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The future of languages research? The voices of researchers

Nicola McLelland | June 2023 | Dialogues

In 2022, a unique wide-ranging survey was undertaken of the languages research community in the UK, as part of one of three Future of Language Research Fellowships funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). A full analysis of the findings is given in Harrison and McLelland (2023). Here, complementing the research needs analyses presented by Labeau and by Macleod, I present selected key findings and recommendations about who gets to participate in languages research; the research strengths and areas of growth; and language researchers’ experience of, and capacity for, engaging with society, business, and policy makers.

Methodology

The questionnaire comprised a mix of some 40 closed and open questions, designed to minimize the burden on respondents while maximizing the richness of the data and allowing space for individual responses. The survey yielded 536 responses, from across all career stages and institution types: 150 from PhD students and 386 from post-PhD researchers – as a point of comparison, 386 equates to some 23% of the 1688 staff submitted in the UK’s so-called Research Excellence Framework 2021 (REF 2021) to the “Modern Languages and Linguistics” Unit of Assessment 26 (UoA 26); or 10% of the combined total for UoA 26 and UoA 25 (“Area Studies”, including Asian languages and sign languages, which saw work from 616 staff across 23 submissions.) The survey was supplemented by 29 semi-structured interviews. Together, these data yielded valuable bottom-up insights into the experience and expertise of languages researchers, and provided a rich basis to map against the research priorities and needs of UK stakeholders including government, business and third-sector organizations.

Established and emerging expertise of languages researchers, and future directions

Our survey drew a critical mass of respondents from researchers in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, and – to a lesser extent – Arabic and Dutch; as well as Celtic languages. Sign languages were mentioned twice. Several other languages and varieties were mentioned once, twice or a handful of times.


Among the 75% of respondents who listed Europe as at least one of their areas of focus, a quarter also listed the Americas, and 10% Africa – quantitative evidence of the growing transnationalization of languages research. Notably, postcolonial studies also featured among the top ten research interests selected by our respondents (Table 1).

Literature was still the most frequently chosen among our list of about thirty headings, and was selected by just over half (51%) of respondents. Sociolinguistics – the study of language and its variation in the light of social factors – also ranked in the top ten. Among respondents who selected it, a clear majority were based in a languages (65%), area studies (7%), or “other” (10%) unit. Gender and sexuality studies were also well in the top ten, and ranked notably higher (third) among PhD students, reflecting the rapidly growing prominence of such issues in society.

Table 1: Top-ten responses from “Please select any categories that you feel describe your research interests, regardless of which languages, cultures, and/or societies you work on” (multiple responses possible)


Asked about emerging areas of research, many respondents identified values-driven research, including human rights, social (in)justice and (in)equalities (including race, disability, gender and intersectionality); and decolonizing/anti-colonizing agendas. Climate change and cultural and environmental sustainability were also prominent. A smaller cluster of responses concerned language pedagogies and/or the need to secure the languages pipeline. Another smaller cluster of responses focussed on language and digital technologies, including human-machine interactions. (The survey pre-dates the launch of the large language model-based ChatGPT.)


Many respondents expressed some reservations about instrumentalizing or damaging the integrity of excellence and innovation in research by aligning work to priorities identified by funding councils, the wishes of government, business, or other stakeholders. Nevertheless, identifying such headline priorities can usefully frame what can be unfamiliar and seemingly abstruse territory for interlocutors outside our fields. While almost half of our survey respondents (49%) considered that a theme of Global engagement and sustainable development goals (SDGs) was ‘not for me’, very many respondents’ own priorities and suggested emerging themes do in fact fall under one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, in particular:

  • Climate action [SDG 13] (e.g. humanities-led climate change research; planetary health and wellbeing);

  • Good health and wellbeing [SDG 3] (e.g. human health and wellbeing);

  • Quality education [SDG 4]: (e.g. student engagement, pedagogy; language, teaching, and technologies);

  • Sustainable cities and communities [SDG 11]: including cultural, and environmental sustainability);

  • Reduced inequalities [SDG 10]: (e.g. addressing inequalities transnationally, decolonizing research, decentralizing of power and cultures; diversity; human rights; disability studies, incl. disability beyond the global north; unheard, hidden or forgotten voices; intersectionality;

  • Gender equality [SDG 5]: (intersectionality - and many of the points under Reduced inequalities above);

  • Peace, justice and strong institutions [SDG 16] (e.g. human rights; values; European values; uses of the past).

Languages researchers, collaboration, and engagement with stakeholders

95% of post-PhD researchers (and 92% of PhD students) considered their work sometimes interdisciplinary and/or multidisciplinary. Collaborations increase with career stage. About a fifth (19%) of PhD students and a quarter (27%) of those in the first five years since their PhD reported collaborating with researchers beyond languages, and almost half (49%) of those who had completed their PhD more than 15 years ago.

Respondents gave us rich insights into the breadth and depth of their experiences of working with non-academic partners. 86% of post-PhD respondents had experience of working with some kind of external partner. Experience in the domains of education and of cultural or heritage organizations, museums, and galleries was particularly well-attested. About 18% of respondents have worked with government, most commonly local government in some form. Relatively few respondents had experience of working with a business or with the health sector, but there were some successful examples.

Around half of our respondents (over half of post-PhD researchers and a third of PhD students) have a link outside the UK with an organization or potential stakeholder of some kind, excluding links with Higher Education (HE) institutions. This underlines the broad basis from which the many international impact case studies submitted to REF 2021 were drawn. (One-third of UoA 26’s impact case studies had impact exclusively outside the UK, and two-thirds of international impact case studies in UoA 25 were international).

There was strong appetite, and not just among those at earlier career stages, to develop new research-related skills, in areas such as the digital analysis, representation and visualization of data; co-designing research with stakeholders, in which over half (52%) of PhD respondents and well over a third (39%) of post-PhD researchers expressed interest (overall 43%); and in creative approaches to communicating research results (overall 43%).

The languages research pipeline and research sustainability

A surprisingly low proportion of current PhD students completed their preparation for their PhD in the UK. While 71% of current PhD students (and 74% of AHRC-funded students) had completed an MA or equivalent qualification in the UK, only just over half of respondents (53%) had also completed their undergraduate study in the UK, rising to almost two-thirds for AHRC-funded PhD students (Figure 1). International cross-fertilization of research is of course highly desirable, but these rather low figures are the latest evidence of already well-documented problems in the pipeline from GCSE to A-level and undergraduate study in the UK – and now to PhD.

Figure 1: % of currently PhD student survey respondents with previous UK qualifications


What is more, over a third (36%) of current languages research PhD students who completed a UK MA did so outside either a languages or linguistics unit (Figure 2). The disparity is even higher among the 24 AHRC-funded PhD students who had done an MA in the UK, of whom only 38% (13 respondents) had done an MA in a UK languages department or similar (Figure 2). To view this positively, languages units are attracting students from other areas into doctoral study. Viewed more negatively, if our survey is representative, then many students in languages units who are gaining very competitive funding from the AHRC are doing so on the basis of their earlier training outside a traditional languages-research unit.

Figure 2: “In what kind of unit did you complete your UK MA (or equivalent)?” (n=106, multiple answers possible)


Among post PhD-researchers, nearly two-thirds (65%) of respondents in HE employment were based in a so-called research-intensive Russell-Group institution – a figure roughly halfway between the 52% of 579.82 FTE in the Area Studies UoA and the 72% of 1614.5 FTE in the Modern Languages and Linguistics UoA in REF 2021. Only 62% of researchers in non-Russell-Group institutions are based in a languages unit. They are more than three times as likely to be based outside of a unit of languages, linguistics and/or area studies, and to be housed in some other kind of unit altogether (e.g. Social Science, History, Heritage and Global cultures, Creative Industries). Some non-Russell-Group respondents reflected on the opportunities for interdisciplinary working in such units, but many also felt isolated, felt like a “traitor” to their discipline, and expressed concern that languages are being “eroded”, and noted the consequences for access to languages study for the 73% of students who attend non-RG institutions.


Recommendations

  1. Stakeholders including HEIs and the British Academy must offer language researchers training and support to sustain UK languages researchers’ competitiveness in internationally significant research and engagement, whether in fundamental research or in addressing strategic global challenges such as SDGS and the climate emergency.

  2. HEIs and Universities UK must ensure that languages research and teaching capacity is maintained in both Russell Group and non-Russell-Group HEIs, and that all researchers are supported. This could involve sharing best practice, sharing practical resources, and mentoring.

  3. Funders and HEIs must develop a strategic pipeline plan to ensure the UK’s vital languages capacity is maintained. Our evidence of relatively poor flow-through from UK language undergraduate study to research adds to long-standing concerns about the sustainability of the UK pipeline into languages research.

Resources

United Nations. The United National Sustainable Development Goals https://sdgs.un.org/goals [accessed 24 May 2023].

Harrison, Katie, and Nicola McLelland. 2023. ‘Research in Languages, Cultures and Societies: voices of researchers in the UK in 2022’. Modern Languages Open, 0(1): pp. 1–36. DOI: https://doi.org/10.3828/mlo.v0i0.476



Further reading

Overview report by Main Panel D and Sub-panels 25 to 34 for REF 2021, https://www.ref.ac.uk/media/1913/mp-d-overview-report-final-updated-september-2022.pdf (especially pp. 47-65 for the Area Studies sub-panel, pp. 66-85 for Modern Languages and Linguistics sub-panel). [accessed 24 May 2023] REF 2021 Impact Case study database, https://results2021.ref.ac.uk/impact. (which can be filtered by sub-panel and other criteria). [accessed 24 May 2023]

Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies Subject Centre (University of Southampton) and University Council of Modern Languages. 2006. Research Review in Modern Languages Presented by a Review Team led by the LLAS Subject Centre, University of Southampton, in Partnership with UCML, https://web-archive.southampton.ac.uk/www.llas.ac.uk/projects/2498.html. [accessed 24 May 2023].



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