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Professor Michel Blanc

Professor Michel Blanc, who died on 30 January 2019 aged 89, had a decisive and transformative impact on the understanding and teaching of language at Birkbeck and beyond. Having studied English and Literature in Lyon, and not wishing to fight in the Algerian War, Michel came to England in his late twenties to work as a research assistant in the French Department of University College. He found love and married Iris, with whom he had a son, Paul, born in 1962. Within a couple of years, he took up a lectureship in French at Birkbeck. Here he would spend the next three decades of his teaching career. Already, Michel had a strong interest in language as the means of making bridges and connections. His PhD, awarded in 1961, analysed the use of narrative tenses in 13th-century French texts, at one point comparing the use of the present tense in the recitation of the medieval Song of Roland to the structure of radio commentaries on rugby matches. His first book, published shortly after his arrival at Birkbeck, Visages de la France Contemporaine, was a collection of texts on different aspects of French life. The text embodied one of the abiding principles of Michel’s career, namely that language and culture are inextricably bound up one with one another. In 1965, he devised a language-learning programme for BBC television called Suivez la Piste, which presented language-learning exercises using the medium of an episodic detective story.

Throughout this period, Michel had been growing more interested in theoretical questions relating to the teaching of language. In 1965, he set up a Language Research Centre, which promoted intensive techniques of language teaching, with an emphasis on spoken and conversational speech that was very different from prevailing grammar-based and written approaches. The Centre was the seed from which grew the idea for a full-blown Department of Applied Linguistics, which came into being in 1972. Michel was to be its Head until his retirement in 1990.

In the early 1980s, Michel joined forces with psychologist Josiane F. Hamers to begin work on a book that would examine a central question in the theory of language learning: that of bilingualism. Bilinguality and Bilingualism was first published in French in 1983. It set out an important distinction between ‘bilingualism’, which is the condition of a group or community in which two languages are spoken, and ‘bilinguality’, which is the command of two languages by an individual. The book magisterially draws together work from linguistics, psychology, neurology, sociolinguistics, anthropology and what was just beginning to be called cultural politics to make bilingualism visible and tractable as an integrated subject.

Following his retirement from Birkbeck, Michel became Research Professor at the University of Hertfordshire, overseeing a three-year project on learning styles in second language learning. He was himself endlessly curious about languages. after leaving Birkbeck, he renovated an old tobacco farm in Umbria with his second wife Susan, and became a fluent speaker of Italian. While in Canada, he learned Montagnais-Naskapi, an endangered language spoken by the Innu native people of the Quebec and Labrador region. 

In later years, following his return to the Savoie region of France where he was born, and with an association at the University of Savoie, Michel developed an interest in the history of the Bible, in which his knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew as well as Coptic, was put to good use.

Michel has left an indelible imprint and a vigorous legacy to the College he served so long and the colleagues he so inspired, but also to the field of Bilingualism which he helped to define and promote. He is survived by his son Paul, also an educator, but in mathematics rather than languages.