April 7, 2016, by Charlotte Anscombe
The benefits of multilingualism to be explored thanks to new funding
The University of Nottingham is to be part of a major new research project which will look at the benefits of multilingualism to individuals and society, and transform attitudes to languages in the UK, as part of the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative.
At a time when more than half the world’s population speaks more than one language in their daily lives, and almost one in five UK primary school pupils have a first language other than English, what does it really mean to be multilingual, and what are the opportunities and challenges of multilingualism for individuals and society?
These questions are amongst those to be answered by a new research project called Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Society, which aims not only to understand people’s experiences of speaking more than one language, but also to change attitudes towards multilingualism and multiculturalism throughout society and amongst key policy-makers.
The project is led by Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, who will work alongside co-researchers in Nottingham as well as Belfast and Edinburgh, and with international partners in the Universities of Bergen, Girona, Peking and Hong Kong.
Nicola McLelland, Professor of German and History of Linguistics in The University of Nottingham’s School of Cultures, Languages and Area Studies, will lead the research into the interplay between multilingualism and the creation and destabilising of standard languages here at Nottingham.
Professor McLelland said: “With this project, we aim to change how people think about language and languages, and to show that knowing more than one language is central to much of what goes on in society – from individual interactions in local communities, to education and work, to international relations. We want to have a transformative effect on language learning, as well as influencing the structures of education, society, culture, public services and policy.
“The project strand at Nottingham focuses on people’s beliefs and behaviour in regard to what is “good” and “bad” or “wrong” and “right” language, in the languages people speak – at home, the language they learn in primary school, and in foreign languages that they may learn later and use in work and study. We’re especially interested in the way that mastering a “standard” written language is often seen as a passport to opportunities in education and career, and yet it’s constantly being challenged.
“We already know that it’s being challenged by the way we write in newer forms of written communication – texting, Twitter, Facebook and the like – but another challenge is the fact that so many of us are using a language that is not our only language, or not our first language. People might be most aware of this in the case of English, hearing European, Asian, African politicians and sportspeople being interviewed in English – but the same thing is happening in just the same way in other languages too, and we’ll be looking especially at the cases of German and Chinese – with the help of our Chinese campus at UNNC in the latter case.”
Nottingham pupils and young writers will also be involved in the project through collaborations with Nottingham City Council’s Team for Identity, Diversity and English as an Additional Language (IDEAL: http://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/esn/index.aspx?articleid=17544) and with the Nottingham Writers’ Studio ( http://nottinghamwritersstudio.co.uk/).
The project includes a PhD studentship and postdoctoral fellow at Nottingham, as well as a conference at Nottingham’s Ningbo campus, in collaboration with Professor Anwei Feng (Education, UNNC).
Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Society is one of four projects being funded by the AHRC as part of the Open World Research Initiative, which aims to explore the central role languages play in relation to contemporary issues such as social cohesion, migration, security, business and diplomacy, and to have a substantial impact on the study of modern languages in the UK. The Cambridge project, together with other AHRC programmes at the University of Oxford, Manchester University and King’s College London, will work with over 100 partners ranging from schools and sixth form colleges to the BBC and government departments in the UK and abroad. The combined research will span 22 languages and 18 academic disciplines.