Modern Languages: teaching, learning and inspiring in the face of a ‘crisis’ in the humanities

As part of my training in teaching and learning in Higher Education, I had to evaluate a learning theory. Questions of identity as scholars working in Modern Languages are at the forefront of my mind, as I think about my own academic practice, so I decided to look at Alison Phipps and Mike Gonzalez’s Modern Languages: Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field. (2004)  Here are my thoughts on the book and the apparent ‘crisis’ in Modern Languages.

Phipps, A. & Gonzalez, M., (2004), Modern Languages: Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field. London: SAGE.

Modern Languages: Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field addresses some of the key issues surrounding the nature of Modern Languages as a discipline, focussing in particular the implications of these issues for teaching and learning in a Higher Education context.

The co-authored volume by Alison Phipps and Mike Gonzalez was first published in 2004 and reprinted in 2008. Having first appeared some thirteen years ago, around the beginning of my own undergraduate studies in this subject area, the study feels rather outmoded due to a range of factors including shifts in the nature of Higher Education, changes in the discipline of Modern Languages (brought about, at least in part in response to the perceived ‘crisis’ in Modern Languages and in the humanities, which is a central preoccupation in this study). While we could not, realistically, expect such a study to be revised to respond to current socio-political concerns in the West which have rocked Modern Languages departments – in particular Brexit, but also the conditions in Trump’s America – I feel that Phipps and Gonzalez’s consideration of learning and teaching in Modern Languages could take greater account of how social and political shifts and the rise of populist ideas impact upon the transnational and multicultural underpinnings of the subject.

In the first chapter, the authors discuss the crisis facing Modern Languages, which derives both from inherent complexities of the discipline and from the social and political context in which Modern Languages are being taught and studied. I have always argued that one of the major advantages of Modern Languages is that it is more of a mode than a discipline, allowing students and academics access to a range of fields from political and social sciences to literature, art history and music. Phipps and Gonzalez, however, present the open-ended nature of Modern Languages as one of the challenges of the discipline, stating:

It could be argued that it [Modern Languages] is not a discipline at all, or at least that it did not [originally] have cohesion or a set of shared perceptions until the creation of a strategic alliance of individual language disciplines mobilising as a united body in the face of a crisis. (Phipps and Gonzalez 2004, 4)

The first part of Phipps and Gonzalez’s argument chimes in with my own sense that Modern Languages is not a discipline in the same way as History or Mathematics. However, their reasons for reaching this conclusion diverge from my own in that, while I see the lack of clear boundaries defining Modern Languages as a strength of the field, Phipps and Gonzalez content that the open-ended nature of the subject area is a flaw which has made it particularly susceptible to the effects of a generalised crisis in the humanities.

Throughout the study, Phipps and Gonzalez criticise the increasing sense that Modern Languages are a skill, suggesting that part of the crisis in the field comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of Modern Language degrees and how they differ in form and content from Languages for All programmes. Although they are typically housed within Modern Languages departments, LfA courses are designed to give students and researchers in other disciplines necessary language skills, and add value to their own degrees. But, as Phipps and Gonzalez argue, Modern Languages as a degree programme offers far more than spoken fluency and skills in spoken and written production. I chose to examine Phipps and Gonzalez’s book, as I am particularly interested in the inter-cultural and interdisciplinary aspects of teaching and research in Modern Languages. I am convinced that the open-ended nature of Modern Languages as an academic field invites research which touches on other disciplines, and works in tandem with other wide-ranging academic fields such as the Digital Humanities. In response to Phipps and Gonzalez presentation of the state of Modern Languages teaching in Higher Education in the twenty-first century, I argue that the responsibility falls on us as teachers of Modern Languages to promote wider critical skills and provide methodological tools for approaching high-level research which approaches texts (in the broadest sense of the term), history and other cultural phenomena from a position of linguistic expertise and cultural understanding. The challenge is to reconcile that emphasis on research, cultural understanding and critical thinking with what applicants and students expect from a Modern Languages degree.

In the final chapter Phipps and Gonzalez discuss the lack of clarity over what constitutes a ‘legitimate object of study’ in Modern Languages degrees (Kelly 2001, 82, cited in Phipps and Gonzalez 2004, 5). They make the important point that there are many different objects of study at play within the discipline of Modern Languages, but their analysis does not satisfactorily take account of the fact that, within the sphere of Higher Education, different parties – students, researchers, language teachers – have differing ideas as to what constitutes the most ‘legitimate’ object of study. This means that degree programmes may not be weighted in a way which suits students, and the ways in which language and content modules are linked, the balance of these different skills and the interdisciplinary options available will have a profound impact on whether Modern Languages programmes can continue to recruit students and can halt the steady decline in applicants over the past ten years.

Where solutions to the ‘crisis’ are offered, I find them reactionary and based on opinion, rather than focussing on practical ways to address the sorry state of Modern Languages in Higher Education.

As languagers we are people who move in and through words as actions, who develop and change constantly as the experience of languaging evolves and changes us. A languaging student and a languaging teacher are given a unique opportunity to enter the languaging of others, to open up the ways in which the complexity and experience of others may enrich life.  (Phipps and Gonzalez 2004, 167)

At the crux of the argument in Modern Languages: Teaching and Learning in an Intercultural Field is the fact that languages and, as Phipps and Gonzalez note, ‘language teaching is a dynamic, volatile, changing, messy business.’ (Phipps and Gonzalez 2004, 169) Rather than try to impose boundaries on the discipline or to rationalise the vast interdisciplinary crossover of Modern Languages, we need to explore the similarities and differences between the needs and desires of our students and our own interests and motivations as teachers. To my mind, the challenge of teaching and learning in Modern Languages lies in reconciling our own research interests and fields of expertise with our students desired outcomes. As academics, we are encouraged to practise research-led teaching, to be innovative in our pedagogical approach and to embrace the interdisciplinarity of our subject; however, in doing so, we risk alienating our students and potential applicants, by offering modules and teaching styles which are at odds with what they want to achieve. Although the issue of research-led teaching and the importance of aligning our own research interests with students’ learning goals is not confined to Modern Languages, it is, perhaps felt more acutely in our discipline where the language forms both the medium by which learning takes place and the content of the learning.

Ultimately, this study offers an important insight into the state of Modern Languages and their place within both the humanities and within the landscape of Higher Education more broadly. However, it reads more like a manifesto for Modern Languages, exploring and asserting their status in the face of the ‘crisis’ in the humanities, without really offering any viable suggestions for addressing the issues raised. The uncertain and, indeed, unfortunate situation of Modern Languages is a key issue, which informs how we approach the design, provision and delivery of teaching in HE. The challenges we face in the discipline also have important implications for the way in which we approach the task of student recruitment in a field where student numbers are diminishing year-on-year. However, I found the study quite repetitious in continually re-iterating the problems faced by Modern Languages as an academic discipline, and I felt that far more needed to be done to link these discipline-wide challenges to the practice of teaching and learning. There were not enough specific examples of innovative pedagogical approaches or student recruitment strategies which might help to mitigate the issues surrounding Modern Languages as a discipline, nor were there any real and tangible suggestions for re-evaluating the identity of Modern Languages. I suggest that the book would have benefitted from ‘taking a step back’ to evaluate the commonalities and the points of divergence between the different perspectives on Modern Languages within society as well as by HE institutions and those who work in them – that is to say by academics, researchers, teachers and students.



Kelly, M. (2001) ‘”Serrez ma haire avec ma discipline”’ : reconfiguring the structures and concepts’ in R. Di Napoli, L. Polezzi and A. King (eds), Fuzzy Boundaries? Reflections on Modern Languages and the Humanities. London: CILT, pp. 43-56.

Phipps, A. & Gonzalez, M., (2004), Modern Languages: Learning and Teaching in an Intercultural Field. London: SAGE.



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