our words make worlds

Digital Mediations: Final Report

Publication of Final Report of Digital Mediations strand

The report can be downloaded from https://zenodo.org/record/6382046

About the Report

In recent years there has been a common sentiment in many anglophone countries that the field of Modern Languages is at a crossroads. Faced with falling student numbers at Higher Education (HE) level language programmes and wider complex challenges facing humanities disciplines as a whole, in countries such as the UK there have been intense debates on how the field should react to new opportunities and risks in the 21st Century. To some, this is a similar predicament to the one which in the 1990s motivated researchers in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) to start to work together and advocate (with great success) for greater attention to those subjects in schools and HE. In his 2009 review of the state of Modern Languages (ML) at HE level, for example, Worton argues that the ML community should engage in a similar way to convince policy makers of the importance of studying and researching languages.

Modern Languages, and more generally, debates around multilingualism, are increasingly affected by rapid social and cultural changes brought about by a series of widespread digital transformations. These changes are often represented by the somewhat opaque, technocentric and deterministic term ‘digital disruption’. They are manifested in a number of ways – from common public perceptions that tools such as Google Translate will obviate the need to learn other languages, or that digital platforms only need to be designed for English and a small well-resourced subset of the world’s 7,000 languages, to an overarching assumption that, in the encounter between languages and technology, we only need to study how ‘digital practice’ transforms and disrupts ‘language practice’ and never the other way round.

“We need to avoid the instrumentalisation of the digital and its reduction to a practical skillset”

Interviewee from Interview study

Some areas associated with Modern Languages (notably Language learning, Linguistics and Translation) have been pioneers in developing new digital pedagogies and research methods, but the field as a whole has arguably engaged less with digital transformation than other fields such as English, History or Classics. This report, then, engages with two connected dynamics:

  • As the field of Modern Languages searches for a new vision and a new identity in the wake of multiple and complex transformations, how should it engage with digital methods, literacies and pedagogies?
  • As digital studies and practice become increasingly embedded within academic scholarship as a whole, how can we ensure that they are informed by linguistic awareness and sensitivity, and that Modern Languages expertise and perspectives influence digital research design?

This report builds on our 2019 study, drawing on a number of landscape reports and experimental initiatives which we carried out to explore the degree to which digital culture, tools and methods are, or might be, part of debates about the future of Modern Languages. It includes some reflections on the short and long-term effects of the pandemic on research and education in the field, based on a follow-on interview study.

“It is highly likely that early career or mid-career colleagues who are creative or critical in spirit have been given permission to use more creative research methods and to think outside a very, very transactional box for education and language teaching”.

Interviewee from post-pandemic interview study

The main events and studies included or mentioned in this report include:

This report aims to influence wider debates about future Modern Languages policy and identify ways in which the field can stake a claim to making a key contribution to emerging digital practice and scholarship in a number of unique and exciting ways. It ends with a series of recommendations to Modern Languages departments, policy-making organisations, funders and professional associations based on the research described in the report.