Modern Languages Research and the Digital Humanities

This week I’m attending an event hosted by the Institute of Modern Languages Research which asks the following question: “What is Modern Languages Research?” This pilot workshop brings together a number of academics, translators and practitioners in the field to “discuss what constitutes Modern Languages as a disciplinary field and the defining features of Modern Languages research as practiced in the UK”:

As a researcher in the Digital Humanities with a background in Spanish & Spanish American studies, I bring two different but complimentary sets of questions to this kind of event:

How does digital culture change knowledge production and why should Modern Languages researchers care?

We are still at the beginning of a process of digitally-mediated transformation in the way scholarly research is being carried out which have barely passed the experimental phase, and which we have only just started to properly comprehend, theorise and integrate into our critical toolkit. Disruptive discourse frequently paints an over-simplistic picture of how technology is changing the research landscape, and yet digital culture opens up opportunities and challenges for the humanities, in general, and Modern Languages, specifically, which we have yet to respond to adequately.

As someone who has participated in or advised on numerous digital humanities research projects with a Spanish language research component, what interests me is how digital culture has had an impact on Modern Languages research so far:

• How have research questions relating to Modern Languages been articulated (and answered) using digital technology?
• How have the relationships between academic, commercial and cultural practitioners altered as a result? What are the opportunities/tensions in the different approaches taken by these actors to digital applications of language-based research?
• To what extent have networked communication, open culture and the so-called ‘wisdom of the crowd’ influenced the execution and transmission of Modern Languages research and what are the opportunities/barriers?
• To what extent have digitally mediated research and teaching influenced each other?

This can also be usefully viewed from the ‘digital’ perspective, i.e. exploring how digital scholars/practitioners (including those involved in digital studies, new media and the digital humanities) have experimented with Modern Languages research and what broader impact that has had:

• How have scholars and practitioners studying ‘the digital’ approached and interpreted Modern Languages research?
• What tools and methodologies have they employed, and what opportunities are there for broader adoption?
• How has the ‘hypercentrality of English’ in digital communications affected Modern Languages research and what strategies have different language communities adopted to overcome this? What implications does this have for Modern Languages research specifically?
• Can digital culture innovate aspects of Modern Languages research without performing a ‘Trojan Horse’ role in paving the way for practices which threaten the future of the field?
• How useful is the ‘Commons’ model in thinking about the future of Modern Languages research? How might digital ecosystems for Modern Languages research facilitate the kind of collaborations envisaged by such initiatives as AHRC Commons ( ) or DH Commons ( )? How might they “break down departmental and disciplinary silos” in the words of the recent OWRI funding initiative (

How do languages influence digital culture and why should Modern Language researchers care?

If we look at this from the opposite direction, we immediately become aware that we are talking about two sets of languages – human-to-human and human-to-computer – which are at the core of much of what makes us human. These are generally treated as entirely different kinds of language, rarely studied together, and yet in both cases their codes, grammars and vocabularies perform translations of human culture, and the connection between the two seems worthy of further study. Anyone studying how digital memory and knowledge environments capture and represent language, and how this affects transmission/communication, has to consider questions such as the following:

• What language-based assumptions underpin the infrastructure and technologies we use, and how do they set the stage for the performance of language?
• How have researchers and practitioners negotiated any perceived Anglophone emphasis in these frameworks?
• How does digital modelling affect the way global culture is constructed, and what kinds of ‘translation’ are performed as information enters and leaves the digital sphere?
• What kinds of ‘language acts’ do different categories of data (ephemeral/instant vs stable/curated) perform?
• How does ‘mobile’ technology affect the mobility of language and culture in Modern Languages research, and what does that research look like when framed within the culture of the ‘App’?

With my ‘Digital Humanities’ hat on, I’m particularly interested in questions related to how we model, curate, analyse and interpret digital representations of the human record:

• How do different kinds and levels of data – ‘big/small data’, ‘deep/shallow’ data – influence the transmission of culture, and to what extent does that ‘data’ represent a meaningful cultural record in a Modern Languages context?
• To what extent is the connective potential of approaches like LinkedData and the Semantic Web useful in exploring the contact zones of Modern Languages research?
• How might digital traces of Modern Languages research influence transmission, translation and critical interpretation in the future?

My background

My research in this area touches on both sets of questions, and in the past I have been involved in the Out of the Wings project (, the ‘La Entretenida’ digital edition (, the CHARTA TEI pilot (, the Spanish and Portuguese language Dia das Humanidades Digitais/Día de las Humanidades Digitales event ( I am currently on the Executive Board of Humanidades Digitales Hispánicas ( I am also currently programme convenor for the MA in DH at KCL, which explores some of these issues:

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