Interview: Institute of Modern Language Research

The (re)launch of the Institute of Modern Language Research (IMLR) at Senate House on 7 December was a great success, and I was delighted to be offered the opportunity to share a panel with Barry Smith to present the interdisciplinary challenges afforded by the two themes for which we are leadership fellows, Translating Cultures and Science in Culture. Charles Burdett also joined us in the session to present the ‘Translating Cultures’ large grant of which he is PI, Transnationalizing Modern Languages: Mobility, Identity and Translation in Modern Italian Cultures.


The interview reproduced below, which I gave in advance of the event, is available on the SAS site in two parts: part 1, and part 2.

Despite, or because of, current challenges facing the sector, the newly launched Institute of Modern Language Research (IMLR) is determined to emphasise the pivotal role of modern languages in humanities research. This is due to the obvious multilingualism, internationalism and interdisciplinarity of its work, but also to the fact that its research agendas, along with the professional identities it creates, are marked and shaped by fundamental questions concerning: cultural communication and difference; the local, national and global; the relationships between history, place, and cultural and textual production.

On Saturday, 7 December 2013 IMLR will launch with a special conference to discuss and debate modern languages in the UK. We sat down to talk with Charles Forsdick, the James Barrow Professor of French at the University of Liverpool and President of the Society for French Studies to find out more.

Thank you for taking the time to talk with us Charles. First of all, could you tell us a bit more about yourself and your area of research?

I locate myself firmly as a modern linguist, with modern languages understood in Mary Louise Pratt’s terms as ‘knowing languages and of knowing the world through languages’. One of the most important elements of the Worton report for HEFCE in 2009 on ‘Modern Foreign Languages provision in higher education in England’ was the observation that we need to construct a specialism that federates those who work across a range of languages and cultures, manages to articulate a common identity based on shared concepts and methods – and that generates as a result a unified idea of languages that we can share with those within and outwith the academy.

Michael Worton’s first recommendation was a compelling one, that we should ‘promote a clear and compelling identity for modern foreign languages as a humanities discipline’. For too long, the label ‘modern languages’ (from which the ‘foreign’ has thankfully been dropped) has designated institutional structures imposed from outside as a result of rationalisation and reorganisation rather than the urgent, lively and research-led intellectual project the discipline really deserves to be.

That said, I also remain firmly committed to working in the sub-field of French studies. My continued engagement in that area is only possible through an active interrogation of cultural formations and objects of study that are seen as postcolonial, transnational and translingual – and that allow us to understand French, France, Frenchness and the wider Francosphere contrapuntally in relation to other cultures and language traditions. I aim to practise a modern languages and a French studies characterised by a genuine, and often disruptive, openness to other specialisms and fields. As a result, I greatly value my many longstanding conversations and highly productive collaborations with scholars in fields such as post-colonialism, studies in travel writing, Caribbean studies, studies in slavery and comparative literature.

Why do you think that the study of modern languages is so important?

I believe firmly in the notion of post-monolingualism, and in the idea that the twenty-first century will be a period in which the monolingual myths that have long connected and privileged single languages, nations and identities will collapse. Most non-Western cultures have always accepted their inherent multilingualism, even during periods of colonial domination, and we are now seeing Western countries themselves actively acknowledging not only the historical range of languages they contain, but also the arrival of new languages – and the emergence of new linguistic practices that these imply.

The challenge remains that multilingualism – or at least the presence of multiple languages – is still too often seen as a problem rather than an opportunity; I am similarly frustrated by the ability of too many universities in the UK to develop internationalisation strategies without having complementary language strategies. There is a constant need to make a firm and convincing case for the contribution that language departments make to the strategic aims of our institutions and of the Higher Education sector more generally.

In all of these debates, modern languages have an important role to play, not only in challenging monolingual assumptions and in continuing to train in each generation a group of linguistically savvy specialists – experts in the languages they study as well as in language and culture more generally – but also in encouraging more generally understandings of the world through language.

The study of modern languages is essential to the development of intercultural knowledge and of an awareness of the complexity of other cultures; it is also central to self-understanding, and I am strongly committed to developing a self-reflexively ethnographic conception of our field: with appropriate modesty and caution, modern linguists can bring an invaluable outsider perspective to the cultures we research, but we are also in a position to think dialectically and to bring to bear the knowledge we develop in relation to other places in attempts to understand ‘home’. That perspective has major implications for the approaches we adopt and the relationships we assume vis-à-vis what we study.

I have always been deeply suspicious of the persistence in my own sub-field, in French studies, of a certain Francophilia that is too often seen to dictate our relationship to our object of enquiry. Personally, in my own work, I favour what the historian Herman Lebovics has very helpfully called a ‘tough love for France’, an attitude I have always espoused since first approaching the country rather obliquely, via Brittany and the politics of the Breton language movement, in the late 1980s.

Charles, you will be speaking at the IMLR launch under the heading of ‘interdisciplinarity’.  Could you give us a preview of what to expect from you?

Like many, I am concerned by the overuse of the term ‘interdisciplinarity’ to describe practices that are in fact cross-
disciplinary or multidisciplinary. That said, I will be talking at the IMLR launch about the status of modern languages as a field of enquiry that has always been, since its late nineteenth-century emergence, best understood as an ‘interdiscipline’. I will suggest that this characteristic should be seen not as a weakness, but as a strength. It permits a flexibility and originality of approach to questions of cultural complexity, and also gives us the tools to work actively, collaboratively and often catalytically with those in a number of other subject areas.

I am concerned that the relationship of modern languages to a number of other fields has been characterised in the past by a time lag as we endeavour to catch up theoretically, conceptually and methodologically; the responsibility of modern languages in arts, humanities and social science research is instead to take an intellectual lead, to have a leavening effect, and to ensure that the distinctiveness of languages and cultures is fully acknowledged. This depends in part on what I have mentioned already, a firm and clear sense of modern languages as an intellectual project, underpinned by clear concepts and methods, and a full commitment to a disciplinarity that we have rarely discussed in a serious and sustained way; but it also requires an active engagement with, and positive presence in other fields.

I will focus on my experience of leading an institutional theme in Liverpool, ‘changing cultures’, and more recently an AHRC theme, ‘translating cultures’, to reflect on the ways in which the interdisciplinary projects that such initiatives represent provide invaluable frames in which modern languages can redefine itself and continue to flourish.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

The landscape of modern languages in the UK is a complicated one, often fragmented in institutional units where the persistence of old language divisions does not always allow achievement of the synergies that genuine collaboration should allow; at the same time, we do not always make the connections we should with natural interlocutors in other key departments such as history, English and politics; and there is still a tendency towards a chronic extroversion, by which I understand an exclusive focus on the cultures we are committed to studying.

I welcome the re-launch of the Institute of Modern Languages Research, and fully expect that the IMLR will be instrumental in leading the way: developing the projects, encouraging the dialogues, creating the alliances, sustaining the collaborations, training the next generation of scholars, and articulating the new public idea about language on which the success of all of these initiatives depends.


Cite this blog post
Charles Forsdick (2013, December 10). Interview: Institute of Modern Language Research. Translating Cultures. Retrieved May 27, 2024, from

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