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Decolonising the Modern Languages Curriculum


Students Brooke Yates, Heather Wright and Josanne McCook represented ULIP at an outreach event on February 17th promoting the study of Modern Languages. The programme, as summarized below by these dedicated student ambassadors, aimed at showing how foreign language learning can help decolonise the languages curriculum at university in addition to how culture plays a key role in widening participation.  

"Alongside ULIP’s Dr Joanne Brueton, QMUL’s Dr Richard Mason, Dr Maha El Hissy, and three French and Spanish undergraduates from QMUL, we discussed an excerpt from the Martinican poet Aimé Césaire’s Une Tempête (1969) and the work of British writer & political activist Sharon Dodua Otoo. Analysing Césaire’s rewriting of Shakespeare’s 1611 play, The Tempest, we contested traditional ideas of what it means to have a “canon” in foreign language studies.  

The sixth formers intelligently deconstructed this idea with many of them concluding that the idea of a canon has unfortunately marginalised or excluded works from people of colour who deserve to be upheld as much as other writers. Cultural decolonisation thus proved a vital task for expanding our access to other perspectives and voices within the academic space.  

The second session of the event on Dodua Otoo’s work focused more on linguistics, using the German language to consider the difference of fluidity between nouns and verbs and how meaning can be prescribed through grammar. She makes the case that verbs are emancipatory whilst nouns are restricting and oppressive. 

One of our main takeaways from the session is that language is a force of resistance. Whether that be in Césaire’s work, when his character Caliban demands to be called ‘x’ rather than the name imposed by his colonial master, or Dodua Otoo’s linguistic activism where verbs promote change and flexibility over the fossilisation of nouns, our use of language has the capacity to promote inclusivity or silence difference. There was a definite sense that all participants were galvanised by their key role in contemporary debates surrounding decolonisation in the academy.

Having had the chance to share literary and cultural artefacts that have impacted us during our own undergraduate and personal studies – Fatima Daas’s La Petite Dernière, Didier Daeninckx’s Cannibale, and  Lounès Matoub’s Rebelle – we left the event excited to see how the appetite for learning about previously marginalised voices might help change what, how, and why we study languages in the future."