Language Research, Performance and Creative Arts

By Jessica Bradley, TLANG Doctoral Researcher, University of Leeds

On 16th October 2015 the Centre for Language Education Research (CLER) in the School of Education at the University of Leeds hosted a day-long seminar which focused on current research which crosses over from language to arts and vice versa. The event was co-organised with Lou Harvey, lecturer in TESOL, in conjunction with two of the AHRC’s Translating Cultures projects: Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, Law and the State (RM) and Translation and Translanguaging: Investigating Linguistic and Culture Transformations in Superdiverse Wards in Four UK Cities (TLANG). TLANG co-investigator James Simpson kindly agreed to act as discussant.

The idea to hold an event of this kind across language research and, what we loosely termed, ‘performance and creative arts’ sprung from various conversations on our shared research interests across the last year. Lou and I decided to submit a proposal for an exploratory talk at the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL) conference in September 2015, based on the links that we saw between our different projects and work: Researching Performance and Performing Research. I’m researching language in performance and visual arts settings, and Lou is working with a theatre company to perform aspects of her doctoral research on the language learning motivation of six international students.

The TLANG project itself has heritage for one of its themes and the four case studies have been exploring definitions and conceptualisations of this over the past few months through detailed linguistic analysis and ethnographic fieldwork. One of the many strengths of a multi-team ethnographic project of this kind is the way in which the varied contexts within which the researchers are conducting their fieldwork allow for a richness of data and the development of transformative interdisciplinary approaches. For me, as a doctoral researcher in the privileged position of being able to observe and contribute to the broader project, it is clear that these approaches sit not solely in terms of dissemination and representation of the research, but also within the methodology and analytical frameworks that are developed throughout this process.

At Leeds at the moment, the team are working with a capoeira player from Mozambique, a setting which blurs the boundaries between two of our themes – heritage and sport. The emerging fieldnotes demonstrate how levels of participation can determine the kinds of data that are collected. How much do we gain from solely observing? Do we miss the broader context if we actively take part ourselves? Even practical considerations arise, such as how to write fieldnotes when involved in a group activity? For my own doctoral work, for which I am researching the work of local community arts organisation, Faceless Arts, I have adopted a linguistic ethnographic approach, yet the context also affects the methods I employ, the theoretical frameworks which emerge and, in the future, the ways in which I will communicate my work and to whom. To what extent and in which direction are ongoing considerations.

These themes, so pertinent to the TLANG project and to me at this present point in our research, also came through clearly throughout the six presentations and within the discussions afterwards.

My paper was entitled ‘Why street theatre? Linguistic ethnography in multilingual community arts’. I was grateful to have this opportunity to present my ongoing doctoral research, and focused on the rationale behind basing my work within the sphere of street theatre, with Faceless Arts . Exploring this had been one of the suggestions made by my transfer panel, and I appreciated being able to articulate my reasoning and explain my work, as well as gain feedback and suggestions from a friendly informal group of this kind.

In her presentation ‘Making the mechanics visible: Adapting language research for performance’ Lou talked about her work with Cap-A-Pie  and her Leeds Creative Labs project through which she was able to explore ways and means of re-presenting her doctoral work. Ideas around respect, ethics, and creativity emerged, and she encouraged us to consider concepts of withness and the methods she and the creative practitioners used to draw the audiences out of their comfort zones and into the stories.

Zhuomin Huang (Min), a postgraduate researcher at the University of Manchester, demonstrated some of the Visual-Creative-arts methods she is employing in her doctoral study in her paper ‘Through the eye of Visual-Creative-arts’: Understanding mature students’ intercultural experiences’. During her interactive presentation, we were asked to draw ‘blind portraits’ as a way for us to understand the ways in which she is using these diverse methods to draw out ideas of intercultural experiences. Being able to participate in this way, and put ourselves in the position of ‘the researched’, allowed for a richer insight into how visual methods might be used within language research. There was then lively discussion in the following session about the different contexts in which blind portraits and other aspects of Min’s work could be employed – in ESOL classrooms, for example.

During the afternoon session we were very fortunate to have three researchers from the RM project. Richard Fay (Manchester) introduced us to the ‘multi-multi’ project and explained the methodology and structure. The project has five case studies and two hubs – one hub being applied linguistics and education, and the other being a group of creative practitioners. The artists involved in the project work across the different case studies in order to explore emerging arts methods and practices.

More information about the ways in which the RM project incorporates arts into its methodology can be found here. This film gives more detail about the AHRC Translating Cultures theme.

We were then able to hear from Katja Frimberger (Glasgow) about her work researching creative arts pedagogies among young people with refugee backgrounds. In Katja’s presentation, ‘Visual methods as aesthetic translation practice: reflections on the process of creating ‘identity boxes’ with refugee learners’, she showed us the identity boxes which had been produced over four weeks within ESOL classrooms in Glasgow, and then read some of her own responses to the work, which took the form of poems.

Finally, in ‘Creative arts and method in research’, Gameli Tordzro (Glasgow/Pan African Arts Scotland) presented his work on music, poetry and film as method across the RM project. Gameli presented his own translation of a poem, Tawona Sithole’s ‘Belong’ (Tawona is one of the RM researchers and GRAMNET poet in residence: ) and presented ideas of transformation across modes – the poem was created as a song, by Gameli, and the poem is also data that can be analysed. He also talked about transformative experiences across research and practice.

The poem is here: and reproduced from the RM blog:

where does a raindrop belong
resting in a cloud in the sky
when even a cloud can become overwhelmed
and burst into tears

where does a raindrop belong
whizzing through the atmosphere
at the speed of nature
before hitting the ground

hitting a roof, a treetop
a window pane, a blade of grass
hitting you in the face
before hitting the ground

then trickling and rippling
then rushing and gushing
at the speed of nature
before finding the river

before becoming the river
then flowing
and flowing
then to gather
to gather
before becoming the lake

where does a raindrop belong
resting in a lake in the earth
when even a lake can become overwhelmed
and let off some steam

where does a raindrop belong
floating through the atmosphere
at the speed of nature
before kissing the sky

ready to go
ready again to go again
it’s a cycle
a rain cycle

i am a raindrop
i am a raindrop
i am a raindrop

When designing the event we wanted to be sure that there was adequate time for further discussion around the emerging themes. These opportunities allowed for lively conversations and the sharing of ideas of how visual methods can be used in research. We also talked about what should happen next in terms of a network and future events. There was a clear appetite for continuation of this kind of network as well as developing collaborative opportunities.

James Simpson summarised the day as being a ‘multi-multi’ day (after Richard Fay’s description of the RM project) which allowed us to consider and explore the interfaces and the contacts between language and the creative arts.

The question now is what to do next? How to keep up the current momentum and enthusiasm that was generated through us meeting together? Ideas included an event through which we were able to explore visual methods in language research in more detail, led by creative practitioners, a more formalised network for language researchers interested in arts methods and contexts, a blog, and the development of publications.

For more details about this emerging network, please contact Lou Harvey ( or Jessica Bradley (
Watch this space!


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