our words make worlds

Research students and language learning: first reflections on a series of interviews

My work on the Language Acts and Worldmaking project has so far focused on the need for and provision of language learning among UK-based postgraduate research students. As part of this, it has been important not just to gauge levels of involvement and satisfaction with existing services, but also to delve into the motivations behind researchers’ language learning, into how languages play a role in their lives, and into how life and research interact with one another. I began by sending out a survey to PGR students in the UK, and then during September I travelled around the country conducting interviews with respondents who had indicated that they would be interested in further research.

Selecting twenty interview participants, I tried to pick from a range of disciplines and a range of engagements with languages. What became clear over the course of the interviews, however, was that languages turned up in people’s lives in many more ways than I had anticipated. The survey had been carefully designed with this variety in mind, and I had endeavoured to allow space for as many different kinds of language learning as I could reasonably manage, but the true scope of engagement with languages far exceeds, of course, what could be captured in a survey.

I wonder now about thinking of languages in terms of scale at all, and whether this is ever truly appropriate. Languages fit into any and all aspects of life, and are not only or necessarily an extra, and independent, facet of our experience. And our experience of languages is therefore as varied and variable as our lives. Indeed, the same can be said of academic research: topics, methodologies, locations, timescales, resources and outputs are all intimately connected with the human being conducting that research, and with the circumstances of their life.

A few brief case studies from my research begin to illustrate the myriad ways in which life, research and languages weave themselves together.

One participant had been selected for interview because she is a scientist, and because her research had no discernible connection with languages. She had stated in the survey that she had learned some British Sign Language for general interest, and I wanted to talk to her as someone whose research and language learning appeared entirely separate. What I discovered when I met her, however, was quite the opposite. While I had noted in her survey response that she had spent some time studying at a university in another European country, what was not captured was the influence this had on both her life and her research. What could have looked, on paper, like a brief experience abroad in fact lasted 7 years and had much wider consequences. Learning the language of this European country was key to one of the most significant of these consequences: she expressed a serious interest in applying for dual citizenship in light of her concerns over the consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. Life often determines research, and in this instance both are tied to language learning. After further discussion, it also emerged that among all the laboratory equipment and white coats a small but effective informal programme of language learning had been going on, whereby researchers were training their colleagues in their own languages. Not just at the level of individual experience, the institute itself and its day-to-day work were also permeated by languages and language learning.

Another striking theme that emerged from the interviews was how languages informed and often directed the content of research that didn’t explicitly either focus on or require languages other than English. During one interview with a PhD student in a philosophy department, it took over an hour of talking about languages and research before we got to discussing how the interviewee uses etymology and translation in his thesis. Why, I wondered, was this not the first thing that came up in a conversation about language and research? Perhaps I had been asking the wrong questions, but I suspect that it is in large part due to certain compartmentalising of languages in both our lives and our research (and perhaps this was why I asked the wrong questions). In other words, the sense that languages are, or maybe that ‘languages’ is, an entity unto themselves/itself. Here, then, there seems to be a strong conceptual distinction between learning a language with the goal of reading or communicating, and using those language skills in close textual analysis. In practice, however, the distinction is eroded by what happens in other parts, and times, of our lives. This participant works closely with German philosophers in his research. He explained to me that his first introduction to translated works left him cold, but that, finding German copies and reading the translator’s notes, he became interested in particular in certain writers’ use of language. Conversely, he suggested that a feeling of disengagement with the French thinkers he had initially begun to work on may well be explained by his inability to access the original texts. It is not difficult to draw a clear line between this and the participant’s decision, many years before, to take German over French at school because of a particularly good teacher.

Then there is the curious case of the researcher who described themselves as a ‘monolingual linguist’, an expression which provides further food for thought in terms of the language we use to speak about language. This participant was trained in linguistics, and at the time of interview was conducting research that sat firmly within that academic discipline: they are a linguist. At the same time, they had no high-level knowledge of any language other than English. They therefore do not come under the first definition of ‘linguist’ found in the OED: ‘A person who is skilled in the learning or use of foreign languages’. Where, then, do we draw the line in terms of linguistic skill? From a combination of upbringing, travel and fieldwork this participant also had a certain degree of familiarity with several regional UK dialects, as well as a rudimentary understanding of another European language. Is the breadth of this knowledge enough for the status of ‘linguist’? Does the skill, here, lie in the ability to adapt between different dialects? And is this the skill of an academic linguist, or of somebody brought up in close contact with those dialects? Indeed, a broader question emerges: how do we provide coherent and relevant language training when it is so difficult to define language learners and their skills?

Finally, it struck me that not a single participant spoke about language learning in terms of financial gain. Some mentioned future employability, but this was almost always in connection with the ability to live in different countries. One talked about how it had occurred to him that his knowledge of another European language would be an advantage when he starts his own business, since it would allow him to talk directly to partners and clients in an important economy. This, he told me, encourages him to continue his study, but it was not the reason for him starting to learn that language. Rather, he was moved to do so by a combination of family history and simple curiosity.

Meeting all these people was illuminating. On the one hand, it confirmed what we all already know: that languages can permeate any and all aspects of life, and that academic research is heavily inflected by the circumstances of an individual’s life. On the other hand, however, every single story I heard about the precise ways in which this happens was surprising, complex and unique, and illustrated the supreme importance of giving people the space to tell their stories about language learning.