our words make worlds

Languages at Times of Crisis: A New Public Engagement Initiative

During the course of the Language Acts and Worldmaking project, language has been considered as a constitutive force, as a phenomenon that, in different ways and through different means, makes worlds. That is to say, language is something the use of which is always necessarily creative, as it not only forges links between people, but also, via translation, teaching, travel and technology, builds and develops new concepts and new perspectives.

In the wake of a series of public disasters including, most notably, the Grenfell Tower fire, the question has arisen within the Language Acts and Worldmaking project of how the worldmaking process functions in times of acute crisis. When so much is required of language and languages, and so much is at stake for the people using it, using them, the worlds and connections formed in those moments must take on certain characteristics. We began to wonder about the characteristics of these high-stakes language acts, and about the specific worlds they make.

The obvious way to begin investigating this is to talk to people who have direct experience of using language and languages in crisis situations. Sophie and I had been mulling these issues over for some time and considering how we might be able to undertake this kind of research. It was with this in mind that I applied, on behalf of the two of us, to take part in the KCL Science Gallery London’s ‘Collaborate & Engage’ project, a public engagement course which runs over several months and during which participants can apply for up to £2000 funding to deliver their own public engagement project.

At the beginning of the course I had very little idea of how I was going to fit this project - that we had begun to call Languages at Times of Crisis - into a public engagement scheme. Several specific questions arose:

  1. While we know that we want to learn from our public, what would we be able to offer them as part of the dialogue?

  2. Who, exactly, is our public?

  3. Assuming we want people to talk about crisis experiences, how do we deal with issues of sensitivity, confidentiality and professional codes of conduct?

The first of these questions seemed especially thorny as I worked my way through the initial C&E sessions. The course was based on a format of collaboration between scientific research and an artistic partner. We were introduced to some wonderful examples of successful projects that used artistic practice and methods to demonstrate, for instance, biological processes or laboratory techniques to school groups. I struggled, however, with envisioning a practical format that would facilitate the highly exploratory nature of the LTC project: how could we build an engaging, viable and, importantly, measurable event when essentially what we wanted to do was listen to other people tell their stories? Moreover, what could we provide them with? While it seemed very clear that there was a huge amount of value in, say, a laboratory tour or a school workshop, it was less apparent to me that anyone who had been involved in a public crisis would benefit from visiting our office.

The second C&E session was a ‘world café’ style event where each of several tables was hosted by a visiting artist from the theatre, the plastic arts and written word, and course participants were invited to discuss their projects at each different table. At the first table I felt this to be a huge challenge; a kind of pitch where I had to explain an as yet non-existent idea to a sceptical stranger. What felt at the time like a frustrating exercise in explanation and persuasion in fact turned out to have been – or at least to have been part of – a highly creative process. The act of having to repeat our ideas to different human beings who each reacted differently to them helped to highlight some of the recurring problems, and also helped to galvanise some of the more important aspects. We were specifically asked to reflect upon the following question: ‘What can I bring to the table?’ If what we, as researchers on the Language Acts and Worldmaking project, could give to a public was not knowledge, perhaps what we could provide was a space for thought and exploration, and a different way of thinking about the role of language(s) in public services and in times of crisis.

The question remained: to which public can we offer this space? Given that the kinds of experience we wanted to explore were likely to be personal and highly sensitive, it would be extremely difficult to involve the general public. One early idea was to gather people who worked in high-stakes environments such as the emergency services and ask them to relate their experiences of barriers or connections formed by languages in their work. We imagined this story-telling could take place in a ‘live’ setting, or be recorded somehow and displayed in a public exhibition. But how much could these professionals really tell us? The question of privacy loomed large, but led to a revelation: could this be the focal point of our project? Could we somehow build an event that dealt with the very issue of how to talk about these sensitive and high-stakes situations?

As we moved towards producing a practical and deliverable funding bid, we returned to a group of professionals that had always been on our minds: interpreters and translators. With the LTC project we want to explore language work done by those who are not trained professionals, or who haven’t necessarily received formal language training. But we also need to understand the different facets of interaction with languages in crisis situations, including that of professional interpreters. Further research into the history of public service interpreting showed that the problem of talking publicly about such sensitive work is chronic. The National Register for Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) is tackling this by increasing the public profile of its profession at industry events like the Languages Show. In line with the research aims and expertise of Language Acts and Worldmaking, we have decided to define our public as these interpreters. We have teamed up with director and art therapist Sophie Besse of PSYCHEdelight theatre company to put together a series of workshops that will tackle the problem of how individuals can communicate their own experiences of interpreting in high-stakes environments. We were very fortunate to be granted the funding from the Collaborate & Engage scheme and, with the workshops due to take place in May, have set about ensuring that everything is in place to deliver this certainly experimental and hopefully very enriching project for all involved.

Read more about Languages at Times of Crisis here