Area of investment and support

Area of investment and support: Open world research initiative

The Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) ran from 2016 to 2020 with four research programmes to demonstrate the value of modern languages in a globalised research environment. The projects showcased the crucial role that languages play within arts and humanities, and key contemporary issues.

£16 million across four research programmes
2016 to 2020
Partners involved:
Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)

The scope and what we're doing

The four programmes and the partners involved with each project were:

Creative multilingualism


  • University of Oxford
  • Birmingham City University
  • SOAS University of London
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Pittsburgh
  • University of Reading.


Empowering individuals, transforming societies


  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Edinburgh
  • University of Nottingham
  • Queen’s University Belfast.

Cross-language dynamics

Reshaping community


  • University of Manchester
  • University of Durham
  • University of London.

Language acts and worldmaking


  • King’s College London
  • Open University
  • University of Westminster
  • Queen Mary University London.

Why we're doing it

These were flagship projects in modern languages which aimed to re-energise the field through ambitious collaborative research programmes which embed partnerships with a vast range of bodies outside the university sector. They helped to demonstrate the value of modern languages in an increasingly globalised research environment.

Legacy objectives

Read about the Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) legacy objectives.

Opportunities, support and resources available

Previous events

Creative Multilingualism: Katrin Kohl and Rajinder Dudrah webinar (4 June 2020)

About: This event brought together Katrin Kohl (Medieval and Modern Languages) and Rajinder Dudrah (Professor of Cultural Studies and Creative Industries, Birmingham City University) in conversation about Creative Multilingualism.

View the Creative Multilingualism webinar recording on the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities website.

Disrupting Digital Monolingualism (16 to 17 June 2020)

About: This two-day workshop brought together leading researchers, educators, digital practitioners, language-focused professionals, policymakers and other interested parties to address the challenges of multilingualism in digital spaces and to collectively propose new models and solutions.

View videos from the workshop on the Disrupting Digital Monolingualism website.

The harp in translation: online concert and discussion (30 May 2020)

About: How do musicians borrow ideas from other musical traditions, or techniques from other instruments – and in what ways does this behave like spoken language? In this evening of performance and discussion, harpist Tamsin Dearnley led a journey through Scotland, Japan, South America and beyond.

View a recording of the concert on the Institute of Modern Languages website.

Linguistic Justice in Policy and Practice (11 February 2020)

About: The learning and use of English is being promoted so energetically worldwide that it is essential to assess whether it serves as a panacea (strengthening multilingualism) or as a pandemic (marginalising other languages). Robert Phillipson, Emeritus Professor at Copenhagen Business School, Denmark considered this topic of linguistic justice, particularly looking at Nordic and their policies aiming to ensure a healthy balance between English and national languages.

Read Linguistic Justice in Policy and Practice by Robert Phillipson on the Multilingualism: empowering individuals, transforming societies.


Reports and publications


Past projects, outcomes and impact

The four OWRI projects completed their substantial research in June 2020.

A key aim of all four OWRI projects and the Modern Languages Leadership Fellow (MLLF) was to change attitudes towards languages and language learning amongst key stakeholders and policymakers. This included exploring ways of facilitating and embedding a sense of common purpose and vision with respect both to languages, and to Modern Languages as an academic discipline. Modern linguists have not been as quick as, for example, historians to engage with policymakers, and OWRI sought to remedy this.

Creative multilingualism funding opportunities

There were two funding opportunities:

Creative Multilingualism investigated the interconnection between linguistic diversity and creativity. This research programme was led by Professor Katrin Kohl at the University of Oxford with co-investigators at Birmingham City University, SOAS University of London, University of Cambridge, University of Pittsburgh and the University of Reading.

It put the spotlight on the value of modern languages, while using creativity as the focus for rethinking that value.

The programme focused on the following questions:

  • how does multilingualism stimulate creativity?
  • what kinds of creativity are involved in multilingualism?
  • how do these kinds of creativity manifest themselves in multilingual processes?

Languages are our key medium for self-expression and as such they are at the heart of individual and collective cultural identity. This gives them immense creative potential which is fundamental to our lives as human beings and an invaluable resource in their own right. Find out more about the seven strands to their research at the Creative Multilingualism website.

The programme continues to be run from the University of Oxford as part of The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH).

Influence on policymakers

Creative Multilingualism was designed to raise awareness of the value of linguistic diversity for sustaining and stimulating creativity. Researchers participated regularly in the meetings of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. Often in collaboration with project partner the British Council, this led to following up leads that emerged from the presentations and discussions, for example with the Department for Education, the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office, cultural departments of embassies, and other organisations engaged in the promotion of languages. The partnership opened up channels for promoting an understanding of linguistic diversity in conversations with and beyond Europe – in 2018 and 2019, collaboration with a policy partner the Joint Committee for Languages extended this work to comparative exploration of multilingualism in the UK and US.

Policy work relating to schools focused on extending and invigorating the dialogue between secondary and tertiary education in modern (foreign) languages and making this cooperation more visible and efficacious. A matter of priority was to ensure that the ongoing difficulties with fair grading are addressed effectively, since these continue to undermine other efforts to improve take-up and progression in the subject. This was pursued through participation in the Modern Foreign Languages group convened by Ofqual. You can read the letter and supporting documentation from Professor Katrin Kohl (who led the Creative Multilingualism programme) to Ofqual regarding severe grading, A level exam analysis, and GCSE grading.

A further policy priority of the programme is to promote the value of the arts through the concept of Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEAM) while making linguistic diversity visible as an associated national asset. A research strand on Languages in the Creative Economy, led from Birmingham City University, led on this in the context of the flagship STEAMhouse project.

Multilingualism: empowering individuals, transforming societies (MEITS)

There were two funding opportunities:

Linguistic competence in more than one language, being multilingual, sits at the heart of the study of modern languages and literatures, distinguishing it from related disciplines.

Through six interlocking research strands, Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett at the University of Cambridge with co-investigators at University of Edinburgh, University of Nottingham and Queen’s University Belfast investigated how the insights gained from stepping outside of a single language, culture and mode of thought are vital to individuals and societies.

The project analysed situations that give rise to multilingualism, and the relationship between languages, cultures, identities, norms and standards. They explored ways of maximising motivation and achievement in language learning as a life-long activity.

Find more information at the MEITS website.

MEITS objectives

The objectives of the MEITS research were to:

  • create new knowledge about the opportunities and challenges of multilingualism for individuals, communities and nations
  • change attitudes towards multilingualism in the general public and among key stakeholders and policymakers
  • develop new interdisciplinary research paradigms and methodologies
  • demonstrate how an innovative interdisciplinary project can integrate language-led research with literary-cultural studies, thereby addressing key issues of our times.

Transformative impact will be achieved through creating new synergies across a range of disciplines, through collaboration with international partners and, crucially, through exchanging ideas and insights with partners which were not higher education institutions.

Influence on policymakers

The MEITS online journal Languages, Society and Policy publishes concise jargon-free contributions based on peer-reviewed outputs. A go-to resource for high-calibre research on multilingualism for non-academic interest groups, it is a forum for policy papers, opinion pieces and dialogues on policy issues for all the OWRI projects, as well as the wider body of modern languages researchers.

MEITS hosted policy fellows through the Centre for Science and Policy (CSaP), University of Cambridge. The programme aimed to deliver opportunities for decision makers from government and industry to forge useful and lasting connections with researchers.

From 2016 to 2020 the three policy fellows were:

  • Maria O’Beirne, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government
  • Linsey Farrell, Northern Ireland Executive
  • Nicola Davis, Head of Languages Team, Foreign and Commonwealth Team.

Team members have provided their expertise to policymakers in Northern Ireland, the British Academy, European Commission and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages.

Working alongside the Modern Languages Leadership Fellow, MEITS ran policy workshops that brought together policymakers from relevant government bodies in Whitehall and the devolved administrations, researchers, and the third sector for knowledge exchange and network creation. Each workshop produced policy briefings, drawing on Cambridge’s expertise in public policy.

Cross-language dynamics: reshaping community

This multidisciplinary programme is led by Professor Stephen Hutchings at the University of Manchester with co-investigators from the University of Manchester, University of Durham and University of London. It aims to develop new modern languages research paradigms capable of re-conceptualising the relationship between language and community for the benefit of a more open world.

The project identified three intersecting community configurations attributing different roles to language and attracting distinct methodologies: the multilingual (urban communities whose identity is shaped by language diversity), the transnational (sharing a single language but dispersed across nation states) and the translingual (formed through cultural creativity across language boundaries).

In each case, it investigated ties and disjunctions between language and nationhood, and the dynamic of top-down institutional and grassroots networking dimensions of community-building. Tackling these issues across all three configurations, with each corresponding to a research strand, the project aimed to recast modern languages agendas, reshape adjacent disciplinary priorities, offer insights to policymakers, and invest the civic university with new purpose.

Our main languages represent some of the world’s largest language communities. They have the capacity to traverse the strands: Arabic, Chinese, German, Russian, and Spanish which are at once community languages, the glue binding transnational networks, and a medium through which language communities embrace translingual values.

For more information, visit their website at Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community.

Influence on policymakers

Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community contributes to policymaking in domains corresponding to its three research strands.

The Multilingual Strand has developed a close relationship with local authorities and key public services, initiating a partnership through which research tools and datasets, compiled by researchers, can be used by authorities to assess needs relating to population diversity. Themes include surveys of linguistic landscapes, managing interpreter services and language skills in the next generation workforce. Policy briefings are available on the Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community project website. See also details on their funding opportunities to change the census wording around languages and responses from policymakers.

The Transnational Strand research benefits policymakers by advancing their understanding of how language community identities and inter-community tensions influence international relations. Language Policies in the Former Soviet Space examined contemporary language policies in and across the multilingual and multinational geopolitical area that was once the Soviet Union, together with its immediate environs.

Policy papers co-developed with Chatham House summarised the security implications of this research, with particular reference to contested areas of the former Soviet Union, and the Middle East. You can find out more about this policy work on Radical Islam in the MENA region on Durham University website.

Finally, the strand targets the narrative of the so-called Islamic State, aiming to illuminate its communications strategy, the reception of its message and the responses of key Arab actors. This work also contributed to a book Islam, IS and the Fragmented State.

The Translingual Strand policy-related research included research on translingual world literatures. This informed workshops involving teachers from Tower Hamlets, feeding into school curricular policies on the teaching of English. Working in partnership with Southwark Council researchers also worked with the Latin American community in south London. The strand also targeted research on translation which, via collaboration with Slovene EU translators, aimed to generate insights of relevance to the policies and practices of the European Language Commission.

Language acts and worldmaking

View details of the 2019 funding opportunity with a list of previous small grant awards from 2017 to 2019.

Led by Professor Catherine Boyle at King’s College London with co-investigators at Open University, University of Westminster and Queen Mary University London, Language Acts and Worldmaking examined language as a material and historical force which acts as the means by which individuals construct their personal, local, transnational and spiritual identities – a process we call worldmaking. Learning a language means recognising that the terms, concepts, beliefs and practices that are embedded in it possess a history, and that that history is shaped by encounters with other cultures and languages.

This project realised this potential by breaking down the standard disciplinary approaches that constrain Spanish and Portuguese within the boundaries of national literary and cultural traditions. Our case study was Iberia, its global empires and contact zones, which stretch across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas.

This vast multilingual and multicultural terrain dramatically illustrates the potential of modern language learning to understand and shape the world we live in. The project’s research and partnerships demonstrate the indispensable value of language learning for understanding how societies are structured and governed and for empowering culturally aware and self-reflective citizens.

Find out more on the Language acts and worldmaking website.

Influence on policymakers

Language Acts and Worldmaking sought to influence policymaking via a series of white papers aimed at informing modern languages strategy across the sector.

The Diasporic Identities strand addressed the state of the modern languages teaching profession in the UK, presenting evidence and recommendations on the professional development needs of teachers based on its research into language teachers’ professional and cultural identities and the challenges they face.

The Digital Mediations strand collaborated with innovation partners within academia and beyond, advising on how modern languages researchers can better work with digital data, models and interfaces, provoking debate on how modern languages research ecosystems can be improved. This strand will have consequences for the public’s access to languages and language research and will have significant impact on digital and academic policy and practice.

The Language Transitions strand has carried out an extensive survey on the provision and use of language learning among postgraduate research students at UK higher education institutions. The outcome of this was referenced in an article Language learning experiences of postgraduate research students in the UK published alongside colleagues from the Diasporic Identities strand.

All policy papers will be published in the online journal Languages, Society and Policy, ensuring a common voice across the OWRI initiative. Policy impact will also be facilitated by our partners, including Routes into Languages and Network for Languages London.

Who to contact

James Fenner


Last updated: 14 September 2023

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