Education for Sustainable Development: Report into activity of LLAS

Author: John Canning


An article by John Canning, Subject Centre, as part of the Subject Centre's Education for Sustainable Development Project.

This article was added to our website on 25/05/05 at which time all links were checked. However, we cannot guarantee that the links are still valid.

Table of contents


At first it was difficult to identify clear links between the Education for Sustainable Development agenda and the discipline-specific concerns of languages, linguistics and area studies. Although links to endangered languages and the study of 'indigenous' communities came to mind, it seemed that the ESD agenda was largely the property of natural science and social science disciplines. The language used to talk about ESD uses a largely scientific vocabulary and the focus group revealed that there have been cases of disciplines attempting to take exclusive ownership for the concept of sustainable development for themselves. However, with the aim of the HEFCE initiative to make students 'sustainability literate', the publication of the agenda is an appropriate time to ensure that LLAS practitioners make a contribution to the debate.

As a Subject Centre we were reluctant to settle on a particular definition of sustainable development for two main reasons. First, there is the uncertainty about what sustainable development is and it would be unwise to impose a particular definition which served to exclude individual practitioners who may have an important contribution to the debate. Second, by the nature of the concerns of their disciplines, languages and linguistics practitioners can be excited by the language of sustainability in and of itself. Rolf Jucker, a senior lecturer in German at the University of Wales, Swansea convened our group and he helpfully remarked about changes in the German translation of sustainable development [see footnote]. Naturally, LLAS practitioners will not only be interested in the English language understandings of sustainable development, but will also be interested to investigate how these contested discourses translate (or fail to translate) into other languages and cultures.


This report represents the perspective of Subject Centre after the focus group undertaken by the HE Academy researchers. The Project has been carried out over a three-month timescale, so is therefore limited in scope and there is undoubtedly activity that has not been uncovered at this stage. Moreover this report is reflective rather a vigorous investigation into ESD in LLAS subjects, but it is one that demonstrates substantial progress from where LLAS was at the beginning of the year. Each focus group participant was asked to provide a short summary of his or her thoughts about ESD. These are published on the LLAS website.

Focus Group

Using our knowledge of staff teaching and research interests, LLAS approached individuals for the focus group that we felt would be able to particularly strong contribution to this debate. Many practitioners approached were unsure of how they may be able to contribute. Lack of knowledge of the HEFCE document itself and the actual meanings of 'sustainable development' and 'sustainability' were cited as particular difficulties. We also publicised the focus group on the LLAS website and in the monthly e-bulletin, but this unfortunately failed to yield any response.

The following members of LLAS staff attended the focus group and their reflections can be found on the LLAS website.

Dr Alison Phipps, University of Glasgow

Dr Phipps is well known in the LLAS community for her teaching on environmental issues in Germany. She spoke at a LLAS event in February 2004 on 'Teaching Rubbish: Intercultural Perspectives on German Environmentalism'. Her course develops student understandings of ethnographic methodologies and includes speaking to German residents of Glasgow about their attitudes to rubbish. Her more recent work examines sustainable tourism.

Further reading: Education for Sustainable Development: Languages and Sustainability

Professor Michael Hutt, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)

Professor Hutt led SOAS's successful Centre for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CETL) bid, Languages of the Wider World. The Centre (in partnership with University College London) will build on SOAS's expertise in teaching languages that are not widely taught in UK Higher Education, including some languages that are endangered or less widely spoken. The rationale for the Centre is of critical importance to ESD as it demonstrates the importance of understanding language and culture to gain an understanding of ways of life that cannot be accessed without an understanding of language.

Every language is unique in the way it orders, describes and understands the world. Every language underlies a way of being and living a culture that cannot be comprehended wholly through translation and interpretation. Every language expresses its speakers' vision of the world in the form of a literature that is fully accessible only to those who have mastered it (SOAS website).

Further reading: Education for Sustainable Development: an African-Asian Languages perspective

Professor Guy Robinson, University of Kingston

Professor Robinson has teaching and research interests in rural development in many regions of the world. Although a geographer, he has a strong interest in area studies and is author of the LLAS Subject Centre's Good Practice Guide article on New Zealand Studies. Geography is a discipline with a strong longstanding engagement with sustainable development, so Professor Robinson was able to give valuable perspectives on how the understandings of geography may inform the teaching of ESD in area studies.

Further reading: Education for Sustainable Development: Human Geography (Agriculture and Rural Development)

Opportunities for ESD in LLAS

A crucial opportunity for LLAS is the examination of local responses to what are often framed as global issues. What role does culture play in the way that people in specific localities respond to environmental issues? How do we react when we learn that communities of people are learning English in order to both oppose and take advantage of the existence of multinational corporations? What does this mean for the future of a minority language? What happens to a language if its only speakers are displaced by conflict, economic pressure, environmental degradation or the pursuit of opportunities elsewhere? And why should we care? Do we even have a right to an opinion?

Environmental issues have often inspired student year abroad projects in LLAS. Conflicts over the location of nuclear power facilities or wind farms bring what are often framed as global issues in the local arena. Language and area studies students are well placed to observe human responses to environmental concerns. After all, the explanations for how climate change is taking place are scientific, but the local, national and global responses are profoundly human. Culture plays an important role in informing our understandings of why scientists may be believed, ignored or dismissed. LLAS students, we presume, have a strong interest in understanding other cultures. This has a strong ethical dimension about the concern our students have for 'distant others'. Language learning and the study of other cultures place students into a social and geographical space where they engage with these others. On becoming sustainability literate, students will gain a greater understanding of the implications their choices may have on others.

Will students in Spain and the south of France feel less attached to their place of study when they are a cheap two-hour flight from home, than in the days when only an real emergency warranted an expensive flight or long overland trip home?


Tourism and trade are both important ways in which individuals engage with cultures other than their own. Whilst languages have struggled with recruitment in recent years, higher education programmes in tourism have flourished. The disengagement between the languages and tourism is a cause of concern, but the changing nature of the tourism industry offers many opportunities and challenges for the study of LLAS. The rise of cheap flights across Europe has brought countries and cities rarely visited by people from the UK into the realm of the weekend break. However, with the advantages of cheap (and quick) air travel, in many respects the challenges for students are much greater. Arguments about the erosion of authenticity must be made with the greatest amount of care, but destinations that were once the preserve of a privileged few (who included languages and area studies students) are open to all. For instance, ten years ago the beaches of Bulgaria and bars of Tallinn were barely known to Western Europeans. Whilst one must be cautious about seeing the democratisation of travel to these places in the negative, is there the danger that students will become less concerned about becoming embedded into the culture of their study? Will students in Spain and the south of France feel less attached to their place of study when they are a cheap two-hour flight from home, than in the days when only an real emergency warranted an expensive flight or long overland trip home? The implications for ESD are not simply related to the large ecological footprint that air travel leaves, but how this impacts upon the development of intercultural competence. Does this make students less concerned about the people in the localities in which they study, now that they can come and go more easily?

Some of this is entering the realm of speculation, but the year abroad has a profound ethical dimension. To some students visiting certain countries these issues may appear obvious, especially in parts of the world with high levels of poverty or social conflict. However, the concern about UK students spending all their time (speaking English) with other UK students in cities throughout Europe raises questions about attachment to a place and a concern for its people. There may be the danger of students being parachute tourists, rather than becoming interculturally competent individuals. ESD, as noted by its critics is value-laden, but it is not incompatible with the value judgments we make about what students ought to know and understand when they graduate. A critical engagement with other cultures ought to lead to a critical engagement with one's own. What we put into our rubbish bins and what we recycle are choices that can be informed in accordance with, or in opposition to, cultures other than our own. It has been noted that high levels of environmental awareness do not necessarily lead to high levels of action (in terms of recycling for example). A sustainability literate graduate will understand that it is action, not knowledge that is critical to the health of the world.

Intercultural competence is not only concerned with the engagement across geographical space, but it can also be a bridge to translate the disciplinary gap between the humanities and the sciences. LLAS practitioners undoubtedly have a role to play in investigating how scientific observations about climate change (for example) are translated linguistically and culturally into human response. In pedagogic terms sustainability literate graduates will have a critical understanding of how discourse of environmental issues are created for public consumption and how the framing of these discourses impacts (or fails to impact) upon human responses. Although the melting of the polar ice caps can be empirically observed using satellite technologies, to what extent do we really understand what the implications of this process are? Science itself is highly contested discourse, but the language used to encourage action on the part of individuals, governments, business, non-governmental organisations, individuals and other agents is even more so. The ways in which different languages articulate these issues is potentially very diverse.

Discourses of globalisation have been engaged with throughout our subject areas. The emergence of English as a global language, global issues raised by literary texts, and discussions about the intellectual concerns of area studies are issues that have interested LLAS practitioners. ESD has been perceived as being aimed at the action of individuals and it is critical that ESD equips students to see the responsibility of state and corporate actors towards issues of sustainable development, as well as individuals. Classic twentieth century texts can be reread as environmental texts. For example Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo raises crucial questions about the social responsibilities of scientists as well as offering opportunities to critically engage with notions of scientific progress.


Despite the opportunities identified above, it is evident that LLAS has a long to go before practitioners recognise the full potential of ESD in our subject areas. The main barriers concern, not a lack of interest in environmental issues, but more a failure to identify ways in which ESD may be integrated into the disciplines. There is a real danger of ESD being seen as something that is 'bolted on' to the curriculum. The prevailing scientific discourse with which ESD has been framed may prove to be a very strong barrier if practitioners see ESD as an issue for sciences, but not for the humanities and social sciences. The space for engaging with ESD through discourses of globalisation, global justice and intercultural competence needs to be widened to ensure that ESD is not seen as a matter for the sciences, but is seen as something for all disciplines. Confusion about ESD in the LLAS community is not always related to a lack of teaching of these issues, but a conflict in the vocabulary used to describe global and local processes and human responses to them.


Despite identifying many possible opportunities, significant barriers to engagement are evident. Whilst there are examples of teaching about responses to environmental issues in LLAS, there is little evidence that ESD has captured the imagination of practitioners at present. The possibilities for ESD in LLAS will depend to a large degree on the direction taken by the funding councils, but it is evident that the Subject Centre as well the funding councils and other partners need to make substantive efforts to inspire people.

LLAS is keen to be to activist in this area to ensure that our constituency is able to see that sustainable development is inherently culture-bound and is not merely a technical concern for certain other disciplines. The ESD section of the LLAS website will be publicised and we will cite ESD as targeted topic in future calls for papers and case studies of good practice. However, we will endeavour to translate the ESD agenda out of its scientific framework of reference and into a vocabulary that makes the debates more accessible to the LLAS community.

LLAS subjects offer unique perspectives on ESD and every effort must be made to ensure that LLAS practitioners are able to engage with ESD in both disciplinary and interdisciplinary discussions. LLAS has much to offer other disciplines.


I would like to thank the participants of the focus group Michael Hutt, Alison Phipps and Guy Robinson also Rolf Jucker for convening the group and my colleagues Alison Dickens and Angela Gallagher-Brett for their input. This report has only been made possible through my engagement with these colleagues.


The term now used is 'Nachhaltigkeit' which is more or less the literal equivalent for sustainability. Like 'sustain' 'nachhaltig' is used in normal language as well to express something like 'keep something going for a long time'. The other term used, made popular for a short time by a fantastic 'sustainability assessment' of Germany (a short version of which is available in English under the title 'Greening the North'), is 'Zukunftsfähigkeit' which literally means making something future proof, acting in such a way that it enables a (positive, dignified, livable etc.) future. [Rolf Jucker]