Communicating the Unsayable: Learning at the Intersection of Language and the Arts

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Education


The LILA network brings together a variety of academic and non-academic participants to consider the relationship between language and the creative arts - visual arts, drama and performance, dance, music, poetry, film, and more - for learning. In formal educational contexts, and often in informal settings too, language is the chief medium for expressing, recognising and evaluating learning. Yet the arts are being increasingly employed in public support services such as health and wellbeing and migrant support, and in engagement contexts as researchers and cultural organisations seek to communicate with wider publics. The network therefore responds to a need to more fully understand the relationship between language and the arts for learning in these informal contexts.

LILA builds upon an emerging body of research into language use and language learning in which multiple creative arts practices have been part of the context, methodology, or outputs. Although some of this research has been analysed in terms of participants' learning, this has focused on how arts practice supports language/intercultural learning, and the ways in which learning takes place through the co-production of language- and arts-based practice remains under-explored. The network therefore aims to address this gap by bringing together researchers across disciplines, artists, and community and cultural organisations in order to share projects and insights. Through four one-day events in the UK (Leeds, Pudsey, London) and Catalonia, Spain (Lleida), the network will consider what different actors - research participants, audiences, organisations, researchers - learn at the intersection of language and the arts, how they learn it, and how this learning can benefit individuals, communities, and organisations.

The network is highly interdisciplinary, with invited academic contributors from education, performance practice, the humanities and clinical psychology. Our four project partners - The Art Library at Leeds Library; Love Pudsey Charity (West Yorkshire); Museu de Lleida (Catalonia); and the British Museum - will each host an event, with two final policy and practice workshops being held at University of Leeds and in central Barcelona. Each event will host an invited speaker from a community or cultural organisation, and at each event an artist collaborator - a sculptor, two musicians, and a theatre company - will lead a short creative making session. In this way the network aims to cross boundaries between countries, disciplines, sectors and practices, and to invite active participant engagement with different ways of working.

The LILA network aims to generate insights into the communication of what is otherwise unsayable: for example, the narration of unconscious knowledge, things people do not know how to talk about, do not have language for, or are prevented from speaking about. This may relate, for example, to people learning to address histories of illness or trauma, or to organisations working across sectors who are learning to communicate and enhance aspects of their practice. It is anticipated that two key benefits will arise from these insights. Firstly, they will enable different understandings of how learning might be recognised and evaluated in ways which both acknowledge the role of both the linguistic and the non-linguistic in people's engagement with and responses to the arts. This will benefit participants in community arts, and artists, art educators, and community and cultural organisations who are under pressure to demonstrate the value of working with the arts. Secondly, they will enable new understandings for the professionals and organisations working together on community arts projects of how other sectors work and how they might improve communication and collaboration. It is therefore anticipated that these insights will contribute to enhanced relationships within and between organisations.

Planned Impact

The key anticipated benefit of the LILA network is that it will generate insights into the communication of what is otherwise unsayable: how this can take place, how it might be understood, and how it can be enhanced. These insights will be of benefit in a context where public arts programmes are increasingly being employed for public engagement purposes, particularly in relation to health, wellbeing, and social support (Reason and Rowe 2017). Users of these programmes may be limited in the extent to which they can speak and be heard, perhaps owing to mental health problems, social exclusion, trauma, or lack of access to dominant languages; and engagement with arts practice can enable the narration of things people do not know how to talk about, do not have language for, or are prevented from speaking about (Sagan 2017). Given this, the learning and change which takes place through their engagement with the arts, although often profound, may be difficult to articulate and cannot be adequately evidenced through traditional evaluation tools such as surveys and questionnaires. However, the dominant discourse of social, economic and health outcomes in public arts programmes (Johanson and Glow 2017: 98) means that such programmes are dependent on ongoing evaluation and evidence of positive impact for continued funding. This creates a problem for arts practitioners and for the community organisations who run public arts programmes, making it difficult to demonstrate evidence of the learning, growth and change artistic and aesthetic engagement can effect in ways that speak to funders' evidentiary requirements. The network will therefore benefit:

Arts practitioners and educators by informing evaluation practice through the sharing and exploration of ways to express, enhance and evidence learning through artistic and aesthetic engagement.

Language educators by enhancing understanding of how engagement with arts can support language and intercultural learning, including for new arrivals and learners suffering social exclusion and trauma.

Community organisations working with artists to provide services such as community healthcare providers and migrant support organisations. The network will inform understanding of the learning and change arising from arts-based public engagement programmes, how this learning might be evaluated, and how it contributes to enhanced wellbeing, community cohesion, and belonging.

Museums and cultural organisations by informing engagement practice through the sharing and exploration of ways to enhance and evaluate learning for different publics.

Insights into the communication of the otherwise unsayable will also benefit the different organisations involved in the provision of public arts and informal learning programmes. These organisations often come from disparate professional domains, and can face communicative challenges when collaborating across sectors (see e.g. McKay and Bradley 2016; Harvey 2018). The network will therefore benefit all of the above groups by informing intra- and inter-organisational learning, communication, relationships and wellbeing. It will do so by a) exploring the communication of different aspects of practice, including the articulation of unconscious knowledge, and b) generating insights into different sectors' ways of working.


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Title LILA Digital Postcards 
Description A series of postcards by artist-researcher Dr Louise Atkinson, which represent the themes and discussions of the network. These are still in production but when complete they will be displayed on the network website (which is currently in development). 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact None as yet - these will be displayed on the network website when this is built. 
Title Memòria quotidiana/Everyday memory 
Description An essay reflecting on the power of memory in art and communication. 
Type Of Art Creative Writing 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact None as yet - it will be presented on the network website when this is built. 
Title Testimony of the Unsayable Funding Landscape 
Description Testimony of the Unsayable Funding Landscape is a dance-drama by Iroko Theatre Company portraying the anguish, anxieties and nightmares about fundraising faced by small charities, particularly those with English as a second language. The piece shows the numerous rejections of their funding bids, their determination to succeed and finally, the positive outcome of their perseverance. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact None as yet - we are developing a network website where we will host all the artistic outputs. 
Title The Moon and the Night: A Unique Language 
Description This is a song which talks about the complexity of communication using the metaphor of the moon and the night, two "languages" which are at the same time different but interdependent. Through this metaphor the need for understanding is highlighted. It proposes love, self-thinking and having an attitude (predisposition?) as key elements for closeness/understanding/communication to happen. 
Type Of Art Composition/Score 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact None as yet - it will go on the network website once this is built. 
Title Visual Map of LILA 
Description A visual map of the themes of the LILA network, by artist Clara Arque. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact None as yet - it will be displayed on the network website, which is currently in production. 
Title Your Turn 
Description Your Turn is a piece of performance art by The Refuge Art Project, which presents a playful engagement with the themes of the LILA network. 
Type Of Art Performance (Music, Dance, Drama, etc) 
Year Produced 2021 
Impact No notable impacts as yet - we are currently building a network website where we can host the creative outputs. 
Description Our findings from the network cohere around the concept of voice, the important role of the non-rational in learning, and the importance of engaging with and theorising these for a fuller understanding of how we communicate the unsayable. In particular, we have identified the importance of expanding our conception of language and/in communication, to more fully account for the variety of ways in which language operates and the variety of other modes in which we communicate; the importance of materiality and playfulness in communication, particularly for wellbeing; and the importance of not-knowing and not-understanding in collaborative and communicative processes, where these are not deficits or lacks to be filled but are in themselves productive states of being.
Exploitation Route The outcomes will enable project leaders and partners to identify theoretical angles and frameworks for future research into a) how communication and learning take place at the intersection of language and the arts in public engagement contexts, and b) how we might evaluate this for arts and healthcare providers and funders.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections