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Decolonising languages: Ways forward for UK HE and beyond

Joseph Ford and Emanuelle Santos | July 2022 | Opinion Articles

In the following opinion article, Joseph Ford and Emanuelle Santos give a short account of work being done with a view to ‘decolonise languages’ in UK Higher Education and pose some fundamental questions that are still absent from mainstream discussions on the topic.

The wide appeal and urgency of calls to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ have led to rushed responses in UK universities. The call for an epistemic decolonial turn mindful of both symbolic and material aspects of education has often been limited to superficial reviews of syllabi and reading lists. Particularly in the disciplines of History and English, the interpretation of ‘decolonising’ as ‘diversification’ and ‘inclusion’ in relation to module content has often fallen short of addressing the impact of coloniality in the very methodologies of knowledge making, de/legitimation, and dissemination, which often reveal themselves in the research and teaching of additional languages. Working at the intersection of multiple languages and approaches, scholars of the integrated study of languages, cultures and societies (the broad disciplinary field known as Modern Languages) are in many ways uniquely placed to unpick how knowledge is selected or disregarded, disseminated and re-inscribed through language and methodology. But, while the conversation around ‘decolonising’ has been happening in school and university languages departments – and some important projects have begun to mitigate the effects of a deep-rooted and long-lasting coloniality in UK languages teaching – we argue that more fundamental questions are still left unaddressed. [1]

A core part of the attempt to open up languages education in the UK has been spearheaded by projects that seek to move away from the nationally bounded languages disciplines that have dominated so many of our institutional frameworks. Initiatives in the UK that have begun this work stem from several of the large grants awarded under the AHRC’s Translating Cultures Theme, which led to the AHRC’s further investment in the Open World Research Initiative, whose projects developed cross-languages approaches and worked with languages that are not part of the standard European colonial canon. To name just a couple of examples, Maria Soledad Montanez’s project with Latin Americans in London developed a model of co-produced community research that worked alongside Latin Americans advocating for greater recognition in the capital, while Rachel Scott’s project, Kalila wa Dimna: Ancient Tales for Troubled Times, placed school children in Newham and Lambeth, alongside educators, artists and curators, at the centre of research exploring the role stories play in people’s experiences of migration and in experiencing the world through different languages. As Naomi Wells and others write in a recent article in Modern Languages Open, such participatory action research challenges hegemonic knowledge production and questions dominant Eurocentric practices in languages education and research while also strengthening the voices of community activists.

Our own project, which began as an online conference in September 2020, sought to bring explicit attention to the pedagogical application of decolonial frameworks to the languages and cultures classroom. We have since established a mailing list and are preparing a networking bid to bring together a group of stakeholders across the Global ‘North/South’ divide in a reciprocal mentoring exchange that will, we hope, offer a model for sharing research and practices while attempting not to perpetuate the hierarchies of knowledge production and extractivism that so often exclude knowledge produced by our colleagues working outside Western institutions. In recognition of the problematic nature of the ‘modern’ in Modern Languages (which among other things centres languages research and teaching around hegemonic European colonial languages) we are calling ourselves the ‘Decolonising Languages Network’. A core part of our work to date has been to understand the potential of the decolonial approach to critically assess deep-seated epistemicide, delegitimation and prejudice embedded in coloniality that underlie our own educational and professional experiences in Languages and how we might develop that process of self-reflection among colleagues.

An important concern of those working with the decolonial approach, or on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) initiatives, is the danger of institutional ‘EDI-washing’ where universities have sought to talk about EDI in a public forum, while doing very little to change their structures. What is more, there is a danger that where ‘decolonising’ initiatives take place, they tend to be inward-looking, paying little attention to scholars outside the European tradition. Leon Moosavi has highlighted the risk of a ‘decolonial bandwagon’ whereby ‘northerncentrism’ excludes scholars and scholarship from outside Europe from the conversation. This is one risk we seek to mitigate by setting up an international network that is rooted in the principle of reciprocal exchange among scholars of languages, cultures and societies.

Specific to the issue of access to languages education – both in terms of who gets to teach it and who gets to learn it – is the pre-university level. We were invited in July 2021 to be members of a Special Interest Group (SIG) of the Association for Languages Learning (ALL), founded by Melina Irvine and Lisa Panford. Working in a horizonal way with the publisher Pearson on new resources for languages teaching in schools, the ALL SIG is attempting to work with recent reforms made to the GCSE in England with a view to interpreting the new curriculum in a more inclusive way (on the GCSE reforms, see a recent series of papers from LSP). One area where the schools and university curricula must change is in incorporating so-called ‘community’ or ‘heritage’ languages alongside the study of hegemonic European languages. Through their creative workshops in schools, organisations such as Shadow Heroes have been leading work in this area, asking questions such as why can we not teach Urdu, Punjabi, Arabic, Polish as part of an expanded languages offer?

In UK universities, various working groups, blog series and MOOCs (see respective examples at Durham, Newcastle and Bristol) have appeared in recent years on the question of what it means to decolonise the study of languages and cultures. In their 2021 preliminary report on Decolonising the Curriculum in Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies at UCL, Maria Chiara D’Argenio and Elizabeth Chant stress how it is often unclear how such initiatives are being sustained beyond an initial web presence. The IMLR has been capturing some of this work through its programme of events over the past couple of years (recordings are available here). However, it is important to note that while more digitally visible work is easy to capture, we know less about ongoing work within departments that has not been publicised to an external audience.

The breadth of activities at the intersection of the field of Modern Languages and the critiques posed to it by various interpretations of the ‘decolonial approach’ speak to the transformative potential of recognising coloniality as a deeply ingrained feature of modernity and thereby of Languages research and education in UK HE and beyond. Yet, while the recurrent tropes of diversity and inclusion do important work in changing who gets to be represented within the Western epistemological frame, it fails to substantially challenge processes of othering that are deeply engrained in the field.

The work of inclusivity certainly widens the picture of languages and cultures in the UK by giving the deserved space to language varieties, multiethnicity, and cultural diversity within and beyond the confines of national traditions and named language communities. But what this kind of work doesn’t do is to move substantially past othering. Rather, much inclusion work reproduces, at the level of knowledge-making, the very marginalization that those embodying this diversity face in the real world. This happens because to include marginalized peoples, their knowledge, and ways of life in a structurally uneven epistemic matrix is to be ‘included’ in a way that reinforces their position in the wider picture as the marginal other. In failing to question the very structures that marginalize and exclude, such a perspective ends up constructing yet another barrier to more fundamental systemic change, whether that be material, cultural or symbolic.

In this spirit, we argue that no decolonial approach can live up to the transformative potential of a decolonial proposition if it is not committed to the dismantling of the linguistic, cultural, epistemic but also economically extractivist enterprise that colonialism is, as part of the capitalist longue durée. Settled in the relative comfort of our homes, it can be easy to forget that what is usually (albeit problematically) called ‘decolonization’ in the post-metropoles of Western Europe, also refers to a major transcontinental effort that, in its intrinsic diversity and multiplicity of methods, was by and large committed to ending colonialism, not to improving the conditions of colonised peoples within it. That said, we reiterate the importance of talking about inclusion. If one of our tasks as teachers and researchers is to build up and disseminate knowledge about the world, all those participating in that enterprise of knowledge-making must be in the picture – be it one grounded in unevenness or otherwise. To go one step further, however, and to aspire towards the utopic task of ‘decolonising’, we might wish to consider what we need to do differently, by:

  • Recognising that the dynamics of epistemic unevenness is intrinsically connected with material unevenness at the societal level and that no epistemic reform can successfully take place without addressing unevenness at the material level.

  • Openly and honestly assessing the ways in which imperial discourses predicated on historically situated and bounded views of languages, ethnicities and cultures still underlie the methodologies and disciplines according to which we organize knowledge at all levels of education, and thereby recognising our responsibility, as educators and researchers, to drive processes for change that acknowledge the complicity of systems of knowledge making and dissemination in past and present injustice.

  • Acknowledging that any decolonial project that aims at transforming any field is a long-term project of systemic proportions and, as such, cannot be seen to be ‘resolved’ or ‘done’ in the short-term, by isolated groups, or through episodic views of history.

Moving back to the more tangible reality of the field of education concerned with languages and cultures, these principles could be translated into structural changes in the mode of funding and organising language research and education beyond the exceptional space of the ‘project’.In this sense, we argue that to work towards transformation we need to change our mentality and commit to a process that will outlive its moment in the academic spotlight. This would entail a movement towards structures through which we can continually assess hierarchies in all levels of knowledge-making and dissemination of knowledge. By investing in horizontal ways to bring together budget holders, researchers, teachers, students, publishers, as well as other stakeholders, and by addressing the smaller scale issues in a collective way, we can hold that utopic idea of ‘decolonising’ in our minds, and certainly push towards the bigger changes we want to see.

[1] In this short article we will principally reference moments of resistance, challenge and disruption within the UK.

Further reading

Bouamer, Siham and Loic Bourdeau (eds). 2022. Diversity and Decolonization in French Studies: New Approaches to Teaching. Cham: Palgrave.

Burns, Jenny and Derek Duncan (eds). 2022. Transnational Modern Languages: A Handbook. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. See also the Transnational Modern Languages book series (which will soon include recently commissioned volumes that sit across languages and methodologies in Transnational East Asian Studies, Arabic, the Environmental Humanities, and transnational language teaching).

Criser, Regine and Ervin Malakaj (eds). 2020. Diversity and Decolonization in German Studies. Cham: Palgrave.

D’Argenio, Maria Chiara and Elizabeth Chant. 2021. Decolonising the Curriculum at UCL/SPLAS: Preliminary Report. Department of Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies, University College London.

Montañez, María Soledad. 2020. Lemme Hablar: Community Engagement and the Latin American Community in Southwark. Open World Research Initiative: Cross-Language Dynamics, Institute of Modern Languages Research.

Moosavi, Leon. 2020. ‘The Decolonial Bandwagon and the Dangers of Intellectual Decolonisation’, International Review of Sociology/Revue Internationale de Sociologie 30.2: 332-354.

Phipps, Alison. 2019. Decolonising Multilingualism: Struggles to Decreate. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Quijano, Aníbal. 2000. ‘Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism, and Latin America’, Nepantla: Views from South 1.3: 533-580.

Sheehan, Michelle et al. ‘The DfE/Ofqual consultation on revised GCSE qualifications in Modern Foreign Languages – a view from linguistics’, Languages, Society and Policy. See also other articles in this special collection on the revised GCSE in England.

Wa Thiong'o, Ngũgĩ. 1986. Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature. Nairobi: James Currey.

Wells, Naomi et al. 2019. ‘Ethnography and Modern Languages’, Modern Languages Open 1: DOI:

Cite this article

Ford, Joseph and Emanuelle Santos. 2022. ‘Decolonising languages: Ways forward for UK HE and beyond’. Languages, Society and Policy.

Ford Santos 2022 Decolonising languages
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