Bridging the Gap in modern languages: “never such a vital time for intercultural awareness”

round tables discussion copyOn 9th June, at the University of Bath, Christina Horvath brought together a group of researchers, funders, and stakeholders to discuss collaborative research in Modern Languages as part of the Bridging the Gap programme. It was a day of intense discussion that covered a range of different goals: hearing from a range of diverse existing projects, considering best practice, networking, and exploring possibilities for future collaborations.

Professor Peter Lambert, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Learning and Teaching (University of Bath) began the day by drawing our attention to the context of this collaborative research – a rapidly changing world, in which intercultural communication and awareness was an increasingly valuable skill.

Professor Charles Forsdick (AHRC Leadership Fellow) discussed his experiences at the head of the Translating Cultures research programme. Translating Cultures has shown that Modern Languages researchers could have a catalytic effect on the Arts and Humanities more generally, through their capacity to approach, translate and mediate cultural difference. There are encouraging signs of interest in these issues in in popular culture. Literature and film addressing migration, cultural and linguistic adaptation, and multilingual environments are drawing in huge new readership and audiences.

There is still much work to be done in shifting the public conception of language as an impermeable barrier. We need to build a new public idea about language”

He suggested, however, that there were also some challenges to meet. There was still much work to be done, he suggested, in shifting the public conception of language as an impermeable ‘barrier’. To do this Modern Languages researchers need to follow the suggestion made by Mary Louise Pratt and participate in building a new public idea about language. One way to do this, Forsdick argued, was to invest more time in showing the public that the lens of language offers us a better understanding of “here” in the UK as well as “there” in the rest of the world (1).

Modern Languages researchers engaged in collaborative research also face challenges that are in common with those in other disciplines. Perhaps the most important of these is ensuring that collaborative research is carried out in ways that are appropriate for the non-academic partners. Forsdick highlighted the difference between informing, consulting and collaborating with non-academic organisations, and the importance of clarifying what researchers could offer.

Following this broad-ranging introduction to the ‘state of play’, researchers from across GW4 presented work they have done in collaboration with external partners, including cinemas, museums, theatres, artists and festivals in the UK and well beyond, from Dr Marianna Deganutti & Prof Anna Bull (University of Bath), Prof Sally Faulkner (University of Exeter), Dr Haili Ma (University of Cardiff), Dr Ryan Prout (University of Cardiff), Prof Loredana Polezzi (University of Cardiff), and Dr Eliana Maestri (University of Exeter).

strategypanel1With some case studies in hand, the workshop attendees were then invited to hear and to question an expert panel on future directions for collaboration. On a day where a new government was being formed, it seemed particularly timely to think about expectations, demands and potential. Charles Forsdick was joined by Dylan Law (Strategy and Development Manager at the AHRC), Claire Edwards (Impact Analysis Manager at the AHRC), Sarah Perkins (GW4 Director), and Andrew Wray (Senior Impact Manager at the University of Bristol).

Here again challenges were discussed. The panel agreed that we need to find better ways of evidencing and narrating the value of collaborative projects. It was also agreed that there was a deficit of knowledge about and interest in the Arts and Humanities in policy-making at national level (although it was remarked that the devolved administrations were responsive to more diverse forms of research and evidence).

There is a deficit of interest in the Arts and Humanities in policy-making at national level

The panel also identified positive cultural changes and opportunities. The integration of ‘impact’ as a measure of research success by the Research Councils in the UK had been seen by many academics as clumsy and instrumentalist. It had, however, stimulated a new awareness of social responsibility in academic researchers, and enabled nuanced and engaged scholarship. Brexit poses significant challenges to universities, but Claire Edwards suggested, the ‘Leave’ vote had also brought new recognition of the value of intercultural understanding, in and beyond the European project (something that previously had been taken for granted).

Between the panel and the wider workshop audience there was also discussion of specific opportunities on the horizon for modern language researchers. First of these was the government’s interest in addressing overseas development through engaged research. The skill of Modern Language researchers (in intercultural negotiation, but also exposing the legacies of empire, and revealing diasporic networks) will be vital to defining and delivering this research programme in partnership with international organisations.

Modern languages researchers are vital to defining and delivering partnerships with international organisations

Second, is the prevalence of multilingualism here in the UK. Modern languages scholars are uniquely equipped to talk about the processes and journeys of social and cultural adaptation, and to celebrate the skills and opportunities that bilingualism entails. The panel also agreed that collaboration offered the opportunity for more extensive student placements and the development of research-led curriculums. Finally, Christophe Fricker of Nimirum, highlighted a strong need for UK organisations to have a better cultural understanding of their counterparts in other countries, and the existing deficit of expertise in this area.

The afternoon session put the spotlight on the external partners in collaborative research, and explored the value of research from their perspective. This was a highly revealing session, and reflected the ways in which research collaboration demands significant flexibility from everyone involved. The discussion demonstrated that stakeholders want to be more equal partners in projects, and that their needs should be addressed and responded to more systematically.

stakeholder1The panel of ‘partners’ included an artist, an art curator, an industrial researcher, a creative technologist, and a professional translator. All the panel members emphasized that collaborations need to reflect the constraints and contexts of both the academic and the non-academic partners. This means leaving assumptions at the door! Katie O’Brien of 44AD, an arts organization in Bath, reflected on a collaboration with researchers, in which the researchers had only gradually come to realize the skill and complexity involved in curating an exhibition. Christophe Fricker (see above), emphasised that there were a diversity of ways of ‘being’ an entrepreneur, and that assuming that business owners prioritized profit above all else was to entirely misunderstand the sector. Jo Morrison of Calvium, pointed out that when producing a creative technology, you become constrained by the code that is already written, limiting the number of changes of direction or thinking in a project. This constraint could in some cases be worked around, but only when partners listened carefully to each other. All the panellists highlighted the process of cultural translation that was necessary for partnerships to flourish even when all partners were working within the same language.

What does expertise mean in collaboration? A researcher will more often ask new critical questions than find neat answers

This prompted a discussion around the different meanings of research as perceived by the different parties involved. From the floor Loredana Polezzi (see above) asked what expertise meant in collaboration. Is a researcher expected to provide an expert solution? This would often be a mistake, she suggested, as a researcher’s contribution to projects was often to ask new critical questions rather than to find neat answers. This echoed a comment that had been made earlier by Carol O’ Sullivan, (University of Bristol) – presenting translation as complicated often produces resistance in clients who want their communications to be clear and unequivocal. How could adding messiness and curiosity mesh with the needs of businesses, arts organisations or charities who have narrow financial margins, and strict governance regimes?

Different modes of interaction should be explored, and the best one chosen for each new collaborative partnership

The panel returned to the point that Charles Forsdick had made earlier in the day – that collaboration could take various forms, from mutual informing or knowledge exchange (to use the jargon), to consultation, to in depth collaboration. Different modes of interaction suited certain projects or objectives better than others. Responsiveness to the possibilities of each of these modes would depend on the resources available to the partnership, but also each partner’s personal inclinations to take risk, and their ability to communicate across different practical contexts. However, these efforts need to be supported by further cultural change across the whole Higher Education sector. Universities and funders still have much to do to adapt grant-delivery procedures and project administration in order to accommodate the open-endedness that truly collaborative research entails.

The final activity of the day was a quickfire approach to setting up new projects and partnerships. All the attendees worked in small groups to address different potential themes:

  • Unsettling Memory
  • Media and Cultural Industry
  • Translation
  • Migration and Communities
  • Education and Languages

In just thirty minutes of intense discussion some viable possibilities emerged, whether these will be pursued is an open question but the activity certainly stimulated further engagement with the challenges and opportunities that the day had highlighted.

In its full day of activities, this Bridging the Gap workshop enabled substantial critical reflection on collaborative work in Modern Languages. It soundly demonstrated the value of bringing researchers, partners and funders together to examine practice and explore the future. Additionally, the workshop has provided a strong platform for further discussion across the GW4 community and amongst its stakeholders, as the basis for advocacy, for coming together to shape policy, and as a foundation for future collaborations. Many thanks to all the participants for their time, enthusiasm and ideas.

Later in the summer we will be presenting a short film of the workshop, in which you can hear some of these voices firsthand.

If you would like to hear about any future events on research collaborations and modern languages in South West England and South East Wales then please get in touch with Christina Horvath ( who will keep you informed.


The schedule of speakers and discussions at the workshop is available here.

(1) Discussion of the “public idea of language” was launched by Mary Lousie Pratt as President of the Modern Language Association, 2003.

Liz Haines

Research associate, AHRC GW4 Bridging the Gap

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