Thursday, 17 December 2015

Connections, collaboration, and communication: what I learnt from the LAHP Languages and Policy Workshop

On Monday 7 December 2015, I attended a workshop on languages and policy hosted by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership. Having worked for The Policy Institute at King’s while completing my PhD on literature and cultural policy in Venezuela, I was very keen to learn more about how languages – or, more broadly, language-based area studies – interact with policy. This thought-provoking workshop highlighted three areas of interest: how policy affects the study of languages, the intersection of languages and policy outside of academia, and how aspects of language-based academic research can link to policy. For me, the workshop can be summarized in three linked key terms: connections, collaboration, and communication.

From Jocelyn Wyburd’s facts and figures about the crisis in languages education, particularly the deficit of secondary school language teachers, it was clear to me that we need to work together across the languages to lobby the government and encourage the study of languages. To do this, we must also reach out to other disciplines, such as neuroscience to show the cognitive benefits of language learning, or social scientists to discuss multilingualism and social cohesion. Philip Cavendish from the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies at UCL gave an example of a department which combines traditional language-related research (study of a language and its related culture) with subjects including politics and international relations, while also working with institutions beyond the university (the FCO, Open Democracy, the Calvert Foundation). I found it a shame, however, that there is not much communication between SSEES and other languages departments. I strongly believe that scholars in different languages have a lot to gain from working together; not only the traditionally taught European languages, but also the Asian and African languages which are often limited to specialist institutions such as SOAS.

In the second session, Chris Murray (Institute for Public Policy Research), Helen Laker (Southwark Council), Carolina Gottardo (Latin American Women’s Rights Service) and Lucila Granada (Coalition of Latin Americans) all demonstrated the interplay between languages and policy in the real world, in sectors such as education, health care, housing and employment. What struck me most was that all four depend on volunteers. While it was suggested that volunteering could be considered as an internship for PhD students, I thought that as undergraduate students often complain that they do not get enough speaking practice, why not put them in contact with associations or charities? I would like to explore further how to integrate this useful language practice into the undergraduate degree.

The final session stressed the importance of putting yourself out there, meeting people, making connections and being prepared to go beyond your comfort zone. I noted that Hilary Footitt called her work on the language policies of NGOs ‘a strange project to have arrived at’, and I paraphrased Ben Schofield with ‘If someone offers you something weird and wonderful, go for it’. The panel encouraged us to think creatively about links between our research of obscure literature (in both Ben’s and my case at least!) and wider policy implications. They suggested going to conferences on subjects outside of our own to find links, as Hilary did, both with other disciplines and other institutions. From lobbyist Zacahary Bishop, I learnt to develop my USP/‘elevator pitch’, so that if I’m ever in a room with policy-makers they can tell straight away if there is an opportunity for collaboration. Finally, Ben (who is something of a Twitter personality: @haben_und_soll), reminded us that social media is a useful tool: we should let the world know what we’re doing so people can find us!

Given the focus on connections, communication and collaboration, it was great to have not only speakers but other attendees from a wide range of disciplines, including sign language, education and medical humanities. We definitely learnt a lot from each other, and left inspired to build more connections beyond our own disciplines.

For more information about the LAHP, visit