Languages at War

Wars are most often encounters between speakers of different languages. Within these encounters, there is both a public policy dimension and the lived experience of those 'on the ground'. In 2009, IWM united with the University of Reading and the University of Southampton to investigate the role of dialogue, exchange, and confrontation through a major project — Languages at War: policies and practices of language contacts in conflict.

The three-year project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, focused on three key research questions:

  • What are the official foreign language policies of government, military and multilateral agencies as they concern the case-study situations?
  • What are the foreign language experiences of those involved in these conflicts?
  • How do these experiences relate to the policy frameworks set?

IWM's sound archive, with over 33,000 hours of recording about international conflicts from 1914, provided an invaluable resource for investigating the the role of foreign languages in war, and understanding of the importance of languages in conflict situations. The project took a comparative approach to the task, analysing two related but contrasting case studies, one on invasion/occupation (Europe, 1944-47), and one on peacekeeping (Bosnia, 1995-1998).

Following workshops in Years 1 and 2, the final year of the project saw the IWM host a major international conference, with linguists and historians presenting papers on language, peacekeeping and human conflict. The project also produced a book — Languages at War: Policies and Practices of Language Contacts in Conflict, published by Palgrave in 2012.

More information about the project can be found on the University of Reading website.