Phipps and Gonzalez

Call for responses to Modern Languages:

Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field

by Alison Phipps and Mike Gonzalez

(hailed in 2004 by Henry Giroux as ‘filled with so much wisdom, critical insight, and sheer humanity that it takes one’s breath away.Reclaiming language as both a site of struggle and a crucial sphere of politics matters of language lie at the heart of any viable pedagogy in which democracy matters.’)


Proposals and responses to Editor-in-Chief, Arts and Humanities in Higher Education: an international journal of theory, research and practice

From Phipps and Gonzalez ch.1  ‘Politics of Languages’


There is a profound crisis in modern languages. The number of students applying for undergraduate courses is declining, and the siren voices asking what ‘use’such courses are grow more shrill by the minute. Emergency conferences gather to define the origins of the coming disaster, and to justify the continuing existence of modern languages in terms of the values that prevail throughout higher education. Mergers of departments across institutions are offered up on the altar of‘viability’ and ‘efficiency’ – the twin shibboleths of a new managerial layer trained in the ethics of consumption and profitability. An alternative response is to justify the survival of their departments by reference to a university-wide ‘market’ for languages; new degree courses marrying languages with management or law or engineering, for example, are enthusiastically offered as a way forward. Languages as commodity These, and other similar responses have two features in common: they are defensive, and they concede without a fight the concept of languages as ‘skills’, technical adjuncts to the real business of managing, engineering, drawing up contracts and so on. A principled advocacy of modern languages as an intellectual discipline full of possibilities, a source of understandings and insights that can empower and enrich human life, is rarely if ever heard.

THERE IS MODERNISATION…AND MODERNISATION The challenges we face are unavoidable. The greatest error, however, would be simply to turn our back and reject them as ‘bad modernisation’. The situation is far more complex. The imagined ‘good old days’ when a disinterested humanism prevailed, to the extent that they ever existed, were double-edged. The dominant high culture, for example, gave short shrift to the broad spectrum of cultural products and activities not contained within the narrow literary canon. It was an intellectual culture that was overwhelmingly elitist, narrow-minded and discriminatory towards marginalised or minority expression. And while it made obeisance to a concept of tradition and thus to historical processes, its historicism was often mechanical or irredeemably idealist in its refusal to anchor the life of the spirit in the terrain of the material. On the other hand, the move towards ‘performativity’or skills, for all its potential limitation of the speculative spirit, has given a new legitimacy to oral forms, communicative competences and areas of non-academic knowledge (from popular culture and storytelling to ritual and performance).

The growth of interest in applied linguistics and the new disciplines of foreign language education and second language acquisition, have been another, perhaps unintended, consequence. As they have gained ‘legitimacy’ within the academy, they have begun to contribute important research to the study of literature, for example through their concern with literacy.

‘Applied language’ As modern language departments have moved increasingly towards ‘applied language’, another potential conflict has become apparent. Kelly (2000) highlights the possible contradiction between the private and the social purposes of language learning, on the one hand, and on the other the specific purposes of applied language in particular fields, as language departments and centres have moved into areas like business, law and medicine as well as anthropology and sociology. Projecting the logic of the process into a probably not very distant future, Kelly points ahead to a situation in which there would be no language degrees as such, but only language study associated directly with each separate discipline (Kelly, 2000: 91). While he refrains from suggesting how this might be resisted or addressed politically, he makes clear what the long-term consequences are likely to be. Language departments would be transformed into service units, providing skills additional to the core capacities required by other areas of professional activity. In other words, languages will be uncoupled from what we see as the central activities of languaging, being intercultural and living with supercomplexity. For the modern languages teacher or scholar in higher education, the effect would be a massive deskilling, a devaluing of all those areas of human knowledge and understanding which, as we argue throughout this book, can and should be the necessary and liberating outcomes of the study of modern languages and their cultures. The irony, of course, as we suggested earlier, is that the impact of that process of deskilling will fall on those who, having learned the discourse of humanist criticism and literary analysis, will return to an increasingly performative higher education environment as teachers – almost certainly at low rates of pay and on short-term contracts which offer no opportunities at all to contest the shape and direction of higher education.

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