Digital Modern Languages: Building A Community of Practice

This term we launched the Digital Modern Languages seminar series with our first two speakers: Claire Taylor (Gilmour Chair of Spanish, University of Liverpool) and Mandana Seyfeddinipur (Director of the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme, Head of the Endangered Languages Archive and Director of the SOAS World Languages Institute). The series arose from ongoing conversations concerning the fragmented nature of digital research and teaching in Modern Languages. While there have been various initiatives within specific disciplinary areas or single language communities, largely absent have been opportunities to make intellectual connections and to build a community of practice across Modern Languages.

The aim to develop such a community aligns with developments within Modern Languages in the UK, such as institutional shifts from single language departments to Schools or Departments of Modern Languages. More recently, the Open World Research Initiative, through which the Series is funded, has encouraged researchers to work collaboratively across languages and disciplinary areas in order to ‘demonstrate the value of modern languages in an increasingly globalised research environment’. Within that contemporary research environment, digital media and technologies have become increasingly embedded in our teaching and research practices, despite the often marginal role assigned to them in broader disciplinary discussions.

The Series aims to contribute to raising the visibility of digital teaching and research, as well as providing a space to reflect on the transformations wrought by new media and technologies across a range of fields of study, from cultural, linguistic and historical studies to more pedagogical perspectives. We also seek to reflect the changing shape of the discipline, and to ensure ‘languages’ are understood in their most inclusive sense by reaching beyond the traditional European and/or global languages more commonly taught. Our focus is primarily on the UK Higher Education context, but we are keen to engage with practitioners and debates elsewhere, and particularly in the non-Anglophone contexts with which we engage in our own research.

These aims were reflected in the first two talks, with Claire Taylor launching the Series by building on her leading work addressing the ways in which Modern Linguists can contribute to the Digital Humanities and vice versa, as explored in her and Thea Pitman’s 2017 article. Taylor drew on the work of her colleagues in Latin American Studies to illustrate how digital culture encourages not just changes to the objects of our research, but also to the methods of how we research, for example by ‘following the flows’ of digital texts as they travel. She also drew attention to the potential of digital media and technologies for developing models of co-creation and for creating different forms of research output capable of engaging new audiences. Taylor closed her talk with an overview of the questions and issues a Modern Languages approach to the study of digital culture should address: aesthetics, technologics and ethics. Particularly in relation to aesthetics, she emphasised the need for greater attention to non-Anglophone cultural forms and genres, while also highlighting the importance of an ethical attention to the geopolitics of technological structures and resulting inequalities.  

Such issues were also the focus of the second talk in our seminar with Mandana Seyfeddinipur. She explored the role of digital media and technologies in relation to the preservation of disappearing languages around the world. Seyfeddinipur highlighted how digital affordances can overcome the written bias of traditional language documentation efforts, with easy access to video recording devices making it possible to capture gesture and the multimodality of language, and showed how digital technology makes rapid data collection and documentation of endangered languages possible before it is too late. The portability of this digital data also provides new possibilities for returning these materials to participants to serve their own purposes, as illustrated by the example of sending back SD cards to Jharkhand in India which participants could consult on their mobile phones. At the same time, she was critical of the digital promise to democratise access to knowledge. Questions of access remain far from resolved, and the global dominance of the English language and Western forms of knowledge production are perpetuated online. Seyfeddinipur ended by calling for greater attention to the systemic bias in the medium in order to address how we might create truly inclusive digital tools and resources. 

Both seminars were followed by thought-provoking discussions, addressing the challenges of working with digital media and technologies, and exploring how we can engage with this rapidly evolving digital landscape. These questions will continue to be explored when we restart the series next autumn, with the first three seminars to be announced soon, and which will address themes including digital technologies in the Modern Languages classroom, digital media and participatory research in Peru, and the development of digital tools for the study of Arabic textual traditions. Where possible, we will provide recordings of these seminars on our website, with the recording of Claire Taylor’s seminar to be uploaded soon.

 We also welcome further suggestions and ideas from different language and disciplinary areas, and have recently set up a JISC mailing list both to share the details of events and projects, and to encourage wider discussion across Modern Languages. In the three weeks since launching the list we’ve reached nearly 400 subscribers, illustrating the commitment across the discipline to engaging with the opportunities, challenges and transformations digital media and technologies bring to our practices as researchers and teachers.

By Naomi Wells and Paul Spence

The Digital Modern Languages Seminar Series was launched as part of the AHRC-funded Open World Research Initiative, and is supported by the Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community and Language Acts and Worldmaking projects, and by the AHRC Leadership Fellow for Modern Languages (Janice Carruthers). The series is convened by Paul Spence (King’s College London, Digital Mediations strand of the Language Acts & Worldmaking project) and Naomi Wells (Institute of Modern Languages Research, Digital Humanities subproject in the Cross-Language Dynamics project). Follow @DigModLangs and subscribe to the Digital Modern Languages mailing list for future updates on the Series.

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