Sociolinguistic perspectives on emerging multilingualism in urban Europe

6 Mar

Yağmur, K., & Extra, G. (2005). Sociolinguistic perspectives on emerging multilingualism in urban Europe. International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 175/176, 17-40.

Until now, preceding blogs have discussed research which investigated bilingualism within individuals, examining (1) whether an individual can ever become a native speaker of a late learned L2 and (2) whether amount of L1 use influences level of proficiency in an L2. In contrast, the present blog discusses group multilingualism. Initially, Extra and Yağmur’s research will be discussed. Towards the end of the blog, reasons for European initiatives which support language diversity will be considered and related to their research.

In this article, Extra and Yağmur reveal some of the outcomes of their Multilingual Cities Project, the aims of which were to analyse the status of immigrant minority languages in six European cities: Gothenburg (Sweden), Hamburg (Germany), The Hague (Netherlands), Brussels (Belgium), Lyon (France) and Madrid (Spain). They wanted to find out, for example, which languages immigrant children speak at home and whether immigrant languages are maintained across generations. Impressively, 160 850 school children between the ages of 6 and 17 responded to their questionnaires (the younger children were helped by their teachers and members of the large research team).

Extra and Yağmur embed their research more generally into European language policy issues, addressing the question of how to deal with multilingualism in schools across Europe. A general theme in their research is that “[…] established majority groups often make strong demands on [immigrant minority] groups to assimilate and are commonly very reluctant to promote or even accept the notion of cultural diversity as a determining characteristic of an increasingly multicultural environment” (p. 24). In other words, Extra and Yağmur maintain that multilingualism is now a fact of life in Europe, so we should deal with it, rather than fight it.

The results from their questionnaires support their claim that multilingualism is presently an inevitable characteristic of Europe; apart from Madrid, the proportion of primary school children in whose homes other languages were used next to or instead of the mainstream language ranged between one third and more than half of the total population. Specifically, in Gothenburg, 36% of the examined population spoke a language at home which was not Swedish (and 75 different languages were spoken within this minority); in Hamburg, 35% of the population spoke a language at home which was not German (89 languages spoken within this minority); in The Hague, 49% of the population spoke a language at home which was not Dutch (88 languages); in Brussels, 82% spoke a language which was not Flemish (54 languages); in Lyon, 54% which was not French (66 languages); and in Madrid, 10% spoke a language which was not Spanish (56 languages). Some of the immigrant minority languages most commonly spoken in these cities were Arabic, Turkish, Polish and Russian. These numbers reflect, at least in the school aged population of the cities examined, a truly multilingual Europe, and the authors assert that this is not changing any time soon.

Extra and Yağmur then operationalized language vitality (how well a language is maintained within a language community) by calculating the average from four variables (pp.30-31): (1) Language Proficiency, the extent to which the home language is understood; (2) Language Choice, the extent to which the language is spoken at home with the mother; (3) Language Dominance, the extent to which the home language is spoken best; and (4) Language Preference, the extent to which the home language is preferred to be spoken. This operationalization is to a certain extent both unconventional (i.e. language proficiency usually depends on both understanding and producing the language) and questionable. Why is language choice derived solely from communication with the mother? Surely, this would apply less to a 17 year old than a 6 year old, and whether a child of 6 years of age has much choice in the matter at all is another question. Nevertheless, using this operationalization, Extra and Yağmur’s results suggest that Romani, Turkish, Urdu, Armenian, Russian and Albanian were some of the languages most likely to be maintained within the immigrant populations. In other words, it appears that individuals who speak these languages will be rather likely to maintain them within the profiled cities, whilst other languages will be lost across generations (unless, I note, a steady influx of speakers of the languages is maintained through immigration policies). It is not discussed why these languages are more likely to be maintained than others; but their results are interesting in that some languages appear to be “stronger” than others.

Moving on from their results, throughout their article it is either implicitly or directly argued that immigrant minority languages should not be “denied access to Europe’s celebration of language diversity” (p. 38). Extra and Yağmur quote the European Commission’s 2004-2006 Action Plan (2003) in which it is stated that “[p]romoting linguistic diversity means actively encouraging the teaching and learning of the widest possible range of languages in our schools, universities, adult education centres and enterprises. Taken as a whole, the range on offer should include the smaller European languages as well as all the larger ones, regional, minority and migrant languages as well as those with ‘national’ status, and the languages of our major trading partners throughout the world” (p. 9). Essentially, Extra and Yağmur suggest that the languages of the immigrant minority populations should be taught in schools, just like small regional minority languages (e.g. Frisian in the Netherlands) and large national European languages, such as English, are taught. In other words, they agree with the initiative of European Commission, as cited above. Relating their agreement to their results, if a large portion of the school aged population speaks, let’s say, Arabic, as is the case in Lyon, Brussels and The Hague, why not teach Arabic in these cities’ schools? Both Extra and Yağmur, as well as the European Commission, would appear to support such a change in schools (reflected in actual policies, rather than just small-scale community initiatives).

My initial question here is why the European Commission supports language diversity. What are the reasons for the policy initiatives suggested by the European Commission, which are supported by Extra and Yağmur? In order to answer this question, one should firstly study the purpose of the European Commission. As stated on their website, the European Commission’s purpose is to represent “the interests of the Union as a whole”, in contrast to the Parliament (which represents the citizens of the EU), and the Council of the European Union (which represents the governments of the individual states). So what are the interests of the European Union? Although environmental and human rights’ objectives are mentioned, it appears from the website that the European Union’s interests are largely economic in nature. “[The European Union] has delivered half a century of peace, stability, and prosperity, helped raise living standards, launched a single European currency, and is progressively building a single Europe-wide market in which people, goods, services, and capital move among Member States as freely as within one country.” The European Union is an economic community, and upholding the economic stability of the European Union is as such the primary concern of the European Commission.

Therefore, I interpret that the reasons for the policy initiatives to promote “language diversity” are rooted in the primary interest of the European Union to promote economic growth. It is not language diversity itself which is the goal of such initiatives on the part of the European Commission. In fact, language diversity is connected to economic growth; languages spoken by the European Union’s major trading partners are explicitly promoted. In practice, this means that there appears to be less of a reason to learn Bengali in Mile End, London or Somali in Easton, Bristol, because these languages will not promote economic prosperity in the European Union to the same extent that, for example, Mandarin Chinese or Hindi might. Arguably, if language diversity as such is the goal of the European Commission, all languages should be equally supported. If we accept that triaging, at least in schools, is inevitable (i.e. we can’t teach every language) then, in fact, those languages which increase economic prosperity of the European Union seem to be more likely to be “celebrated” under the auspices of “language diversity” than those which are not likely to. Indeed, it is language diversity – if it facilitates economic growth – which is implicitly supported by the European Commission.

Finally, is it valid to premise language diversity on economic growth (and this is what I claim is actually done in the European Commission’s 2004-2006 Action Plan, as discussed above)? Should the learning of a language which might promote economic growth somehow be more worthwhile than one which does so to a lesser, or even negligible, extent? I don’t think so. Each child, each person, learns languages for different reasons. Sometimes these reasons are simple: it is the language I spoke with my siblings and parents. Sometimes the reasons are complex: it is the language a distant relative spoke, but I’ve always wanted to learn; it is the language of my heritage, which I was not allowed to speak as a child (e.g. indigenous languages in Canada and other countries founded on European colonization); it is the language of my new partner, and I want to communicate with his or her family; or, perhaps more rationally, it is the language which I believe represents knowledge and learning (Latin). There is a point to the Commission’s Action Plan in that, often, the reasons to learn a new language are associated with economic growth. Parents search for new opportunities for their children, and in doing so, want to make those opportunities accessible through language. But, in my opinion, it should not be the case that economic reasons trump non-economic reasons. Each person learns new languages for different reasons and no reason is more valid than the next. It is language diversity itself which should be supported both within Europe and beyond.

Esther de Leeuw

One Response to “Sociolinguistic perspectives on emerging multilingualism in urban Europe”

  1. Alex Housen April 11, 2012 at 07:26 #

    This is a very valuable initiative, that I have just now discovered! The three blogs so far are excellent – topical, concise yet very informative, and at times polemic (esp. the March blog), inviting reflection and discussion. I hope to find more time soon to add to the discussion.

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