, at University College Dublin, where I taught French language and philosophy for 14 years. This was a formative time for me. In personal terms, I discovered the rich linguistic and cultural heritage of Ireland, met and married my soulmate, and started a family. In professional terms, I developed a love for teaching and discovered the political dimensions of language education, through university decision making and through national policy. Some former students of mine became secondary school teachers and drew me into their French Teachers’ Association. I edited their journal for a period and got involved in lobbying for better provision in schools. This rather set a pattern for the rest of my career.

In 1986, I was appointed to the Chair of French at Southampton University, where I taught for thirty years – I have not been one to move jobs a lot! I loved the freedom to choose what I could teach, and to combine teaching with my research and with developing language education policy. Initially my research and teaching were mainly in French culture, with an emphasis on intellectual movements. Gradually they developed in a more European direction, influenced by friends and colleagues in other languages (including English) with whom I worked closely. My growing concern with language policy culminated in a fascinating research project I did with my colleague Hilary Footitt on languages in war and conflict. The resulting book, Languages at War (2012) had a strong focus on interpreters in the aftermath of the Second World War and in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s. It started a series which now extends to 20 or more titles from a wide range of authors. Research in French cultural studies remained an important part of my work, but I’ll tell that story on another occasion.

My commitment to better provision for French nationwide led me into policy work in the UK, as Secretary and then Chair of the Association of Professors and Heads of French. It quickly became apparent to me that the needs were similar for all languages, and I worked with many like-minded colleagues to build cooperation across higher education. This culminated in the foundation in 1993 of the University Council of Modern Languages, which aspired to speak for all languages in both the traditional universities and in the former polytechnics which had just become universities. I was the first Chair of UCML (now UCFL) and this remains one of my proudest national achievements. I was fortunate to be surrounded by many talented and committed people who worked to build the organisation on a firm basis, which has enabled it to endure and grow over thirty years. It is still an essential support for teaching and research in languages and plays a vital role in informing and pressing government, national institutions and policy makers.

We were always aware that the needs of languages in higher education were part of a bigger picture, which included other parts of the education system. We developed closer relationships with secondary schools through the Association for Language Learning (ALL), with Language Advisers through their National Association (NALA), and with CILT, the national Centre for Information on Language Teaching, sadly disbanded in 2010. A turning point in this collaboration came in 1997, when the heads of UCML, ALL and NALA persuaded the Nuffield Foundation to launch a Languages Inquiry, with the implicit support of government. I was one of the four languages representatives on the Inquiry, chaired by Sir Trevor MacDonald and Sir John Boyd. Two years of hard work, research and consultations led to a major report, which was a marker for the languages community and was taken seriously by government. I am still proud of my part in making this happen. It sparked a whole range of new initiatives which worked against stiff headwinds to promote the teaching of languages.

My experience in leading UCML enabled me to contribute to many other national initiatives. I fondly remember chairing a group of 10 projects to develop different areas of teaching in languages, generously funded by government under the FDTL scheme. And when this was followed by a Learning and Teaching Support Network, I was able to put together a broad-based bid for a Subject Centre to develop the subjects of Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies (LLAS) across the UK. My years as Director of the Subject Centre (2000-2012) were some of the most satisfying of my career. We built a terrific team providing all kinds of support, with a large emphasis on professional development for teachers and subject leaders, and active networks supporting translators and interpreters. With workshops, conferences, publications and online resources, we fostered cooperation, disseminated information and good practice, and encouraged new ideas and approaches. We were able to develop many other projects. The largest of them, Routes into Languages, was funded by government for 10 years to promote the take up of languages through cooperation between schools and universities across England, and still continues in an unfunded form under the aegis of UCFL. Another large project, Links into Language, was funded to provide professional development for teachers in schools.

The bigger picture for languages always involved other countries, by the very nature of our discipline. We always enjoyed good working relationships with the embassies and cultural services of other countries, particularly of our European neighbours. Schools and universities had many academic links abroad, most of which were helped by the Erasmus scheme, and its various predecessors. The scheme also provided funding to set up a European organisation for languages in universities. When the European Language Council was set up in 1997, I was privileged to be the UK representative on the Board, where I served for 25 years. I edited the association’s learned journal (European Journal of Language Policy/Revue européenne de politique linguistique) for 15 of those years. With my colleague Michael Grenfell, I led a team funded by the European Commission to make a comprehensive study into teacher training in languages across Europe. It resulted in our European Profile for Language Teacher Education (2004) which remains my most translated and most cited work. The cooperation with colleagues across Europe was a constant joy. I never stopped learning how much we have in common but also how distinctive each country’s approaches can be. You may imagine how devastated I was by the outcome of the Brexit referendum. I have seen how we are being pulled away from our natural friends and partners, but I continue to believe that we can grow stronger by rebuilding our European relationships and networks.

Brexit has undoubtedly contributed to the headwinds facing language education in the UK, but the arguments for learning languages are still powerful. This was illustrated in the book I edited called Languages after Brexit (2018), where two dozen leading scholars and activists showed why the UK needs languages, how we currently stand, and what can be done to make us ‘language-ready’. The book concludes with a passionate essay by David Crystal, who proposes some concrete initiatives to reward achievement in languages, encourage multilingual artistic creation and create spaces where languages can be shown in their richness. He argues that the UK has always been a multilingual territory, is now a multilingual nation and has the potential to take better advantage of its language resources.

I share David’s optimism, and I can see the energy and initiative of so many colleagues who are working to make this happen. I continue to see around me a voracious appetite for languages among my own generation, who want to travel, to speak with their grandchildren living abroad or just keep up the languages they have. And I see a similar desire for languages among younger generations who want to understand the lives of people from elsewhere whom they see in their daily life. They will discover, as I did, that languages expand our opportunities, open doors into new worlds and, in Baudelaire’s words, offer us a constant ‘invitation au voyage’.


Professor Michael Kelly OBE is a retired professor of French from the University of Southampton. He has held numerous important positions as a strong advocate of languages and language learning, including as prime mover and member of the Nuffield Language Inquiry, which put languages on the public agenda in 2000; Chair of UCML in the 1990s, and Director of the national Centre for Languages Linguistics and Area Studies supporting all HEIs in developing their research-informed education practices and hosting what were then the only national conferences on HE teaching and learning of languages and related subjects.

Michael Kelly was awarded the David Crystal Trophy at the CIOL Awards Evening on 15 March 2024.

Views expressed on CIOL Voices are those of the writer and may not represent those of the wider membership or CIOL.