Major grant to focus on impact of shared language on conflict

  • Date

    Wed 25 Oct 23

Professor Kristian Gleditsch

The potential impact of shared language in preventing violent conflict is the focus of a major new £2.1million project, led by the University of Essex.

The ambitious project brings together expertise from the UK and Africa to develop a deeper understanding of how multilingual skills and practices affect the risk of conflict and prospects for conflict resolution.

The research team want to see whether having access to a shared language or shared languages between opposing sides in a conflict can lead to common ties and overcome social divisions in ways that can prevent situations resorting to violence and help settle ongoing armed conflict.

Project leader Professor Kristian Gleditsch, from the Department of Government at the University of Essex, explained: “Although issues such as ethnic diversity and differences in primary languages have been prominent in conflict research, the potential impact of individuals speaking more than one language and having access to shared languages in a linguistically diverse area has been overlooked.

"We lack an understanding of how multilingualism or common shared languages can shape conflict dynamics and conflict resolution. We are very pleased that the size of this award will permit us to conduct a potentially transformative interdisciplinary project on language, potential shared ties and conflict.”

Focus on Africa

The project is one of six to be awarded from a total of £12.1m by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), aimed at addressing a range of pressing regional, national and international issues, generating real impacts that will benefit communities.

ESRC Executive Chair Stian Westlake said: “These large-scale projects bring together world class researchers to address important, global issues that affect some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

“The projects are a great example of how the ideas and inspiration of social science researchers can help shape our thinking on long-term societal challenges.”

Professor Gleditsch will work with Essex colleagues in the Department of Language and Linguistics and the Department of Government, alongside expertise from global affairs think-tank ODI (formerly the Overseas Development Institute) and local collaborators in Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique, Nigeria and Uganda.

The central focus of the project will be Africa – an important setting due to its high number of multilingual citizens and the fact is has seen extensive violent conflict in different countries. In 2021, nearly half of all the armed conflicts in the world took place in the region.

This grant will be the first comparative, large scale analysis of the practice of multilingualism in reshaping violent conflict and harnessing conflict resolution in Africa.

Role of multilingualism in conflict

Professor Nancy Kula, from the Department of Language and Linguistics at Essex, added: “We are delighted to be working on this collaborative project which seeks to highlight and further our understanding of the role of multilingualism in the lived everyday realities of people on the African continent.

“The combination of expertise from linguistics and political science means we can better understand how language skills and linguistic repertoires are resources that can be used by communities to navigate complex armed conflicts both during and after times of conflict.”

Dr Stephanie Diepeveen, Senior Research Fellow, Politics and Governance and Digital Societies, at the ODI said: “By working in collaborative partnership with Africa-based colleagues, this project will not only deliver a significant research contribution on the role of multilingualism in conflict and conflict resolution, but will also ensure that the project's findings are communicated both to citizens in areas affected by conflict and to policymakers, journalists and activists working on peacebuilding and conflict resolution issues.”