The Multilingual University: what it is and how we might realise it

By Caroline Tagg

On Friday 13th November, I attended the fourth seminar in an ESRC-funded series titled The Multilingual University which aims to explore linguistic diversity in Higher Education in order to create resources and inform policy. The seminar was held at the University of Birmingham and run by MOSAIC Centre for Research on Multilingualism and TLANG. It featured presentations from three projects funded by the AHRC under the Translating Cultures theme, as well as a panel of multilingual researchers from various university departments and two discussants, Marion Bowl (University of Birmingham) and Josep-Maria Cots (Universitat de Lleida).

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The seminar addressed the questions, ‘What is the multilingual university?’ and ‘How can we realise it?’ What emerged from the seminar is that the multilingual university cannot be one in which language policies are enforced in a top-down fashion, but that it can be achieved through our everyday practices and relationships as we try to fully recognise and exploit the language repertoires of the people we work with.

UK universities, it emerged, are not yet ready to implement multilingual policies in ways which recognise and promote the fluid ways in which people draw on languages from across their repertoires. Of particular interest to those of us from an English Language and/or Applied Linguistics background was the revelation from Loredana Polezzi (Cardiff University) that in Modern Languages departments – where you might expect an awareness of multilingualism – teaching policy can often be shaped by a monolingual ideal whereby languages are taught as fixed, isolated entities and students held up as ‘deficit speakers’ in comparison to ‘native speakers’. Naomi Watts (University of Warwick), a former Modern Languages student and now a research assistant on Loredana’s project Transnationalising Modern Languages, explained how Italian was taught in isolation from other languages and she never saw herself as multilingual, despite the fact that during her year abroad in Italy she found herself drawing creatively on the languages in her repertoire, French and Spanish as well as English and Italian. The project team called for fluid boundaries between subject disciplines which recognise the connectedness between phenomena and which reflect the mobility, complexity and diversity of the globalised world.

Screen Shot 2015-11-19 at 14.38.55Given such pervasive monolingual ideologies, it is not surprising that when universities do acknowledge and implement multilingualism, they do so in ways that enforce the notion of languages as bounded entities rather than as resources on which students can draw. Josep-Maria Cots, for example, explained how universities in places like Catalonia who teach and operate in more than one language are often obliged to clarify ‘which language’ each module will be taught in, for the sake of international students who may not speak (in this case) Catalan. He also highlighted the gulf between ideas about translanguaging and fluid language practices, on the one hand, and the expectations of university policy-makers on the other, pointing out that to effect policy, academics need to offer policy-makers precise measures and criteria, and to reassure university management that values such as ‘consistency’ will be upheld. As Marion Bowl concluded, the uphill challenge for those wishing to effect policy is to move institutions to act globally for better ends; for social rather than economic purposes.

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Rather than relying on such changes in policy, it was evident from speakers throughout the seminar that teachers, academics and students need to be active in creating spaces in our own interactions, teaching materials and classrooms for working and thinking multilingually. For example, Jane Andrews (University of West of England), Mariam Attia (Durham University) and Richard Fay (University of Manchester), reporting on their project Researching Multilingually at the Borders of Language, the Body, Law and the State, suggested that doctoral supervision can often be a space in which academics can be made more aware of multilingualism through their students’ research. In a survey of supervisors, they found that their raised awareness often fed into their own research, although supervisors also reported feeling confined through lack of time to fully act on their awareness. The team also pointed to spaces and places for expressing multilingualism within their research project, including the launch video, in which team members talk about their multiple roles and multilingual identities, and through their collaboration with the Islamic University Gaza, where they were able to portray a more positive image of what is a pro-active, diverse university than that which is often depicted.

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A group of hearing-impaired students during an English-language lecture, part of the creative technology diploma, which is being offered for the first time in the Gaza Strip by the Islamic University (Gaza, April 23, 2015 photo by Hana Salah). See:

In my and Rachel Hu’s (University of Birmingham) presentation on the often invisible role of translation in academic research, we argued that a reflexive approach which focuses attention on team translation processes reveals translation to play a central role in meaning-making. We drew on examples of discussions around translation among members of the TLANG project to argue that translation be recognised as an integral part of the research process and that translators – often junior members of a research team – must remain visible and be valued. Interestingly, the process of putting together our presentation encouraged Rachel to revisit her translations in light of our discussions and her reflections, generating new meanings and insights which she brought to the table for further discussion.

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Underlying all these incidences of ‘linguistic activism’ (a term used both by Jane Andrews and Marion Bowl) is a question not simply of language but of people and relationships, and it may be up to us as educators and researchers to forge the kinds of relations with students and colleagues that allow us to work in multilingual ways which draw appropriately and effectively on everyone’s full language repertoires.

The vision of the truly multilingual university may be far from becoming a reality. The disjuncture between the multilingual reality of most universities, on the one hand, and policy and university management perspectives on the other, was a recurring issue throughout the seminar, as Sian Preece (Institute of Education) pointed out. As Angela Creese (University of Birmingham) suggested, it is evident from the way they market themselves that British universities are not currently interested in being seen as multilingual or in foregrounding multilingualism as a selling point to international students, despite the fact that the ‘English’ experience promised to international students often contrasts with the diverse cultural, linguistic and academic backgrounds of the students and staff they meet when they arrive. The way in which universities exploit the multilingual resources of their staff and students tends to be invisible; as Li Wei (Institute of Education) pointed out, university management is unlikely to recruit their linguistics or translation departments for language advice, and yet multilingual staff across departments – such as those on the seminar panel – can find themselves informally tasked with translating or approving documents. Another remaining issue is that of promoting ideas about language permeability and translanguaging among teaching staff, either tutors in English language modules (a challenge raised by Ann Hewings from the Open University), teacher trainees (as discussed in a talk by Christine Hélot, University of Strasbourg) or staff across disciplines. There was recognition in the seminar that issues around diversity and multilingualism should not to be relegated to a side issue or a matter of mere ‘language support’ but as central to studying, researching and meaning-making within the academy. Despite these obstacles, however, there was a real sense at the seminar that, by setting ourselves specific goals and being aware of the linguistic diversity around us, we as academics and students can work more multilingually.





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