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Professor Michel Blanc

(Elected 2007)


Without even knowing it, Professor Michel Blanc was an archetypal Birkbeck student. In France he gained the equivalent to a BA and MA in English Language and Literature while working full-time as a school supervisor. He then settled in Britain and obtained a BA in French as an external student at the University of London, while teaching during the day.

After a stint at UCL as a Research Assistant, Michel was appointed to the French Department at Birkbeck in 1959, where, two years later, he completed his PhD on The narrative tenses in Old French. His training in the two disciplines of French and linguistics led him in 1965 to establish the Language Research Centre (now the Department of Applied Linguistics and Language Centre) with the help of colleagues and the financial support of the Nuffield Foundation to do research in Applied Linguistics and the Psychology of Learning Languages. From 1968 to 1972 he directed the DES-funded Sociolinguistic Survey of Spoken French in Orléans – to this day the most important of its kind in France.

At the Université Laval in Quebec, Michel developed his expertise in bilingualism and, in 1979, first as Visiting Professor, later as Honorary research Fellow at the Centre International de Recherche sur le Bilinguisme, he worked with an interdisciplinary team investigating the contact between the French and English in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. This collaborative research generated many articles and books, such as Bilinguality and Bilingualism, co-written with JF Hamers – the third edition of which was published in 2000 by CUP. Partly as a result of this activity, Birkbeck became the University of London Centre for Canadian Studies.

On retiring early from Birkbeck in 1990, Michel joined the University of Hertfordshire as Visiting Research Professor, with funding from the European Community, to work on learning styles in language teaching. He is now an Honorary Research Fellow at the Université de Savoie, a Fellow of the Académie Florimontane, and a member of the Association pour l’Etude de la Littérature Apocryphe Chrétienne at the Université de Lausanne, working on Biblical intertextuality. He has published 20 books and over 70 papers.

Michel says:

'As a Birkbeck Honorary Research Fellow, I've never lost touch with my former colleagues, but I have missed the students. They brought their experience of life and languages, their enthusiasm, their motivation, and contributed to our teaching. Many of them have published extensively in their own fields or provided an input into innovative organisations, some going into posts in higher education. In the words of a distinguished Professor of English Literature, 'teaching at Birkbeck is a lifelong love affair.

'We need more institutions like Birkbeck, and not only in Britain. Vive le Birkbeck libre!'


President, Master, Distinguished Governors, Graduates and Guests.

Michel Blanc has had a decisive and transformative impact on the understanding and teaching of language, not only in Birkbeck, but far beyond. He came to England in his late twenties to work as a research assistant in the French Department of University College, but, in a couple of years, had been inveigled across to Malet Street, to take up a lectureship in French. Here he would spend the next three decades of his teaching career. Already, Michel Blanc 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 boxing matches. His first book, published shortly after his arrival in Birkbeck, was Visages de la France Contemporaine, a collection of texts by French authors, accompanied by commentary and exercises, which illuminated different aspects of French life. The text dramatised one of the abiding principles of Michel Blanc’s career, namely that language and culture are inextricably bound up one with another, and that language is, as he writes in the book, "at once the mirror and the instrument of analysis for a culture". In 1965, he devised a language-learning programme for BBC TV called 'Suivez la Piste', which presented a series of language-learning exercises using the medium of an episodic detective story to put the student literally on the trail of the language they aimed to acquire.

Throughout this period, Michel Blanc had been growing more interested in theoretical questions relating to the teaching of language. In 1965, he raised funding from the Nuffield Foundation to set up a Language Research Centre, which became the hub of a series of innovations that radiated not just through Birkbeck, but across the University. The Language Centre promoted much more intensive techniques of language teaching, with an emphasis on spoken and conversational speech, that was very different from the grammar-based and written approaches that predominated in a culture that treated the generation of sentences as a form of algebra, and paid little attention to what the emitter of these perfectly constructed artefacts was supposed to do if anyone actually answered back to them. The Language Centre promoted the study of language within the context of an understanding of contemporary culture, and itself initiated research in contemporary written and spoken language, promoting for the first time a culture of research among language teachers. And all this, as one contemporary of his in the French department remarked to me "in French that sounded really like French".

The Language Centre was the seed from which grew the idea, incubated and nurtured by Michel Blanc over a number of years, for a full-blown Department of Applied Linguistics. Applied Linguistics was then a very new discipline. It began to take shape during the 1960s, with the formation in 1964 of the French Association Internationale de Linguistique Appliquée, which had been prompted particularly by the perceived need for improved language learning between member states of the then expanding European Union. This was followed by a meeting convened by Peter Strevens at Birkbeck in 1965 that inaugurated a cognate British Association for Applied Linguistics. The subject grew quickly. In 1971, there were 160 members of the association; by the end of the 1990s, there were 655. It is always a tall order to persuade a College to set up a new department, especially one with such an enigmatic-sounding name. Linguistics was one thing, but what exactly was ‘applied linguistics’; what did one apply to it, or apply it to? (Michel Blanc's somewhat exasperated answer to this enquiry during one meeting of the Academic Board was that ‘Applied Linguistics’ was ‘linguistics plus the application of money’). As a result of Michel Blanc's patient, persistent and sometimes cunning advocacy, the Department of Applied Linguistics came into being in 1972; he was to be its head until his retirement in 1990. In fact the principal emphasis of Applied Linguistics in its early years was on the use of linguistics for the understanding and promotion of the teaching and learning of language. Over the years it has expanded to include many more practical problems of language and communication on which linguistic theories and methods can be brought to bear.

In the early 1980s, Michel Blanc joined forces with psychologist Josiane F. Hamers to begin work on a book that would draw together the field of research into a central question in the theory of language learning, that of bilingualism. The book was the fruit of many months of work in the upper rooms of Gordon Square, plentifully alimented by supplies of academic papers and aromatic French cheeses. The book they produced, Bilinguality and Bilingualism, was first published in French in 1983. It sets out an important distinction between ‘bilingualism’, which is the condition of a group or collective in which two languages are spoken, and ‘bilinguality’, which is the command of two languages by an individual; thus one can easily conceive and in fact adduce groups and societies that are thoroughly bilingual in one sense, but contain scarcely any individuals who are bilingual in the other. However, the prodigious movements of peoples that have characterised the last 100 years have produced an explosion of bilingual and multilingual speakers. Already, in the 1980s when Michel Blanc turned his attention seriously to the topic, bilingual speakers outnumbered monolingual speakers, and every year sees their majority consolidated over the poor, locked-in monoglots, wobbling about one-eyed on their unicycles or penny-farthings, while all around them the bicyclists and tricyclists of language fleetly whizz and swerve.

Perhaps the most important insight offered by Bilinguality and Bilingualism and reflected in its own form and organisation is the multiple embeddedness of language, showing that bilingualism has effects both at the level of the most intimately personal experience and at the level of public policy. 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. Its example stimulated a great deal of work in the field, work which was in turn absorbed into a considerably expanded and overhauled new edition of the book which appeared in 2000. The importance of the work is suggested by the fact that one linguist told me that she continues to use both editions in parallel, since the chapters dropped to make way for new material in the second edition still contain so many riches for the researcher.

In 1979, Michel Blanc became Visiting Professor at the International Centre for Research on Bilingualism at the Université Laval in Québec, which was to be the beginning of an association that would last some years, and allow him to develop his interest in the interrelations of French, English and other languages in the Atlantic provinces of Canada. This too led to innovation at home, when Michel Blanc co-founded the Centre for Canadian Studies at Birkbeck.

Following Michel Blanc's introduction of research into bilingualism in Birkbeck, it became and has remained a core and continuing preoccupation of research in the Department of Applied Linguistics, being central to the work of many of its most distinguished members, many of whom now occupy chairs in other linguistics departments across the UK. This emphasis has also given the Department of Applied Linguistics its unique position as a kind of switchboard or meeting-place of many of the research emphases of the college, not just in philosophy and the study of literary texts, but also in politics and cognitive science. The range and implications of this work is very well suggested by the symposium on the work of Michel Blanc that will take place tomorrow in Birkbeck, on his 79th birthday. Aptly entitled 'Second Strings', the symposium which will include talks from past alumni and present luminaries of the department on bilingualism in film, education, art, translation; the day concludes with a paper on bilingual swearing, the title of which is unpronounceable in such a context as this.

I have it from an unimpeachable source that, as a runner in London during the 1980s, he regularly left colleagues 25 years his junior wheezing in his wake, and he has continued to blaze different kinds of trail. Following his retirement from Birkbeck, he became Research Professor at the University of Hertfordshire, overseeing a three-year project on learning styles in second language learning.

Appropriately enough, Michel Blanc is himself a prodigious and insatiable polyglot. After leaving Birkbeck, he settled for some years in Umbria, where he rapidly became as fluent a speaker of Italian as he is of French and English. But he also has German and Spanish at his command and, when working in Canada, even learned Montagnais-Naskapi, an endangered language spoken by the Innu native people of the Quebec and Labrador region.

In recent years, following his return to the Savoie region of France where he was born, and an association with the Centre for Interdisciplinary Study and Research in the Process of Creation at the University of Savoie, he has developed an interest in the history of the Bible, in which his knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew as well as the Coptic that I understand he is currently cooking up, is put to good use. In fact, when he leaves this ceremony and disinvests himself of his finery, he will be going straight over to Gordon Square to inaugurate the symposium on his work with a lecture on multilingualism in the Ancient Middle East.

Michel Blanc has left an indelible imprint and a vigorous legacy to the College he served so long and the colleagues he so inspired. It is a pleasure and honour for us to recognise his intellectual and professional achievements by welcoming him today as Fellow of Birkbeck.