Before navigating: Grief and the new landscape for Languages

Author: Alison Phipps


This paper engages critically with the futures we are presently imagining in terms of the language of 'employability', 'service teaching', and 'skills'. It engages the energy of grief as of key structural import and argues that for us to learn to navigate anew, for us to be people who language and who bring the intellectual delight and the trouble of languages to life, in the university, then collective grief and the sense of loss are not marginal affairs. Indeed, the authors argue, this is the ground from which innovation, hope and imagination grow.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the Navigating the new landscape for languages conference (, 30 June - 1 July 2004.

1. Before Navigating

The Great Khan's atlas contains also the maps of the promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered or founded: New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sun, Oceana, Tamoé, New Harmony, New Lanark, Icaria.

Kublai asked Marco: 'You, who go about exploring and who see signs, can you tell me towards which of these futures the favouring winds are driving us.'

Italo Calvino: Invisible Cities

The favouring winds have not been particularly favourable for modern languages in recent years. Until relatively recently modern language professionals were confident about their place in the university's world. Modern language teaching and learning took place in the university and also brought other places in to being. It did so through a diverse engagement with literature, language, translation, culture. The security of this place in the university has come under serious threat and in many universities this place, and the places consequent upon it, have been lost.

The New Landscape for Languages (Kelly & Jones 2003) sets out in words and statistics possible futures for modern languages. In the terse language of numbers it tells us the story of doom, straight. There is no going back to some supposed golden age of modern language learning in universities and Utopia, if it exists at all, will not grow in our arid midst. Signs of new life come not from the academy but from the part time, temporarily contracted, poorly paid women who teach languages through adult education programmes, often 'in the community', largely to those who are already linguists. And this work is often heavily commercialized, privatized, external, promotional and relies heavily on marketing. In several scenarios for the future The New Landscape suggests courses of action, upon which, it may be argued, we are already embarked.

2. Grief and Cultural Bereavement

We argue here that it is imperative that we consider the import of the future scenarios for modern languages by reflecting on the language of grief and crisis in which many of our conversations, in modern languages in universities, take place. This is a moment of 'cultural bereavement' (Williams 2000) ; the ontological effects of this moment are ideological, political and deeply felt (Barnett 2003) . To stifle the grief, the public expression of pain, is to stifle the possibility of hope and to muffle the sounds of a poetic, even prophetic (in the broadest sense) voices that have always done important, cultural work for us. Our collective nostalgia, we may argue, following Tannock (Tannock 1995) , is a wide spread structure of feeling that may enable resistance (Williams 1977) .

Grief and hope cannot be expressed in the language of employability and bureaucratised futures. We have to learn to language - to live in languages as well as learning languages - differently. The language of the market is a common place language, a dead language, one which can not longer inspire and it is a language that has failed us. It is a language which only enables us to engage with the futures in terms such as 'employability', 'service teaching', and 'skills'. It does not excite. We may need such dry terms to serve our purposes as times, but these terms do not enable us to develop a new vision for a new landscape. And our common experience has been that they leave us wash-up on hostile shores.

3. A Beach?

For us to learn to navigate a new, for us to be people who language and who bring the delight and the trouble of languages to other places, critically, in the university, then the process of grief and the sense of loss are not marginal affairs. Indeed, we argue that this is the ground from which innovation and imagination may grow. Grief and loss, as Brueggemann (2000) argues, are of central importance to the active engagement with hegemonic and structural change.

Languages are already growing in other places, places we travel to in body, mind and spirit, places where we go to lick our wounds and to recuperate, to study new horizons, to find delight and to rest. Languages are both the message and the medium of journeys, physical, bodily, imaginary, touristic. So perhaps we might begin to consider the possibility that the New Landscape for Languages 'could be a beach' and work together with words to find a language lovely enough to create a consensual vision of more favourable futures.


Barnett, R. (2003) Beyond all Reason: living with Ideology in the University Buckingham: Open University Press.

Brueggemann, W. (2000) Texts that Linger, Words that Explode Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress

Kelly, M. & Jones, D. (2003) A New Landscape for Languages, London: Nuffield Foundation

Tannock, S. (1995) "Nostalgia Critique", Cultural Studies, vol. 9/3453, pp. 453-464.

Williams, R. (1977) Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Williams, R. (2000), Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement London & New York: T&T Clark.