by Lisa-Maria Mueller (University of Cambridge)
Languages are not merely a tool for communication but central to key issues of our time, including national security, diplomacy and conflict resolution, community and social cohesion, migration and identity. Learning languages then is not only about learning the words and grammar of another language but also about a deeper intercultural understanding that is not just important for individuals but for developing more respectful and effective policy.
And yet multilingualism and multiculturalism are commonly problematised and Modern Foreign Languages have not yet attained the same status as English, Maths or Science in the school setting.
The AHRC funded Open World Research Initiative (OWRI), which subsumes four major projects, therefore aims to explore and promote modern languages in the UK (see here for more details).
MEITS is one of those four research programmes. It is based at the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Nottingham and Queen’s Belfast and spans six interlocking strands exploring the fields of literature, cinema and culture, history of ideas, sociolinguistics, education, applied linguistics and cognition (see diagram).
Together, these strands seek to answer the following research questions:
- What is the relationship between the multilingual individual and the multilingual society?
- What are the opportunities and challenges presented by multilingualism?
- What is the relationship between multilingualism, diversity and identity?
- What is the relationship between multilingualism and language learning?
- How can we influence attitudes towards multilingualism?
- How can we re-energise Modern Languages research?
To this end, research strand 1 will be investigating literature, cinema, culture and citizenship in a globalising Europe by studying cultural texts and events – narrative, fiction, poetry, theatre, cinema – that foreground, problematise, and inform questions of linguistic unity, diversity, identity, power, and quality of life in the public sphere. This strand will focus on two distinct contexts at opposite ends of Europe; Catalonia, on the one hand, because of its status as an ‘autonomous region’ in Spain and Ukraine, on the other, due to its recent conflicts over the legacy of empire and colonialism. Despite inherent differences, these regions share the instrumentalisation of language for the renegotiation or secession of national identities. Spanning from the 19th to the 21st century, strand 1 of the MEITS project will investigate how and why language is politicised in multilingual contexts and the role of culture in this process by undertaking formal-aesthetic and symbolic-ideological analyses of texts and contexts.
Strand 2 also focuses on societal multilingualism and will provide a comparative perspective of standard languages, norms and variation in multilingual contexts. The role of multilingualism in relation to standard languages will be analysed synchronically and diachronically in national and transnational contexts (e.g.: France/Francophonie) alongside pluricentric (e.g.: German) situations where languages vie with other languages/varieties on cultural, political and ideological grounds (e.g.: Ukrainian, Irish, Mandarin) by combining methods from the humanities, sociolinguistics and historical sociolinguistics.
The question of identity is central to many of the projects and will be explored from an individual and a social perspective in the third strand of the MEITS project. The contexts of Ireland and France will be contrasted as the first has an official language that is both minoritised and dialectal while the latter has a single standard language that is highly standardised and dominant despite the richness of regional and heritage languages in France. Quantitative and qualitative approaches will be blended to investigate issues such as urban language in multicultural contexts, regional identities, as well as the role of language for social cohesion.
Multilingual identity is further investigated in strand 4 of the MEITS project, where its connection to motivation and attainment in foreign language learning will be studied. To this end, the development and expansion of multilingual identities in early foreign language learning among monolingual adolescent learners and their peers with English as an additional language will be charted. The cognitive and social dimensions of motivation will be studied in intervention and matched non-intervention classes using a mixed methods design.
Instructed foreign language learning is also the focus in strand 5 of the MEITS project where the influence of age, language-specific factors and setting on the language learning process and progress will be studied. The aim of this strand is to investigate whether an earlier start indeed is better in the context of minimal input settings or whether cognitive changes during adolescence might actually make young adults more successful language learners. In order to achieve this goal, a combination of linguistic and cognitive tests will be employed to assess the language learning process and attainment in learners of different starting ages in a longitudinal study.
Finally, strand 6 shares its interest in cognitive processes with strands 4 and 5 and will study the impact of multilingualism on motivation, health and well-being. This topic will be approached from two perspectives. On the one hand, the cognitive effects of intensive language learning in late adulthood will be studied and on the other, bilingual and monolingual children with autism will be compared in order to establish whether cognitive advantages associated with typically developing bilingualism can also be found in bilingual children with autism.
This brief overview of the MEITS project shows that the six research strands are closely intertwined, facilitating the development of new interdisciplinary research paradigms and methods which will allow for a more holistic approach to the study of multilingualism on a societal and individual level. Through this integrated approach and our close collaboration with partners from outside higher education we aim to change attitudes towards multilingualism and highlight its benefits for cultural awareness, health and well-being, education, social cohesion, (inter)national relations as well as employability and thus empower individuals and transform societies.
If you want to learn more, visit the project’s website and/or follow us on social media (on facebook, twitter: @meits_owri).