find your perfect postgrad program
Search our Database of 30,000 Courses

Humanities Research: Breaking down the barriers

Thanks to the rise of the Internet and e-mail, the world has become a smaller place. But language is still a major barrier to communication. Chris Leadbeater reports on the British universities whose research is knocking down linguistic walls

There are perhaps few stories in the great books of religion that are as striking as the biblical tale of the Tower of Babel. It is set in a time when humanity spoke a single language. United by this common tongue, man attempts to construct a huge tower that reaches to heaven, only for God to put a stop to the scheme by creating an array of different languages and imposing them on the tower builders. Cue mis-communication, confusion and the failure of the project. There is no doubt that this story has some resonance in modern life.

Languages in the EU

In many ways, mankind has never been closer. The advent of e-mail and the Internet means we can all talk to far corners of the planet in seconds. The growth of the air industry means that almost everywhere on the globe can be reached within 24 hours. There is also increased political closeness, not least in the European Union (EU), which swelled to 27 member states in January 2007.

And yet language still remains a real barrier to communication. The EU, for example, despite being the largest economy in the world, is home to 23 official languages, including Slovak, Maltese, Estonian and Lithuanian, as well as such more widely spoken tongues like German, French and English. Beyond that, there are over 150 ‘unofficial’ languages (such as Catalan, Galician and Basque in Spain, or Welsh within the UK). And if Turkey joins the EU – a move that may happen within the next decade – further languages will be added to the melting pot.

With EU research showing that over 50% of Europeans can only speak their own language, this melting pot costs a great deal in time, effort and money. Many documents need to be translated into every official language, while interpreters are a constant element of EU business. And all this before you consider that many non-indigenous languages are also spoken in countries across the EU. The story of the Tower of Babel may date back almost three millennia, but 2007 finds the tumultuous diversity of languages that it recalls alive and well in the world’s second-smallest continent, never mind the planet as a whole.

The SMART Project

A modern look at a modern language

One of the great problems of learning a new language is that, in many cases, textbooks can only give instruction on a simplified level. Most books concentrate on grammar and structure, and, while these are areas that must be mastered if any level of fluency is to be achieved, they only represent one part of what makes a language work; a language might sit static and formal on the textbook page, but it is a living thing outside the classroom, constantly evolving with new colloquialisms and fresh expressions.

This, however, has been recognised by the authors of a forward-thinking new guide to the English language. Professors Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy, both of the University of Nottingham, were recently commended for their impressive tome, The Cambridge Grammar of English: A Comprehensive Guide to Spoken and Written Grammar and Usage , winning the British Council’s ELT (English Language Teaching) Innovation Award at a ceremony in March 2007.

And with good reason. The book is the fruit of a decade of research that saw the two Professors build up a vast database of spoken and written English – one billion words, to be precise – making it the largest database of its kind in the world. Five million of those words are everyday examples of spoken English, gathered from TV and radio shows or collected in real-life situations via tape recorders left in places like banks, post offices and shops to capture the sounds of the language in action.

‘If we spoke as we wrote, we would all sound like a book,’ says Professor Carter. ‘We all have a wide repertoire, and successful users of English are those who can move up and down that repertoire from formal to informal, depending on the situation.’

All of which means that language is currently one of the most important areas of academic research. And nowhere is that more the case than in Britain, where some of the big questions – how to enhance and speed up methods of translation, how to improve standards of language teaching in schools, how to boost relations between countries with little shared linguistic ground – are being tackled by several universities.

Three British universities, for example, are involved with the SMART (Statistical Multilingual Analysis for Retrieval and Translation) project, an ambitious attempt, funded by the EU, to find a radically better form of computerised translation than is currently available (many existing translation programmes target each individual word in a sentence while often neglecting the overall meaning of the statement). The Universities of Bristol and Southampton, as well as University College London, are applying their expertise to a scheme that describes itself as a bid to break down the language barriers that act as ‘a serious bottleneck to European integration, and to economic and cultural exchange’.

Research will look at techniques used by professional translators, as well as working with others who operate with foreign languages – including international phone helpline staff, who regularly give out detailed technical advice in their non-native tongue, and often have to overcome the fact that the instructions in front of them are written in a different language to the one in which they are holding the conversation.

Those involved with the project are optimistic that it will bear fruit in a host of ways. ‘The possibility of posing a query in one language and getting documents back in another is useful in a wide variety of applications,’ explains Dr Craig Saunders of Southampton University’s School of Electronics and Computer Science. ‘This is the first time that new machine-learning techniques are being used in this way.’

Understanding China

Language research does not begin and end with the EU of course – as demonstrated by a separate project that looks beyond Europe and across to the planet’s most quickly developing nation. The British Inter-University China Centre is a joint venture between the Universities of Bristol, Manchester and Oxford that will seek to improve knowledge and understanding in the UK of the Asian giant. Based in Oxford, the Centre (which opened in June) has been set up to try to expand the teaching of Chinese language and studies in British universities. It will also carry out research in these areas, and will aim to play an advisory role to business, government and the media on Chinese affairs.

‘Understanding China today requires an understanding of its past, its religions, philosophy and cultures,’ says Professor Robert Bickers, Co-Director of the Centre and Associate Director of the Centre for East Asian Studies at the University of Bristol. ‘The Centre’s scholars and students will lead new work in these fields.’


One of the most fascinating areas of current language research is the topic of bilingualism. While the ability to speak two languages will always be seen as a positive attribute, how best to achieve this double expertise has often been a subject of discussion – particularly with reference to children, where there have been concerns that learning a second language too early can hinder development in the native tongue.

This idea has been undermined somewhat by studies conducted at Goldsmiths (part of the University of London). Researchers observed bilingual primary school children in Tower Hamlets, a London borough home to a 65,000-strong Bangladeshi community – and found that being educated in both English and Bengali significantly assisted the cognitive development of the young people in question. Children who attended classes in Bengali were seen to perform better in UK National Curriculum tests than pupils who did not. As Dr Charmian Kenner of Goldsmiths comments: ‘Children who live their lives bilingually can access the Curriculum through both languages. Learning a mathematical concept in Bengali and English, for example, deepens understanding, as ideas are transferred between languages.’

These results will be well received 200 miles from London, in Bangor. This small town in the northwest corner of mainland Wales is home to the new ESRC Centre for Research on Bilingualism in Theory and Practice, the UK’s first centre of its kind. Based at the Bangor campus of the University of Wales, and opened in January, the Centre will study all areas of dual-language expertise, and aims to produce ground-breaking findings that could be of influence on everything from how languages are taught in schools to government education policy.

The Centre is certainly located in the right spot, sitting in an area where Welsh, as well as English, is widely spoken. ‘Bangor is such a good place for a centre for research on bilingualism,’ says Professor Margaret Deuchar, the establishment’s Director.
‘At least 60% of the local population is bilingual, so we have plenty of opportunity not only to study bilinguals, but to work with them as colleagues and researchers.’

The Centre will go as far as to study the physical science of bilingualism. ‘We have a neuroscience group, which will use methods such a brain imaging to see how the two languages of a bilingual are represented in the brain,’ explains Professor Deuchar. ‘It used to be thought that perhaps one language was stored on the left and one on the right, but results suggest it is much more complex than that. Research is at an early stage, but new technology is enabling us to find out a lot more than we knew before.’

Professor Deuchar’s own research will focus on ‘code switching’, the common bilingual practice (especially in closely integrated communities like north Wales) of leaping back and forth between languages in the course of a conversation.

‘We’re looking at how bilinguals manage to use their languages together – sometimes in the same sentence – given that the languages may have different grammars,’ she says. ‘For example, in Welsh, the verb comes first in a sentence, whereas in English, it’s the subject. It seems to be the case that, to avoid anarchy, one grammar is chosen. The relevant language then provides the conversation’s grammatical frame, with words from the other language being slotted in. And you can use this as an indicator of how healthy a language is. From this point of view, Welsh looks healthy. It seems to be the language that provides the grammatical frame for bilinguals who speak English and Welsh.’

Professor Deuchar’s research will also consider how variables like class, age and gender affect this process – and look beyond English-Welsh to bilingual pairings like English-Spanish and Spanish-Welsh. This unlikely latter coupling occurs in Patagonia (in Argentina), where a Welsh community settled in the 19th century. ‘We’ll be going to Patagonia, and collecting data and natural conversations between speakers of the two languages,’ Professor Deuchar adds. ‘Spanish and Welsh are very different, but we know a lot about Welsh-English and English-Spanish, so this will complete the triangle.’

As with Goldsmiths, the Centre will assess the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. Studies in Canada have suggested that the mental effort needed to speak two languages keeps the brain sharp. ‘Research on older people suggests that bilingualism can keep people’s cognitive function at a higher level than if they weren’t bilingual, slow down ageing and even prevent things like Alzheimer’s,’ Professor Deuchar continues. ‘We will be doing further research in this area, differentiating not only between the age of bilinguals, but also looking at their language backgrounds to see exactly how this cognitive advantage works.’

At the other end of the age scale, the Centre will look at bilingualism in the young, and will attempt to resolve the question of what is the best age at which to expose children to a second language. Studies will be carried out in bilingual classrooms in north Wales, and could have an impact on the way languages are taught in the UK.

‘Research in this area could be useful for deciding when to introduce French, German or Spanish in schools,’ Professor Deuchar explains. ‘There is thought to be a critical period of language acquisition in children, perhaps nought-to-eight-years – and certainly before a child reaches what is often called the cut-off point at puberty – after which it is more difficult to learn languages. This would seem to be an argument for exposing children to languages earlier, maybe in primary rather than secondary school. We also want to work out how much input pupils need to achieve a level of expertise in a language.’

Fostering understanding

Whatever findings emerge from this innovative centre, there can be little doubt that bilingualism is a valuable skill, not least amid the Babel-esque tumult of conflicting languages in modern Europe. ‘Speaking more languages can only foster understanding and communication,’ Professor Deuchar argues. ‘A bilingual has insights not only into two languages, but two cultures. If people understand more languages, they can also understand more about how other people see the world.’

Chris Leadbeater is a freelance writer who specialises in education, arts and music.

Read other Humanities research papers, including research from 2006 about the Popularity of the Novel and a 2008 research paper on Crime & Punishment.