Open World Research Initiative consortium
‘Cross-language dynamics: re-shaping community’:
Multilingual Communities strand
The programme’s research strand on Multilingual Communities addressed the growing linguistic diversity of urban communities around the globe and its implications for the structure of language and communication, identity, and policy. We approached the study of urban multilingualism from the perspective of ‘laboratory urbanism’ as an opportunity to investigate the role of networking and partnerships in keeping up with the rapid pace of urban change; and from a contact linguistics perspective that is grounded in functionalist theory and which addresses linguistic structures and structural changes in both their communicative and language-typological context.
The strand was based within the University of Manchester’s Multilingual Manchester strategic initiative, founded in 2010, which developed a unique model of civic university engagement with language, bringing together teaching and research with social responsibility and community outreach.
Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community
Drawing on the examples of Greater Manchester and comparison sites including Melbourne, Jerusalem, Istanbul, and Hamburg, the strand theorised the way in which language needs are assessed and articulated, modes in which language provisions are planned and delivered, and transformations in users’ language repertoires and attitudes to language. We drew on a combination of research methods to investigate multilingual communicative events and communicative spaces, private and public discourse around multilingualism, and frameworks that facilitate and regulate agent-client interaction in multilingual settings. Our interests included the emergence and maintenance of multilingual repertoires, language convergence and para-linguistic structures, micro-site analysis of interpreter-mediated communication, mapping ESOL and interpreting provisions, linguistic landscapes, as well as language practices in local communities, with special attention to ‘diasporic’ multi-lect cases including Arabic, Kurdish, Yiddish, Romani, Chinese, Urdu/Panjabi and other languages. The project also developed a set of digital tools to capture and assess language needs and language skills and to monitor and evaluate language provisions and policies. Consortium partnerships revolved around surveys of the uptake of modern languages at higher education institutions (SOAS), embedding film into the modern languages curriculum (MMU), and examining the delivery of public sector interpreting provisions (Swansea).
The strand pursued an ambitious impact and public engagement agenda that was based in the Multilingual Manchester initiative and its ground breaking model of civic engagement around the theme of urban language diversity. Our flagship activities included the Supplementary School Support Platform, which provided curriculum enrichment, networking, and training for local community-run language schools; the Student Volunteer scheme, which made a significant contribution to local ESOL capacity through conversation sessions and supported engagement with language diversity in local public services; the online archive of Student Research on urban multilingualism in Greater Manchester; and our digital tools such as LinguaSnapp, which offered the public opportunities to explore cities through the prism of their language landscapes. Our agenda included research co-production with key public services in the health, education, and judicial sectors as well as with local government, training for public sector officers, public events and interactive exhibitions in partnership with local cultural institutions, and activities in schools and local communities to promote awareness of language diversity. We documented our public engagement to inspire other initiatives around the world.
Our vision for modern languages in the UK
We were the initiators of the AHRC Open World Research Initiative’s cross-consortium platform on ‘A world of many languages: a vision for our community’. The platform sought to address historical issues around linguistic isolationism in English-speaking societies amplified by the growing role of global English, and specific concerns in the UK in the wake of changes to modern language provisions in schools in the early 2000s, the structure of the modern languages syllabus, the status of home language qualifications, and the current hierarchical approach to languages that separates so-called ‘modern’ languages (European languages that are traditional languages of administration, science, diplomacy, and business in the Western world) from so-called ‘home’ or ‘community’ languages (the languages of immigrant communities, including European languages such as Polish and global languages like Arabic and Chinese). We also addressed the typical incoherence of language degree programmes at UK higher education institutions, which continue to be framed within nation-state boundaries and rely on input from different disciplines but tend to remain disconnected from subjects such as urban studies, economics, government, law and other fields where the study of language in a global context can and should be an obvious value-adder; and recent tendencies to concentrate research and teaching in modern languages in just a few institutions, lending the field the image of an exclusive or even ‘elitist’ indulgence.
Our platform called for a coordinated effort to counteract Linguaphobia in UK public discourse and to de-pathologise multilingualism by valorising heritage languages, raising confidence in language skills, and informing about the benefits of language diversity for individual development, community cohesion, and economic growth. We called for active engagement with languages as a tool to reach out to the world, and seek to develop and promote a holistic approach to multilingualism that is anchored in the needs of local communities and local institutions. We encouraged a re-think of the delivery of modern languages in schools and higher education, removing the hierarchy among languages and exploring alternatives to the current nation-state framing of language degrees that would mirror present-day ‘translanguaging’ practices, underpinned by current research into language in the age of post-nationalism and super-diversity.