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Language Acts and Worldmaking Debates: Language Education Activism

In this blog Cristina Ros i Solé, Convenor of the Traversing Traditions, Opening Opportunities: Language Acts and Worldmaking Debates Series discusses the first debate, Language Education Activism.

The first Debate of the Traversing Traditions, Opening Opportunities: Language Acts and Worldmaking Debates was a very exciting event that started with a stimulating and provocative discussion on Language Education Activism. There were three guest speakers: Professor Alison Phipps (UNESCO Professor for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts at the University of Glasgow); Professor Janice Carruthers (AHRC Leadership Fellow, Modern Languages, Queen’s University Belfast) and Professor Anne Pauwels (SOAS, University of London), who spoke to a packed audience of language education specialists.

Professor Janice Carruthers started the debate with a very informative piece on Language Education from her position of AHRC Leadership Fellow and her pivotal role in influencing change in the Modern Languages Agenda in the UK. She reminded us of the dwindling numbers of Modern Languages students both in schools and Higher Education (HE). In particular, she talked about the alarming drop in number of applications and admissions of pupils into HE Modern Languages degrees. She argued that if this trend is to be reversed, there need to be two different courses of action: (1) an ideological persuasion around the value of studying languages, and (2) a more collaborative approach between sectors round Language Education. She also highlighted the fact that it is the post-primary sector where this Language Education Activism is more urgent.

This plea for practical and ideological action was followed up by another equally persuasive talk by Professor Anne Pauwels who centred her talk on the need to look at Language Education from a multilingual and transnational perspective. In her paper she argued that the underlying ideology in Language Education is still that of linguistic nationalism, which constrains the ways in which the ‘Other’ is being approached at different levels of Language Education; from its influence on the hegemony of the pedagogical theory of Communicative Language Teaching and its focus on an essentialised view of the day-to-day in another language and culture, to the choice of language study that favours nationally-legitimised languages such as French, German or Spanish, to the deconstruction of the idea of the Native Speaker. Professor Pauwels eloquently argued for a new interpretation of the ‘Other’ outside the constraining ideology of linguistic nationalism.

A highly inspiring talk came from Professor Alison Phipps. With a mixture of poetry and radical thinking and imagination, she focused on the dangers of colonising language learning and exhorted us to look at language education from a decolonising perspective. She made a plea for making a hiatus, taking a deep breath and taking a longer, broader view to language education by listening to those who have kept their languages alive against the odds. She elaborates on this by explaining how to do this by challenging the traditional methods used in academia to construct theories of language learning and language education, such as citing texts, books and journals. Instead, she proceeds to look at the more sensual aspects of language activism. To summarise her ideas and to make a call for action, she proposed A Short Manifesto for Decolonising Language Education.

Such wonderful and deeply thought-provoking talks were followed by equally illuminating responses from Dr Tita Beaven (Open University), Dr Jelena Calic (School of Slavonic and East European Studies) and Dr Jim Anderson (Goldsmiths’ College, University of London) that grounded these discussions in different educational contexts.