Over the next few years and through a series of projects and events in collaboration with our cultural and community partners, our subproject will explore what a linguistically sensitive approach to research relating to digital technologies and media means in practice. Over these first six months since joining the project team, it’s become clear what a rich and timely area of study this is. In recent years, Modern Languages scholars have increasingly turned their focus to the study of digital culture, while digital researchers and practitioners are paying growing attention to questions of language and the limitations of ‘English-only’ approaches and models.

Web archives, and specifically the UK Web Archive, provide a particularly enlightening case study for exploring such questions. To offer a brief explanation, web archives aim to collect, preserve and make accessible websites for the future. In the UK, the British Library (in partnership with the UK’s other legal deposit libraries) has been archiving selected websites since 2004, and since 2013 it has begun archiving the whole of the UK web domain.

While admittedly daunting in size, the UK Web Archive represents an invaluable resource for those studying any aspect of the social, political and cultural life of the UK in recent decades. And reflecting the multilingual reality of this contemporary context, the UK Web Archive contains a huge number of sites in languages other than English. While perhaps a fairly obvious observation, this is an essential reminder of the multilingual reality of the UK itself, both in the digital and physical realm.

An awareness of the presence of a huge quantity of sites in many different languages in the UK Web Archive should also encourage researchers to think about what might be lost through the use of English-only search terms, and in particular whose perspectives may be lost. If we take, for example, the subject of Brexit, which the UK Web Archive team has already gone to major efforts to document, this is a subject which is likely to have produced significant online debate and discussion in a number of languages, with discussions in other languages also likely to reflect distinct perspectives.

Evidently, this huge range of languages presents some major challenges to researchers if they want to try to incorporate a more linguistically diverse range of voices and perspectives. Sensitivity to questions of language can be challenging for an individual researcher without the time or resources to learn multiple languages in their attempts to uncover all of this material. However, identifying this challenge is a useful reminder of what is gained by collaborations between researchers with a diverse range of linguistic and cultural expertise, which Modern Languages scholars are ideally placed to contribute.

Dr Naomi Wells is a Post-doctoral Research Associate (Translingual Communities, European Languages and Digital Humanities) working on the Translingual Networks subproject. Read her research profile here or find out more about the subproject.