Iberian studies in the UK

Author: Chris Perriam


The article offers a brief history of the development of Spanish and Portuguese Studies in the UK and their inter-relatedness with Iberian, Hispanic, and Latin American Studies. It lays out current coverage of linguistics, film, gender, cultural, area, and literary studies relating to Spanish and Portuguese both at BA and MA level; it also covers the teaching of Portuguese language and, more briefly, Catalan and Galician languages and cultures.

Table of contents

1. Introduction: The shaping of Iberian/Hispanic/Spanish/Portuguese Studies

Such is the geo-political scope and the cultural and linguistic range implied in the study of Spain and Portugal through the focusing lenses of their languages that intriguing--and politically crucial--issues of nomenclature arise at each attempt at categorization (Davies 2002: 1-6). For the purposes of this project, partly because of the shaping dynamics of an Area Studies perspective, we have chosen to put “Iberian Studies” and “Latin American Studies”; on separate pages. This is in some ways misleading since, although the teaching of both Spanish and Portuguese Studies in the UK had until the mid-1960s a strongly Iberian focus, nowadays the European aspects of these two major world languages are only rarely treated in isolation. Single Honours programmes with a solely Iberian focus are few (15): Iberian Studies shows 25 courses (though none with this name) on the UCAS website for 2003, and Spanish Studies 86, of which 60 are offered at one University, Oxford Brookes (an extreme case, but one which gives an indication of the very wide range of joint and combined programmes involving a substantial element of Spanish).

Leaving aside Modern Languages courses (see Spanish, the language and culture ), the majority of courses which take the two originally Iberian languages as their core are in Hispanic Studies (179), Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American Studies (6), or Spanish and Latin American Studies (3). Indeed, the current revitalization of courses in Spanish and Portuguese is due as much to the theoretical insights and energy of pioneers in Latin American (especially Historical and Cultural) Studies through the 1970s and early 1980s as it is to Iberian specialists. More recently these latter have set out to reinterpret and expand on the meanings of Area and Linguistic Studies in the several languages and cultures of Spain and Portugal (Catalan at Durham, Kent, Lancaster, Southampton, and Swansea, and Galician at Birmingham and Oxford, for example, also widen the range). Coverage of elements of Latin American culture (especially popular culture) is a significant draw for students.

As with Portugal’s parallel though less well publicized emergence from dictatorship into changing forms of democracy, those studying Spain’s languages are drawn to the country’s historical trajectory and its cultural responses to unusually rapid and far-reaching changes. These include: Spain’s emergence from the aftermath of the Civil War which first made it a point of intellectual and artistic attention in the UK and Ireland; the arrestingly distinctive ways in which economically, socially, culturally, and politically it has shaped its transition to democracy and radically reconfigured state, cities, and regions; its new foreign policies and alliances; its modernization of socialism, the apparent self-destruction of the political left, and the resurgence of conservatism. Thus the role of area studies in its social scientific manifestations has been crucial to the understanding of modern “Iberia” and has contributed to continuing strong recruitment relative to other modern languages (see Spanish, the language and culture ).

Linguistics has, despite sparser staffing levels, a similar claim. Many of those who became senior academics when the subject was growing strongly in the 1960s and 1970s were pioneering specialists in branches of linguistics, and today a number of the key Hispanists across the age range are linguistics specialists working on syntax, pragmatics, sociolinguistics, historical linguistics and Spanish dialects, grounding the subject (see below) and offering students crucial training in intellectual skills.

2. Undergraduate degrees: Spain and Spanish

As with French and--to a lesser degree--German Studies, Iberian/Hispanic Studies had always offered language-specific linguistics and politics-and-society alongside literature but this has now, particularly since the mid-1980s, expanded to include a wide range of specialisms across the fields of arts, humanities and social sciences.

Linguistics could in some sense be regarded as the core discipline, as the object of study in this case is the Spanish language, the one thing that unites the otherwise disparate elements within Iberian and Latin American Studies. With its emphasis on theory allied to rigorous empirical methodology, linguistics offers some of the most exciting intellectual challenges of the various subdisciplines. Above all it provides students with a conceptual framework that can enrich the process of learning Spanish.

The subject areas of most rapid growth in recent years in Spanish have however been Film Studies and Gender Studies. The former focuses mainly on the post-1975 period, with one contemporary name in particular (Pedro Almodóvar) predominating, but with big name directors (Carlos Saura, Luis Buñuel) or themed courses extending the range back in time (for example, to the Civil War). Gender Studies is in most cases linked to literature or film (though often with sociological themed strands such as race, identity, nation). However Southampton’s “Women in Contemporary Spain” involves anthropological and sociological as well as literary perspectives; Roehampton offers “Race and Gender in the Spanish Media”; at Queen's (Belfast) students can take optional modules in twentieth-century visual art and literature by Hispanic women; and Anglia Polytechnic, Bangor, East London and Hull all offer Spanish and Gender Studies as Joint programmes.

Despite a boom in academic conferences, books and articles on Spanish Cultural Studies, relatively few universities have specifically labelled options or strands in the subject, but tend rather to combine forms of the sociology of culture with critical theory to focus on the visual and plastic arts, architecture, and literature both canonical and popular. Only Anglia Polytechnic University offers a joint degree in Hispanic Cultural Studies (though without compulsory Spanish language) but Birkbeck, Royal Holloway, Manchester and several others underpin their options with clearly identified training in the theories and methodologies of Cultural Studies.

It is among the courses most closely linked to European Studies programmes or offered as joint with History that, unsurprisingly, some of the more interesting and coherent strands of progression in Area Studies in a European context are to be found (for example, Bradford and Lancaster, which have deliberately specialized in the non-Latin American; or Portsmouth and Southampton). Since the mid-1990s there has been a boom in text books on Spanish culture, society, and institutions and aspects of Area Studies at an introductory level are well served here (for example Davies 2002, Jordan 2002, Lawlor and Rigby 1999, Richardson 2001, Ross 1997).

The interconnectedness of the Iberian and Latin American elements of degree courses has had particular impact on literary studies. At a time when mainstream university courses in Spanish still depended almost exclusively on the study of literary classics for their deep contextualization (as with French Studies ) it was Latin American literature which broke new ground on undergraduate and A-level syllabuses, adding decisively to the popularity of Iberian/Hispanic Studies, and prompting rethinks of “Spanish literature” courses. It is perhaps due to that timely influx of the new that options in literature in Spanish (or, at Birmingham and Manchester, in Spanish/English chicano or Puerto Rican hybrids) are still offered on the vast majority of courses where Spanish comprises half or more of the weight. Many universities have abandoned the traditional single-author study and chronological or genre-specific survey in favour of imaginatively themed and sometimes interdisciplinary courses which mesh well with the language, history and area studies courses. Examples include “Language, Conflict and Society” at St Andrew’s, "Spanish Memoirs and Autobiographies of the Twentieth-Century" at Queen’s (Belfast), Aberdeen’s “Narrating Collective Pasts in the Hispanic World”, Manchester’s “Saints and Sanctity”, and Royal Holloway’s “Andalusia, Deep Song, and Writing the Exotic Other”.

3. Undergraduate degrees: Portugal and Portuguese

As with Spanish, though to a much greater degree, there is a serious mismatch between the size of the Portuguese-speaking world and provision for the teaching of the language at secondary and college level (with A/AS/A2 registrations averaging about 140 over the past four years). The majority of the sustained teaching of Portuguese from beginners’ level to and beyond A-level equivalent is undertaken by the university sector, therefore, and the Portuguese government has since the 1930s put substantial support into this effort, with a generous provision of leitores (trained teachers on placement, with TFL experience) and more recently with a mixed provision of young graduates and strategically placed senior staff.

King’s College (London) offers a single honours degree in Portuguese and Brazilian Studies and Oxford (under the banner of Modern Languages) the same. A further thirteen institutions offer Portuguese (language and contextual studies) as a substantial (and sometimes, as at Newcastle, compulsory) part of degree programmes relating to Iberia/Latin America. Portuguese language as a minor or optional element in joint, major/principal and minor/subsidiary, and combined degrees is also offered. In terms of module registrations for Portuguese Birmingham and Nottingham are the largest. At King’s the emphasis of the contextual studies element is on literature and cultural and political history--with substantial attention paid to Brazil--and this is the pattern followed at most of the other universities, with less traditional coverage (of music and popular culture, for instance) also tending to be focused on non-Iberian areas (although Newcastle has options in the “Comparative History of Spain and Portugal” and “Portugal and the Portuguese”, and Birmingham and Oxford are able to exploit links with Galician culture and language). There is substantial growth in Portuguese African Studies, including, at Oxford, “The Literature of Portuguese-Speaking Africa” and Newcastle offers “Culturas Lusófonas”, which has a global reach.

In language provision, King’s insists on an intensive language course in Portugal inserted between Year One and Year Two for those without A-Level. Across the sector most courses begin with an integrated skills and communicative approach (epitomized in Cook 2000), moving through to variations on grammar and translation, and then translation and essay in subsequent years: but Cambridge pairs its translation into English with a skills-oriented Use of Portuguese course and its translation into Portuguese with a listening skills course; Leeds focuses explicitly on translation as one of a set of integrated skills in the post-Beginners year; Swansea focuses on oral presentation skills; and Salford’s emphasis is on applied aspects of the study of Portuguese. For further information see Earle (2001).

4. Masters degrees

Portuguese as a named taught Masters degree is offered at Bristol and at King’s College (London) while Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, Southampton, and Swansea offer it within a joint structure. An MA in Catalan Studies is offered at Sheffield. Seven specifically named taught MAs covering a range of options on Spain and “Spanish-speaking Latin America” are currently advertised, of which one (University of Northumbria) has an Area Studies inflection and two--King’s and Leeds--offer units/modules in history and/or the study of the language (in the case of Leeds, Advanced Translation). Focused or themed degrees are offered in Cultural History and Critique (Birkbeck), Image and Text (Queen’s, Belfast), Medieval Hispanic Studies (Exeter), Modern Spanish Theatre (Bristol), and Spanish Theatre and Cinema (Aberystwyth).

Spanish appears in a variety of combinations in MA programmes under wider rubrics (e.g. Advanced Language Study, Modern Languages, Translation and Interpreting). Emphases, in order of prominence, tend to fall on: translation (notably at Bath, Bradford, Heriot-Watt, and Salford--which also offers Portuguese); business; interpreting; professional development; area studies; language, nation and identity; ITC; and literature and culture.

Only in a very few of these cases do fte numbers studying mainly Iberian topic areas reach double figures.

5. Associations

The main associations are the Association for Contemporary Iberian Studies (ACIS), the Association of Hispanists of Great Britain and Ireland (AHGBI), the Asociación Internacional de Hispanistas (AIH), and the Associação Internacional de Lusitanistas (AIL).

There is considerable membership overlap between the first two of these and the Society for Latin American Studies (SLAS).


Cook, M. (2001). Portuguese. A Complete Course in Understanding, Speaking and Writing. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Davies, C. (ed.) (2002). The Companion to Hispanic Studies. London: Arnold.

Earle, T. (2001). O ensino do português nas universidades britânicas. At http://www.instituto-camoes.pt/actividades/centros/clpoxford.htm (accessed 18/11/02).

Jordan, B. (ed.) (2002). Spanish Culture and Society. London: Arnold.

Lawlor, T. and M. Digby (1999). Contemporary Spain. London: Longman.

Richardson, B. (2001). Spanish Studies: An Introduction. London: Arnold.

Ross, C. (1997). Contemporary Spain. A Handbook. London: Arnold.

Related links

ACIS: http://www.brighton.ac.uk/edusport/languages/acis/ (accessed 20/12/02)

AIL: http://www.uc.pt/ail/ (accessed 20/12/2002)

Asociación para la Difusión del Español y la Cultura Hispánica (ADES): http://www.adesasoc.com/ (accessed 20/12/02)

AHGBI: http://www.hispanists.org.uk/ (accessed 20/12/02)

Canning House (Hispanic and Luso Brazilian Council): http://www.canninghouse.com/index.html (accessed 20/12/02). Information on courses, business, educational and cultural links, and LLAS-related resources and seminars/talks.

Centros de Língua Portuguesa: Newcastle at http://www.ncl.ac.uk/clpic; Oxford: via http://www.instituto-camoes.pt/actividades/centros/ (accessed 20/12/02).

Contemporary Portuguese History Research Centre (Portugal's contemporary history on-line): http://www.cphrc.org.uk/ (accessed 20/12/02)

Foro del hispanista: via http://cvc.cervantes.es/foros/default.asp (accessed 20/12/02). Discussion list maintained by the Instituto Cervantes.

Instituto Camões: http://www.instituto-camoes.pt/

Instituto Cervantes: http://www.cervantes.es/inicio.htm (accessed 2/1/03)

King’s College (London) guide to T&L resources for Portuguese on the web and on CD-ROM: http://www.kcl.ac.uk//depsta/humanities/pobrst/pptlang.htm and http://www.kcl.ac.uk//depsta/humanities/pobrst/MultRes.html (accessed 20/12/02)

Lusotopie: http://www.cean.u-bordeaux.fr/lusotopie/ (accessed 20/12/02). Centre d'étude d'afrique noire, Université Montesquieu - Bordeaux IV. On-line social and political science journal (articles in Portuguese and French)

Luso Cultura: http://www.portembassy.gla.ac.uk/front.html. Cultural page of the Portuguese Embassy in London

Recursos para el estudio del español: http://www.brighton.ac.uk/edusport/languages/recursos/indice.html. Authored and maintained by M. Shade, University of Brighton

Referencing this article

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