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Decolonising the ‘Modern’ in ‘Modern Languages’

Here we explore the teaching and decolonising of modern foreign languages, we look at the validity of the prefix ‘modern’ in this context.
There is a perception of modern languages, which is that it is really purely focused on learning language– that, is learning grammar in particular, learning long vocabulary lists, these sorts of things. Whereas in fact, language degrees at a university level have a very prominent cultural element. And what students are training for is to become culturally agile and be able to move between different linguistic and cultural contexts. And so I think that process of learning languages and acquiring the kind of knowledge of languages in their cultural context is really instrumental to decolonizing the curriculum across all disciplines. In all disciplines, we’re engaging with our disciplinary area through a particular language.
And in the vast majority of cases here in Bristol, that language is English. So just through encouraging students to engage with different languages, we’re encouraging to do that cultural work of thinking about something from a different perspective through their choice of language. In terms of decolonizing the teaching of modern languages, I think there are kind of two main things. In the kind of mid to longer term, I think the real issue is which languages we teach. And modern languages as a discipline as it’s developed in the UK has predominantly focused on Western European languages. As it grew through the 19th century and the early 20th century, learning languages was the way of improving cultural cooperation.
So you get a big investment in language learning after the First World War, for example, and with the growing importance of the European project. And what that means is that we end up with sets of languages which are global in their scope because of the project of empire and the way in which languages such as French or Spanish were exported. But also, it means that students don’t have access to languages, which are very widely spoken here in the UK because they don’t fit historically into what modern languages has been. So you get African languages, for example, only being taught, really, at the School of Oriental and African studies in London.
So I think that we could really think more in a much more concerted way about introducing languages, non-European languages, into the curriculum. And here in Bristol, we do teach Arabic, Korean, and Mandarin, but these are not full degree courses. So you can take a unit learning Arabic from scratch, for example, but it’s not a full degree course with all of the cultural apparatus and cultural unit– historical units surrounding it. So there have been, for a long time– for decades, really, there have been initiatives in what are sometimes called community languages or heritage languages. It’s a big project up in Manchester, the multi-lingual Manchester project, which is about embedding those languages in the university curriculum.
Here in Bristol, we have a very large Somali population. So imagine a university where we were teaching Somali to students, say, from the medical school. What would that give them in terms of skills when they were then going out and working for the NHS? So I think that that’s a really interesting way that we can decolonize modern languages. And I mean, my own teaching is in African literature and French. So I’m interested in how we can, using these hegemonic European languages within the confines of a degree in French, we can also pull them apart so we can start to challenge this narrow methodological nationalism which has dominated modern languages departments.
So through introducing, say, the teaching of the Haitian Revolution to the first year students– we teach the Haitian Revolution alongside the French Revolution. And we ask students to challenge ideas of freedom or ideals of freedom and equality that are put forward during the period of the French Revolution through the lens of the Haitian Revolution and through the lens of 20th century writers such as Aime Cesaire and CLR James and what they write about the Haitian Revolution. So I often give my students a film in Wolof which is the lingua franca of Senegal, even though they’re studying a unit in what is supposedly francophone African literature.
I will always put that on the curriculum because it immediately challenges francophone Africa as itself being a colonial construct.
I question the extent to which modern is a useful term to have in the title of a degree or a school. The modern is such a slippery term to the extent that it comes to be a bit meaningless unless situated very precisely. In language education, modern is often posed in distinction to ancient languages, classical languages– Greek and Latin and so on. And in the 17th and 18th century, you get these big disputes around what kinds of knowledge should we cling to. Is it the ancient knowledge, or is it the modern knowledge?
But then, of course, as we know, from decolonial thought, modern then comes to operate as part of the European project of colonial modernity, and that’s a project which arguably begins in 1492 with the contact across the Atlantic space. So I would advocate foregrounding multilingualism, foregrounding translation within a school of languages and cultures and that that term modern, it’s useful to critique it. It’s useful for students to think about it historically how it’s been used and how that term itself retains a kind of power and agency. But I’m not sure that it’s the most useful term for us to have.
I think in terms of our degrees in French, single honours degrees, that we have a lot of joint honours programmes with history and English and philosophy and with other languages within the school. I think it’s important that these decolonizing approaches are taken aboard across all years of study and by all staff so to avoid the tokenistic inclusion of one Black writer on a first year course, for example. So that’s why the Haitian Revolution, we integrate it with the teaching of the French Revolution. And the seminar groups are delivered by all of our colleagues. We also need to then recognise that students choose their pathways through degrees depending on the option units that they choose.
So you may have a student who then selects units on francophone African literature throughout the rest of their degree course and then does my final year on Pan-Africanism. And obviously, they’re going to come out with a very different education to students who choose 19th century fiction and Renaissance culture except I think that joining up these conversations with colleagues who are early modern specialists, 20th century fiction specialists, means that those colleagues are also alert to what it means to take a decolonial approach.
And I found actually that my colleagues are really open to engaging with– re-engaging with their reading lists from that perspective and that at the moment, these conversations have become so widespread that they’re full of ideas for how they can push their students to think more critically.

In this video, Dr Ruth Bush explores the teaching and decolonising of modern foreign languages. Some of the topics which this video covers include:

  • the relationship between modern languages and and decolonising the curriculum (0:05)

  • the question of which languages we teach and the predominant focus on Western European languages in modern language teaching (1:39)

  • current initiatives around community languages such as Mulilingual Manchester (3:26)

  • the ways in which we can decentre and challenge methodological nationalisms in how we teach modern languages (4:04)

  • the extent to which ‘modern’ is a useful term to describe the teaching of language and culture and the importance of multilingualism and translation (5:27)

  • the need for strategies that avoid tokenism as we attempt to decolonise and diversify (7:07)

Ruth Bush is Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Literature at the University of Bristol. Her research concerns African and Diasporic literary and cultural production, with a particular interest in material print cultures, translation, and decolonial practice. Her first book was Publishing Africa in French: Literary Institutions and Decolonization 1945–67 (LUP, 2016) and her next, Translation Imperatives, is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press.

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