our words make worlds

Languages Memory, Languages Now and Languages Future

Languages Memory, Languages Now and Languages Future: closing words of the Languages Future conference, 23/4/21

Language Acts and Worldmaking, as I have said so many times, has been a long act of community making. Of worldmaking. The concept of worldmaking may have started in many ways as a theoretical approach to articulating what, as we created our application for the Open World Research Initiative call, we wanted to make of and do with our research and teaching. Worldmaking then became what we have been doing, in a modest rather than a megalomaniac way; that is, the concept of worldmaking has become the structure through which we have turned our ideas into action, language acts. Worldmaking in the sense of making worlds “from other worlds”, from “the processes involved in building a world out of others”, in the words of Nelson Goodman.

The idea for the nature of our three conferences came from one of our project meetings, as we started to plan the first conference. As in all research projects, the question we faced was, how does what we are doing shape up against what we said we’d do in our research application? I’m not sure we could answer that then, in the newness of our work, but we had done enough research by that time to know that the response to the crisis being faced in university language departments lay in critical reflection and analysis within the academy, but equally and perhaps more importantly in working with the researchers and language teachers beyond the academy.

So, our three conferences became, as a result of that discussion, Languages Memory, Languages Now (with the unforgettable Worldmaking Fair) and Languages Future. It was important to us to recognise our place in the huge number of people working to bring the learning of languages to the heart of our education and into public awareness. It was important – as we have seen so powerfully throughout this conference – to acknowledge the history of language-learning, of policy making, of initiatives that had great success, had created workable models and that had been stifled in myriad ways, not least by the changes in political leadership. How do we move forward if we are held back by forgetfulness, wilful or otherwise, lack of institutional memory, the notion that new initiatives are built on a clean slate, or, perhaps worse, on an ideology that sees perfection in past elitist models? Our work has, increasingly, meant learning about practices across the world, taking us, as we always wanted, beyond our experience and the language learning worlds we had been bound by, had contributed to shaping, and to which perhaps we had become accustomed.

As our Small Grants Scheme took shape and form, we became part of a much wider community, changing the shape of our place in the discussions. By that I mean that Language Acts may have lain at the heart of facilitating the projects through the privilege of having funding that allowed us to give, but more importantly, it de-centred us. The Small Grants Scheme de-centred the academy. We have funded over one hundred grants, and each of the grant-holders has had the autonomy to shape their work, meaning that we have learned from the enormous range, depth and quality of the work going on. We have been introduced to innovative, consistently thought-provoking work, which helps us to meet our core objectives while offering welcome challenges. These challenges – e.g., enhancing inclusion and diversity in language teaching and learning, identifying emerging research fields and new communities of study, social justice – help us articulate our own position in the field. Above all, the work of all our co-researchers demonstrates insistently and forcefully that language is a material and historical force. This work also gave us the confidence to think of ourselves as language activists, contributing as we can to the empowering of people through the awareness and validation of the many forms of language learning and language work in which we are engaged. Above all, Languages Now posed difficult questions about how we bring the learning we were experiencing into our curriculum, into making the changes we want to make.

Languages Future, as you know, was delayed by a year because of the Covid-19 pandemic. While I wish we did have the moments of pause we would have had in an in-person conference, and I miss sharing our thinking looking out over London from the top of Bush House, the old centre of the BBC World Service, this year has allowed further reflection, and the interventions we have heard have moved across the past and the present and looked pragmatically and with huge leaps of the imagination to the future.

I have been reflecting on how ”the deliberate exercise of the imagination”, in the words of Raymond Williams, is a basis from which to imagine our future and to work to shape it. As we started building the project, working with Goodman’s conceptualisation of worldmaking, we wanted also to move beyond it, reconceptualise it, make it work for us beyond the at times unwieldy relativism of Goodman’s thinking. The interventions over the two weeks of our conference have done this job in an enlightening way, providing concrete examples of worldmaking, using worlds to make other worlds, using language to shape the change we want to see and make, analysing, understanding, critiquing and subverting the work of languages around us. So many of the papers we’ve heard have been based on practice and have provided ways of thinking through the words that represent the preoccupations and concepts that drive us: social justice; decolonisation; decentring; the intercultural; agency; democracy; dialogue; empowerment; visibility; representation; perspective; unmooring. I’m not just listing words – I’m trying to start to imagine what work they’re doing in the world, what work our speakers are making them do as they fill them with meaning and agency.

From the beginning of Language Acts and Worldmaking, writing our proposal, we were creating a poetics, weaving together threads of thought, of research and of practice that would give us the structures from which to imagine the project, with what would become its six strands, its twenty plus members, its collaborators and its increasing number of co-researchers. But, at the end of the funded period of Language Acts and Worldmaking, it strikes me that we need to start again, return to our core principles – or at least continue and make good on the promise of the conference to be part of a community thinking into the future.

We are at a turning-point in our project. We are the Centre for Language Acts and Worldmaking, and now have to apply to be formalised as a Centre of the Arts and Humanities Research Institute at King’s College London. We have to re-adjust how we play the role that has inspired us and motivated us throughout these last five years. This conference has underlined the necessity of continued work in our key goals: militating against the damaging fragmentation across the sector; making visible the work of language teachers at all levels, and with a particular emphasis on the university sector; working together to bring the research and practice around ‘heritage’ / home languages into forceful view; validating multi- and pluri-lingualism; reclaiming, reviving, reawakening languages in the world spaces they bring to life; sharing new practices, for example, learning from the disruptive pedagogies that provide new pedagogic models that enable us as teachers and empower our students as learners, driving forth our language policies through breaking out of the imagining that cannot cope with the migratory life of the 21st century, in the words of Khawla Badwan in her presentation. Let’s take our lead from our Kariri-Xocó language activists and update our language for the world we are living in. And, also, from the unknown informant we heard about in our first panel and that I keep quoting: “I speak language”. There is no more eloquent way to put how we express ourselves.

In thinking about these closing remarks, I wanted to go through all the sessions and say something about each one – I’ve tried to do that a bit – but I couldn’t. The endeavour would be a bit like that of Borges’s ‘Funes el memorioso’, in the logic of which the recounting of the five days of the conference would take a further five days. I have, instead, gone for a lowlier form, which is summing up what I have taken from these days. I have used a simple strategy I use when working with students on translating for performance and concentrated on thinking about the verbs that instruct my thinking at this point. So many verbs, so much still to do. A Languages Future conference at the end of a project is paradoxical, but this paradox is, perhaps, at the heart of the poetics of Language Acts and Worldmaking. We took on the Open World Research Initiative call to have a transformative impact on language research and teaching as a challenge and a provocation and we set out on the project knowing that four funded years would only be a start. Above all, we’re delighted to have grown such a wonderful community around us and feel privileged to be part of that community and to keep contributing as best we can.

I’ll finish by offering our thanks to all of our speakers for sharing your work, broadening each other’s understanding and thinking forcefully into the future and the urgent changes we need to enact. It’s been a long conference, but I think the decision to have it over two weeks and five days has helped us productively to be part of the same online experience. We are blessed with a great team in Language Acts and Worldmaking, and our major thanks goes to our Project Administrator, Felicity Roberts. Organising this conference in the context of Covid, with so many of the team concentrated on online teaching and on our students, has been, as you can all imagine, a huge task. It is one that Felicity has undertaken with professionalism, insight, patience, tenacity and imagination. Felicity’s team – Anita Baratti, Natalia Stengel Pena and Ignacio Rivera – have worked with enormous dedication on producing the conference, all of them present throughout the whole conference, all of them working beyond the hours of the conference.

So, my imagination (limited as it is at times) takes me back to the 8th floor of Bush House, glass of chilled white wine in hand (on a gorgeous day here in London) and to that moment after a conference when we all breath a long sigh, not of relief, but of contentment. I got a glass of wine ready and it’s still relatively chilled. So, I’ll raise a glass to you all, say thank you, one and all, and say here’s to our future.