My experience of researching multilingually began in what seems like another lifetime and has taken several different forms. As a postgraduate student, my research was for a PhD thesis in comparative literature, which explored `The Influence of E.T.A. Hoffmann on Balzac’ (London, 1991). This was a topic that had interested both French and German researchers for almost a century, so my reading explored a plethora of literary and scholarly works in both languages. I remain fascinated and not a little disturbed by the way in which historical circumstances seem to have shaped the views and conclusions of both sets of scholars. I hope some day to return to comparative literature, especially since my original motive for becoming a linguist was to be able to read European literature in the original.
One of my first experiences of multilingual research in language and linguistics came at the University of Sheffield, where I co-supervised a PhD thesis on the Translation of Advertising texts into Russian. Looking back, I appear to have been undeterred by the fact that I had no knowledge of Russian. Oddly enough, I don’t recall ever having considered that this might be problematical. As it turned out, it wasn’t, because the supervision team included an expert Russian linguist. It also helped that the researcher who wrote the thesis was supremely competent.
More recently, supervising multilingual research has become more or less the norm for me. Five of the seven doctoral students I have supervised at the Open University are native speakers of languages other than English. Their research topics have been very diverse, ranging from: Internet- mediated intercultural FL education in China to language use in the primary EFL classroom in Cyprus. The bonus for me is that my horizons have frequently been enlarged and I have been pleasantly stretched.
My own research interests and publications have been focused on bilingual and multilingual approaches in foreign language learning for a number of years. I offer two illustrations. In 2003 I co-edited a volume on Autonomous Language Learning in Tandem – an approach to language learning that is based on cross-cultural bilingual partnerships. In February 2011, I co-edited a special issue of Language Learning and Technology (15:1), dedicated to `Multilateral Online Exchanges for Learning Language and Culture’. My focus has somehow shifted from C19th literature to online learning environments, but the multilingual thread remains constant.
After three decades, it is still the intercultural, rather than the linguistic dimensions of working on research projects with partners from other parts of the world that most often gives me pause for thought. It seems equally misguided to attribute disparities of emphasis to cultural difference as it does to try to dismiss or undervalue such difference altogether. If there is a middle way, it seems still to run through uncharted territory. To date, I feel that I have more or less blundered on, hoping that I haven’t been unacceptably ethnocentric and trusting that the maturity and forbearance of my research students and partners will carry us through. So far, I feel that I’ve been lucky. But I guess that what I am perhaps hoping for from the Researching Multilingually project is a better map of the intercultural terrain that researcher’s now daily share.