Janice Carruthers considers the impact of an unprecedented £16m languages research programme, launched last year

First published in The Linguist 56/4

In 2016, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) invested an unprecedented £16 million in modern languages, launching four major research projects with the ambitious goal of re-invigorating the discipline in Higher Education and beyond. Modern languages are a strategic priority area for the AHRC, hence my appointment in 2017 as Priority Area Leadership Fellow, with a key part of my brief centred on close collaboration with the four Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) projects.

The OWRI programmes are designed not only to be innovative research projects but also, just as importantly, to help to re-energise what we teach in our universities; influence policy; work in partnership with schools; and demonstrate the value of modern languages to the wider public. This ambitious series of objectives is, of course, set against a backdrop of falling numbers of students taking languages degrees, with German and French suffering the most significant decline.

So why do modern languages matter, and why an investment on this scale at this point in time? We now have a wealth of evidence for the importance of languages across a range of domains. A series of significant reports, position statements and briefings in the last eight years have provided high-quality data, arguments and case studies to show that the UK has a clear need for graduates with the type of skills that modern languages students can offer.1 These include communication skills more broadly, survival skills in unfamiliar environments, and a deep cultural understanding of societies beyond our own: European, postcolonial, ‘global’.

These reports have shown, beyond dispute, that a sustained flow of graduates with this type of profile is crucial for cultural relations, business, diplomacy, soft power, international relations, health and security. However, as researchers and educators in modern languages, we have not yet managed to get this message across convincingly to a number of important decision-makers, such as school pupils, careers teachers, parents, university management and government.


The vision for the Open World Research projects is that they are collaborative, interdisciplinary and intersectoral (i.e. they have core partnerships outside the university sector). Fifteen UK universities are involved in the four projects as full partners, with another eight as satellites, in addition to several international partners in Europe, North America and Asia. But the idea is that through multiple conferences and ‘flexible funding’, the benefits of the OWRI investment will be felt in the UK well beyond the four funded projects.

The centre of gravity of all the projects is firmly in modern languages (ML), involving literary studies, drama, film, translation studies, linguistics and applied linguistics. A vast range of languages is embraced, including those found in many ML units across the UK (e.g. French, German and Russian); other important global languages (e.g Arabic and Mandarin); a range of heritage languages (e.g. Punjabi, Urdu and Bengali); and minority languages found both in the UK (Irish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic) and around the world (Catalan, Breton and South American indigenous languages).

The interdisciplinary partnerships are designed to forge new directions where languages can contribute something distinctive to research in other disciplines, and where collaboration with other disciplines can enable ML researchers to approach major issues from innovative perspectives. The intersectoral partnerships are vital in helping the projects to shape research questions. They also participate in the research process, and facilitate the level of societal impact envisaged by OWRI. They are extremely varied and include collaborations with cultural bodies such as museums, grassroots groups such as community fora, charities, artists, schools and examination bodies, policymakers and civic bodies such as local councils.

Some partnerships are centred in the creative arts. ‘Cross Language Dynamics’, for example, working with Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and the Royal Opera, has commissioned two operas inspired by the aspiration to transcend language difference through music. ‘Creative Multilingualism’ is exploring, through case studies with partners such as Punch Records, the relationship between languages in the performing arts and the creativity this can generate in popular music, classical music and theatre.

Elsewhere, social and political questions are at the fore. Within ‘Cross Language Dynamics’, linguists will study trans-Arabic cancer communities, and international relations researchers will explore the discourse of extremist material released by terrorist groups such as ISIS. Questions around the role of language in peace-building are central to one of the strands of ‘Multilingualism: Empowering individuals, transforming societies’ (MEITS), which will look at language and identity in post-conflict Northern Ireland, working with partners in the devolved government and in community groups.

Several projects aim to influence the curriculum in languages and the experience of language learners. For example, in ‘Language Acts and Worldmaking’, one strand focuses on university and secondary curricula, working with pupils to pilot new materials at the key transition points that have often acted as barriers to progression, and seeking to mobilise the skills many pupils have from their home languages.

‘Language Acts and Worldmaking’ is also among the projects incorporating innovative digital components. Its ‘Digital Mediations’ strand will discuss methodologies for studying digital content from a multilingual perspective, assessing the extent to which digital data represents a meaningful record accessible to ML research and teaching.

In some projects, there is collaboration with particular groups of scientists. ‘Creative Multilingualism’, for example, is working with ornithologists on the similarities and differences between linguistic diversity and biodiversity, with a focus on birdsong. MEITS, meanwhile, has a strand led by neuroscientists working, in partnership with bodies such as Age UK, on the cognitive benefits of learning languages in delaying early-onset Alzheimer’s and in helping stroke recovery patients.


In addition to formal partnerships with researchers in education, all projects are working closely with schools in the secondary sector, helping to re-energise the position of languages in many schools so that pupils see the value of studying modern languages and know what choices are available to them in career terms.

While the projects’ work with schools aims to inspire a future generation of students, the research teams will train a whole new generation of researchers in the form of postdoctoral research fellows and PhD students, who are crucial members of all four teams. ML research is extremely strong in the UK, as a glance at the 2014 Research Excellence Framework report for Modern Languages and  Linguistics reveals.2 The Open World projects are taking this strength in new directions, aiming to show the value of the discipline in the contemporary world and to inspire a new generation of linguists.


1 E.g, the Worton Report (2009) Hefce (bit.ly/2ud5Qpw); ‘Language Matters’ (2009) British Academy (bit.ly/2tIuOts); ‘The Value of Languages’ (2015) University of Cambridge (bit.ly/20GjLtS)

2 www.ref.ac.uk/pubs/201401


Language Acts and Worldmaking

Foregrounding language’s power to shape how we live and make our worlds, with six strands, ranging from ‘Diasporic Identities’ to ‘Digital Mediations’. Led by King’s College London with partner researchers in Westminster, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) and the Open University. languageacts.org

Creative Multilingualism

Seven interlocking strands investigating the creative dimension of languages, from cognition and production through to performance, translation and language learning. Led by the University of Oxford with partners in Birmingham, City, Reading, Cambridge, SOAS and Pittsburgh. www.creativeml.ox.ac.uk

Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping community

Aiming to re-conceptualise the relationship between language and community for the benefit of a more open world, exploring the role languages play in key issues such as social cohesion, health and diplomacy. Led by Manchester University with co-researchers in Durham and the Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR). projects.alc.manchester.ac.uk/cross-language-dynamics

Multilingualism: Empowering individuals, transforming societies

Six research strands, ranging from literature and film to education, linguistics and cognitive science, investigating how languages are vital for cultural understanding, social cohesion and wellbeing. Led by the University of Cambridge with co-researchers in Queen’s Belfast, Nottingham and Edinburgh. www.meits.org