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Initial summary

We will be publishing a full report on the event at a later date. For now, here is an initial summary of the workshop aims, design and outcomes.

Multilingualism in digital theory and practice

This event aimed to map the current state of multilingualism in digital theory and practice through, and across, languages and cultures.

Digital culture has transformed many of the ways in which we engage with languages – whether through language learning apps like Duolingo or machine translation services like Google Translate – and yet, broadly speaking, the study of languages and their cultures continues to suffer from a precarious existence institutionally and in the popular imagination. If machines can instantly translate and interpret for us, the logic goes, why bother learning languages, why do we need to trouble ourselves with intercultural competence?

The two projects hosting this event - Language Acts and Worldmaking, which hosts the event and Cross-Language Dynamics, which has provided generous support – were funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council under its Open World Research Initiative to demonstrate the importance of languages in understanding today’s transnational, translingual and transcultural interactions. In the Digital Mediations strand of the Language Acts and Worldmaking project, Paul Spence and Renata Brandao have attempted to map interactions between modern languages and digital culture and analyse the challenges which arise. In a series of collaborations under the Digital Modern Languages label, Paul Spence and Naomi Wells have brought together research and teaching in Modern Languages which engages with digital culture, media and technologies. We were joined by an excellent local team who helped to re-purpose the event for virtual channels.

When exploring interactions between languages and digital culture, the overriding trend is to explore how digital disrupts languages. It is much less common to explore the relationship in the other direction, which is what the ‘Disrupting Digital Monolingualism’ workshop aimed to do. How do languages, translation, and translingual and transcultural dynamics disrupt the predominantly monolingual, and particularly anglophone, model on which digital culture and technology are based?

Context for the workshop

The ‘Disrupting Digital Monolingualism’ workshop was designed to address ongoing (and largely unresolved) multilingual challenges facing digital research and practice, namely that digital methods and infrastructures too frequently gloss over (or actively ignore) linguistic and cultural diversity, and that they still tend to favour monolingual and high resource languages (in particular English) to the detriment of others. It aimed to bring together a number of different dialogues, happening in a number of different fields, which seemed to us relevant and which include debates about endangered languages, biocultural diversity, the role and future of language disciplines and professions, multilingual digital research infrastructure, localisation in digital media, decolonising the internet, multilingual/multicultural perspectives on the role of Artificial Intelligence and machine translation, and global digital humanities. Our goal was not only to give testament to the sheer breadth of perspectives which need to come into play when exploring digital linguistic and cultural diversity, but also to forge new collaborations between key stakeholders who do not necessarily have enough opportunities to engage with each other in exploring these questions, and to promote alliances between academic, commercial and third sector respondents in addressing four key themes:

1. Linguistic and geocultural diversity in digital knowledge infrastructures

How do digital knowledge infrastructures embed multilingual or language-focused practice in social and technical terms? How might digital infrastructures reinforce or redistribute linguistic and cultural influence or authority?

2. Working with multilingual methods and data

How well do digital methods and data practices currently model multilingual dynamics, and what new forms of digital, linguistic and cultural criticism are needed to interpret digital methods or data-driven approaches to languages and multilingualism?

3. Transcultural and translingual approaches to digital study

How can we effectively study intercultural, plurilingual or transborder perspectives using digital tools? What is the role of digital practitioners (in research or industry) and language experts (such as translators, linguists and modern language researchers) in studying these interactions?

4. Artificial intelligence, machine learning and Natural Language Processing in language worlds

What challenges do AI, machine learning and NLP pose for language research fields and professions? What opportunities and limitations does AI enact on the dynamics of linguistic diversity or intercultural communication?

Workshop design and re-design

We had originally conceived of the event as a largely face-to-face event in London, UK (with a virtual component for those unable to attend), which would be split into two days:

  • The first day would include a number of lightning talks, panels, posters, demos, mini-workshops and other experimental formats, largely generated through an open call for proposals. This part of the workshop would focus on latest research/practice and familiarisation with the range of perspectives at play.
  • The second day was designed to propose new models and solutions in addressing the challenges of multilingualism in digital spaces. Bringing together leading researchers, educators, digital practitioners, language-focused professionals and policy makers we hoped to combine both conceptual (strategy, policy and theory) and practical perspectives (digital ecosystems, methods and tools with a focus on language) and in so doing, help to strengthen connections between numerous overlapping digital and languages-driven initiatives. Participants would be divided into four groups, exploring the four themes above, and outcomes might include co-design of conceptual frameworks / white papers, or practical outcomes such as prototypes or toolkits.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced us to re-think our original design, and we re-factored the event as a virtual event with two parts:

  • An online synchronous workshop, lasting a day and a half with numerous lightning talks, panels, posters, demos and a mini-workshop.
  • An asynchronous workshop involving four ‘theme groups’, each led by two or three facilitators who created small groups to address each of the four challenges listed above during the week after the synchronous event (June 17th-24th 2020).

The first (synchronous) workshop received over 300 registrations from all around the world and attendance was enhanced with up to 230 people watching the presentations on an additional YouTube relay. The workshop brought together people from academia, language professions, secondary education, digital media companies, the cultural heritage sector, international policy organisations and the creative arts sector. The programme was internationally diverse both in geographic representation and languages covered, and while we would have done some things differently if we had planned this as a virtual event from the outset, general feedback was extremely positive.

The second (asynchronous) workshop was organised at very short notice due to the constraints imposed by the global pandemic, but facilitators for the four groups each managed to create internationally diverse ‘theme groups’ and to generate a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous interactions to address the challenge they had been given. You can find initial summaries for some of the groups under ‘Theme Groups’. Full reports on outcomes will be provided at a later date.

There were 25 speakers with institutional affiliation in twelve different countries over a day and half for the synchronous event, and the theme groups included 41 participants based in 16 countries. The workshop confirmed considerable appetite for continuing to disrupt digital monolingualism in its various forms.

We believe that both presentations at the synchronous workshop, and forthcoming outcomes from the asynchronous workshop which followed it, provide some important insights into the challenges facing us and some invaluable pointers to future directions in addressing digital multilingualism. We will publish final materials from the workshop in the coming weeks, and we hope to continue future collaborations which ‘disrupt digital mononlingualism’ in the future.

Paul Spence