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School of Languages, Linguistics and Film

Decolonising Modern Languages

The Department of Modern Languages and Cultures is committed to decolonising our curriculum as inclusive practice across all subject areas, from teaching Portuguese as a pluricentric language to exploring postcolonial francospheres. This is a collaborative and ongoing process which recognises the contribution of the Decolonise QMUL Society alongside staff initiatives across QMUL. 

At the Decolonising Modern Languages: A Symposium for Sharing Practices and Ideas in 2020, Dr Rebekah Vince contributed to a panel on Decolonising Language Teaching: translingualism and translation with the presentation Excuse my French: Challenging Mastery and Troubling Language and Dr Nicola Thomas participated in a panel on Decolonising Languages: unsettling prescriptive practices with a focus on ‘Expanding German Studies’. 

Dr Kathleen McCarthy contributed to a panel on ‘Modern’ Languages Teaching: Decentring and Decolonising Approaches Through the Lens of ‘Community’ Languages at the Future Directions in Modern Languages, hosted by the Institute of Modern Languages Research and supported by Bilingualism Matters London

These are just a few examples of such initiatives related to research-led teaching, which emphasises linguistic, cultural, and ethnic diversity.

Linguistic Diversity

French language and linguistic courses teach from the start of the degree an awareness of ‘francophonie’ and the multiplicity of places where a French culture develops, beyond the ‘métropole’, from North Africa to Quebec, underpinned by the conviction that postcolonial and non-metropolitan cultural productions should feature more prominently in the syllabus.

In core French language modules at all levels, the curriculum engages with the diversity of francophone cultures. Students are introduced not only to different French accents found throughout the francophone world but also to a wide variety of francophone artists (singers, film makers, writers, youtubers, etc.) and to socio-political, historical, and topical issues relevant in different francophone countries. We are very far from the old France (and even Paris-)centered approach. While teaching grammar or lexis, we are keen to specify which forms belong to the accepted ‘standard’ and which forms belong to different varieties of French (for example, French spoken in Quebec or francophone African countries).

Portuguese language modules provide a pluricentric view of a language pertaining to several territories and cultures in four continents (Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America) and the knowledge of the variants of the language as an integral part of learning a language. Final year and heritage language modules offer opportunities of extensive readings of literary works in the target language that detangle some of the historical legacies of colonialism and imperialism. Modules offer a look into national issues also as part of a wider history of coloniser and colonised territories (the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Portugal and the demise of colonialism; parallels with the UK in the discussion around the legacy of colonialism). European Portuguese (10 million speakers) and Brazilian Portuguese (240 million speakers) are introduced simultaneously from level 1 and run across all levels. In addition, writers and films from the five Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa (Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, São Tomé e Príncipe) are studied across all levels. POR4033 COM5033 ‘Rio on the world stage and imaginary’ further analyses the musical expressions of the urban proletariat (hip hop, rap, etc.) and their expressions of resistance to stigmatisation.

Students of Russian examine language policy in the USSR and Russia. Final year Russian translation classes study source texts by Russophone authors outside of Russia that deal with issues such as immigration from Central Asia to Moscow. This not only diversifies thematic content, but also prompts students to reflect on linguistic phenomena such as the koinéization of Russian by non-native speakers.

Spanish language teaching abandoned the traditional hegemonic prevalence of Peninsular Spanish in the classroom long ago. The reading corpus for all modules adopts instead a pan-Hispanic approach. The vast majority of texts covered in the Post-A Level and Native pathways are written by Latin American authors who bring to the fore the cultural and ethnic diversity of Latin America. This allows students to gain awareness not only of the linguistic varieties of the region, but also of the ubiquity of vocabulary of indigenous origin in the writings of many of these authors.

The teaching of Catalan (Iberian and Latin American Studies), a language spoken across four European states (Spain, Andorra, Italy and France) problematises the notion of a ‘minority language’ (it is spoken by 10 million people) and promotes, instead, Catalan as a ‘minoritised’ language. From the perspective of linguistic diversity, the study of Catalan advances differences between language
and dialect and the concept of ‘standard language whilst also reflecting the cultural and ethnic diversity of the Catalan-speaking community. Culture modules – including literature, theatre, sport, and film – in turn, emphasize the ways in which Catalan has flourished in unfavourable conditions, often involving prohibition and censorship produced against the strictures of dominant discourses.
Catalan modules include: Catalan Culture: Art, Literature, and Football (COM5011/HSP4011), Catalan Literature: An Introduction (COM/HSP5055) and Avant-GardebTheatre in Europe (CAT/HSP/COM6007). 

Racial and Ethnic Diversity

The foundational module ‘Culture and Language’ (SML4006/COM4006) is but one example in MLC of inclusion in the curriculum, from the start, of contributions to the arts, to critical thinking and to scholarship by marginalised individuals whose discourses constructively counter and transcend power structures around intersecting race, class, regional or national identity and gender or sexual identity.

Postmigrant Literature and Film after German Unification’ (GER6054) investigates post-Unification literature and film by postmigrants in Germany, focusing on literary and filmic devices and the modes of narrating otherness, refuge, travel, and border crossing. ‘Intersectional Feminist Writing’ (COM6214) highlights questions of intersectionality in women’s writing on race, gender, class, and religion. Students discuss novels, essays, and other hybrid genres by Black women and other women of colour as well as the work of Jewish writers, feminist Muslim writers, and writing by queer writers of colour. ‘Germany Today’ (GER4210) devotes sessions to German industry and the so-called low wages sector as an object of critically investigating matters of exploitation with particular reference to ethnic minorities.

First Year students taking the course ‘Picturing a Nation: France and its Image from Marianne to #JesuisCharlie’ reflect on national clichés and their implication for political integration, or on the role of visual culture in the consolidation of commodity racism in the French metropole, as illustrated in the racist representation of Senegalese tirailleurs in Banania adverts. Cultural legitimacy is also a central discussion in the Final Year module ‘France and its Museums from Louvre to Louvre’, which interrogates the museum’s postcolonial legacy and addresses topical issues such as restitution of objects from former French colonies. 

In ‘Why Belgium? Identities, Cultures, Narratives’, students are introduced to the violence and exploitation of colonial rule in the Congo Free State and Belgian Congo, the contested legacy of Leopold II within Belgium, and the ways in which representations of colonized and colonizers are interdependent. In ‘Memories of World War II in French Literature, Film and Art’ (FRE5001, FRE6050), students explore transnational traumatic memories related to the Holocaust and Hiroshima, alongside resistance against Nazism and colonialism, leading to liberation in France and independence in Algeria. 

Postcolonial Francospheres: Memories of Colonialism in the French-speaking World (FRE4041/FRE5041) enables students to examine how authors across postcolonial francospheres situate themselves in relation to ‘La Francophonie’ and the ‘world literature in French’ debate through analysing manifestos and interviews. Students have the opportunity to analyse works of fiction that deal with the legacies of colonialism across North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the Caribbean, which persist to this day.

‘Afropean Identities’ (SML6052/COM6052) explores Afropean experiences across the UK, France, Belgium, and Germany. In this module, students contextualise and provide close readings of essays, poems, novels, and short stories, related to racism, legacies of slavery and colonialism, political activism, and Afropea as a utopian concept. Students position themselves in relation to local black history as well as analysing literary texts by Afropean writers, through the self-reflection on a tour of Black London assignment.

ILAS modules on Latin America engage with the debate on decolonial encounters, indigeneity, and intercultural dialogues and contemplate the important and specific contribution of autocthonous and mestizo voices to the region’s history of thought.

Portuguese addresses, from the start, the voices and agency of racially subjugated peoples. The foundational module specific for Portuguese, ‘Colonial Power and Desire: Narratives of Dissent in Portugal and Brazil’ (POR4036, COM5036), studies African slaves’ biographies whilst the oral narratives of the Brazilian natives project the voices of the those whose identity is defined by an absence, ‘less’ (e.g., Brazil’s landless social actors across races) and of individuals ‘with no name’, their voices of resistance, as well as the ways these also play out in major social movements in Brazil today. The level 4 module ‘Rio de Janeiro on the World Stage and Imaginary’ analyses favela-originated literature on the locals’ responses to eviction and drug violence,as well as their responses to favela tourism and market-oriented poverty voyeurism. Portuguese further studies prominent Black thinkers from Africa, notably the lideologue of the liberation struggle Amilcar Cabral (Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde) and black African artists, notably Flora Gomes and Zeze Gamboa as well as major anti-colonial initiatives fostering a cinema by the people for the people.

Russian core language modules at level 5, in RUSII language classes (Oral, AV, E-R Translation, R-E Translation) examine the ethnic diversity of the contemporary Russian Federation, and discuss the range of religions that coexist in the country (including Europe’s largest Muslim community).

Level 6 SML/COM5045 ‘Race and Racism in European Culture’ encourages students to analyse representations of race and racism within European culture from the Middle Ages to the present, mobilising key critical theories that relate to these issues. It engages with a variety of sources (literary, historical, material, and visual) and draws on evidence from a range of European traditions (such as French, German or Spanish) to explore these representations.

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