Language research in UK universities: English and French

How much of the research in our universities’ language departments (e.g. Department of English or French) is devoted to the languages after which the departments are named?

Research-active staff

One obvious measure for the importance given to language research in a department is the number of research-active staff who mention the language in their personal research profile on the departmental webpage. The following reports the results of a survey in 2011 of the Departments of French and English in all the Russell Group universities – the most prestigious grouping of universities in the UK.


I counted staff members as follows:

  • I excluded the two London universities that have no Department of English or French: Imperial College and the LSE.
  • I included departments or schools whose name suggested that they would deal with English or French; where a broad school includes separate departments of English Language and English Literature, I treated the latter as a single department with staff members assigned respectively to ‘language’ and to ‘other’.
  • I excluded the small minority of staff members whose webpages gave no information about their research.
  • I also excluded staff listed as honorary, emeritus, temporary, visiting or associate; and I ignored tutors, lecteurs/lectrices and instructors.
  • This method gave a total of 287 staff in French departments and 817 in English.
  • As ‘language’ research I counted any research that focused on language, including philology, historical linguistics, sociolinguistics, text linguistics, stylistics, translation studies (but not simply ‘translation’ as a literary category) and language pedagogy. I counted researchers as language researchers even if they also researched some other area such as literature or politics.

The figures can be found here.

Findings: French

  • In only one department (Southampton) was a majority of staff involved in language research; one other department (Newcastle) reached 33%. These two departments are clearly outliers in the general pattern.
  • At the other extreme, no fewer than five of the 18 departments (Birmingham, Cardiff, UCL, Sheffield and Warwick) had no staff at all involved in language research.
  • All the remaining departments only had 20% or less of staff engaged in language research.
  • The average for all 18 departments was 11.8% – i.e. 34 out of 287. Without the two outliers it was 8.8%.

Findings: English

  • No department had a majority of staff engaged in language research, but six (Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Cardiff, Nottingham, Sheffield) had proportions of 25% or more.
  • At the other extreme, only one (Southampton, again) appeared to have no language researchers at all.
  • The average for the whole group is 20.1%, without any outliers.

Future research needed to complete the picture

  • Other languages
  • Other universities

Research students

Another measure of the quantity of research devoted to languages is the number of awards for doctoral students issued by the AHRC. The AHRC website gives a complete listing of all PhD awards from 2003 to 2008, classified by subject area; each award is listed with the title of the research project, from which it is usually clear whether language is at all in focus. Here is a summary of these awards:

  • In French, only 12 out of 101 awards concerned the French language, even using the most inclusive imaginable definition. This figure includes 7 awards listed under ‘Linguistics’, so only 5 projects concerned language out of the 94 classified as ‘French Language and Literature’.
  • In English, 50 out of 385 awards concerned the language, but this figure includes 47 awards classified as ‘Linguistics’, where English is the main language studied for more theoretical issues. Excluding these awards, the language was a focus for only 3 of the 338 awards classified as ‘English Language and Literature’, ‘English Language and Literature – History and development of the English language’ or ‘English Language and Literature – English Language and Literature’.

Conclusion on research students:

  • Even including students who classify their work under linguistics, a very small minority of the PhD students working in the areas broadly called ‘English’ and ‘French’ are studying the language itself.
  • But it is misleading to ignore the self-classification, because this is an indication of the students’ academic orientation, in terms of their department of registration (and supervision), and also their preferred career plans.

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