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Interview: Professor Janice Carruthers

‘When I heard about the role, I thought it looked like an extremely important job,’ says Janice Carruthers of her new position as AHRC’s Leadership Fellow in Modern Languages. ‘It was also one that really interested me and which I felt my experience would equip me to do.’

Professor Janice Carruthers

Janice is embedded in the world of Modern Languages, and has been for her entire career. Once she discovered a facility for languages at secondary school, she pursued her interest with singular purpose, studying French and German before taking a PhD in French Linguistics. She has taught and researched in the field since 1989, heading up the School of Modern Languages at Queen’s University, Belfast, from 2011 to 2016.

Asked why the Leadership Fellow role is especially relevant now, she outlines the major challenges that currently face Modern Languages. Recruitment of students is part of the problem with numbers dropping, especially in French and German. ‘We have not always been able to convince key people about the importance of languages,’ she says. ‘Yet there is a now a vast body of evidence to suggest that languages are vital for the future of the UK, especially post-Brexit.’ She stresses that people need to be made aware of the far-reaching value of languages in terms of diplomacy, security, international relations, societal cohesion and conflict resolution. ‘And don’t forget the importance of inter-cultural skills that language graduates have,’ she says. ‘Their ability to be at ease in other countries and cultures, builds a deeper level of cultural understanding’.

Her story so far
BA in Modern and Medieval Languages, Cambridge University; MPhil in Linguistics, Cambridge University; PhD in French Linguistics, Cambridge University.
1989: appointed to Queen’s University Belfast to teach and research French Language and Linguistics.
2011-2016: Head of the School of Modern Languages, Queen’s University Belfast.
2017: Priority Area Leadership Fellow, Modern Languages, AHRC

The resistance to studying Modern Languages she attributes to the myth that speaking only English is sufficient, the perception that languages are difficult, and the lack of understanding around how important languages are and what opportunities are available for language graduates.

She will work with the AHRC to ensure that Modern Languages grow as part of its research portfolio. The AHRC’s support of Modern Languages recognises their importance and is to be applauded, she says. ‘The AHRC could have taken a pessimistic view, but they have done the exact opposite. They have intervened and injected a huge amount of funding through Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) and appointed a Priority Area Leadership Fellow. That’s a very strong signal about the importance of languages for the UK and for our external relations. I want to see Modern Languages thriving in the AHRC as a vital part of its research portfolio.’

One of the ways she will do this is to work with the four new AHRC-funded OWRI projects, all of which have Modern Languages at their core. ‘One of my key roles as Leadership Fellow is to help maximise the impact of these multi-million pound projects,’ she says. ‘The range of languages across all four is enormous and includes global, minoritised, heritage and indigenous languages. The key thing about the projects is that they are multi-institutional, inter-sectoral and multi-disciplinary. The aim is to form partnerships with other disciplines within arts and humanities but also subjects like education and cognitive science, and with a large number of non-academic partners.’ Janice considers the Open World Projects as one of the most exciting things that’s happened to modern languages in the last ten years: ‘They are transformative projects; quite radically different, they are designed to change the research landscape, to impact on university curricula and to draw more students into the discipline.’

Alongside her work on the projects, Janice will spend the next three years improving the dialogue between the Modern Languages community and the AHRC by talking to both. ‘This is multi-faceted and tricky,’ she says, ‘but it’s what I need to do.’ She will also champion Modern Languages nationally, in particular within the Higher Education sector. And, finally, she will conduct her own research on language policy in the three devolved nations, and leads a Queen’s strand on one of the OWRI projects (www.meits.org). ‘All these elements pull in the same direction,’ she says. ‘There’s a lot going on but it has a certain coherence.’

Asked if she is looking forward to the next three years, her answer is an emphatic yes. ‘I’m very much looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be very challenging but the idea of being able to play an important role in raising the profile of and promoting research in Modern Languages is extremely important to me, and is something I’m passionate about.’

As Modern Languages Leadership Fellow, Professor Janice Carruthers AHRC Fellowship involved a three-year funded project on language policy, entitled Foreign, Indigenous and Community Languages in the Devolved Regions of the UK: Policy and Practice for Growth. In co-operation with colleagues at Cambridge, they have produced a policy briefing (PDF) on community languages, stemming from a workshop involving civil servants and officials.

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