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Multilingualism and Genesis

31 May
This is an Anglican Church in Gitwangax with the totem poles in the background.

This is an Anglican Church in Gitwangax (Kitwanga) in northern British Columbia, Canada with traditional totem poles in the background. UNESCO lists the indigenous language spoken here as “severely endangered“.

In Genesis, Sebastião Salgado has photographed the endangered, the threatened and the rare. Looking at his photographs is like looking through windows. Salgado has opened the blinds into a wild, disappearing, and otherwise hidden world. Here, I relate his photographs to language.

Languages carry social meaning, both for the group – or person – who produces the language, as well as for the group – or person – who perceives the language. With language, a culture can distinguish itself from others; a person can stand out as unique from those with whom he or she is conversing; and a passage of time can surface as different from all those which preceded it, and all those which are to follow. Language is intrinsic to our identities: we express and perceive identity through language. Crucially, when a language, or a form of a language, is lost, so too is an identity, or a form of an identity.

Just like the animals and landscapes Salgado photographed, many languages are endangered, threatened and rare. UNESCO has documented that, if nothing is done, half of the over 6000 languages presently spoken will disappear by the end of this century. These are the languages of the people Salgado captured in his photographs, but also those of the many other colonised areas of the world, such as the First Nations languages in northern Canada (see picture of Gitwangax, where Gitxsanimaax is endangered),  the aboriginal languages in Australia, and the indigenous languages of South America. We see these threatened cultures in Salgado’s windows, hovering on the brink of assimilation with our Western world, and we know, ultimately, they are who they are because of language.

And yet – Salgado can’t take a picture of language. Language is this enormous abstract entity, which essentially loses all meaning unless it is represented across the dimension of time. It is impossible to take a “snapshot” of language as Salgado does of a smile, a gesture, a glance. To understand language, to produce language – and all that which is intrinsic to our identities – one must, at least to a certain extent, acquire some sort of knowledge of that language. If language is recorded, and a slice extracted, as a visual moment is through a photograph, it loses its meaning.

Looking through Salgado’s windows, one cannot hear the voices of the people he has photographed. Language, something so all encompassing, so powerful, is silent. From my perspective, a way to give endangered languages a voice, in one’s own life, is to support multilingualism. The process of language loss is, according to UNESCO, “neither inevitable nor irreversible: well-planned and implemented language policies can bolster the ongoing efforts of speaker communities to maintain or revitalize their mother tongues and pass them on to younger generations“. Peter Austin of SOAS has coined the personal concept of a language footprint. To improve one’s own language footprint, one can, for example, learn a new (perhaps even a minority) language, avoid products and activities that give people no choice other than to use dominant languages, support increased language learning in one’s own country, and learn about the world’s diversity of languages.

For me, such small steps may be a personal way to help counter language loss, and therefore, ultimately, all that is lost therewith.

Esther de Leeuw

Up Close: 2011 Census Data on Multilingualism

20 Mar
Street logo Brick Lane, London in English and Bengali

Street logo Brick Lane, London in English and Bengali

Since data from the 2011 Census were released, there has been a fair amount of discussion in the press about multilingualism. For example, in one analysis, the BBC accurately reported that of those surveyed in England and Wales, 138000 speak no English. In Languages Mapped, the Guardian displayed this in relation to the total population, showing that this is equivalent to slightly less than 0.3% of the total population. It perhaps goes less reported that in London almost 50000 people can speak no English (that’s 0.6% of the population of London). And that in Tower Hamlets, where Queen Mary, University of London is located, nearly 4000 people reportedly speak no English (that’s 1.6% of the population of Tower Hamlets).

For many people in the UK, it is these absolute numbers which are staggering.

Why is it that some people – whether it be nearly 138000 in England and Wales, 50000 in London, or almost 4000 in Tower Hamlets – speak no English? 

To answer this question, it is necessary to look at immigration patterns in the UK. Globally, the UK is known as what is called a “recipient country”. This means that, for various reasons, political policies presently promote overall movement to the UK from other countries, rather than overall movement from the UK to other countries.

Therefore, understandably, another question which was asked in the Census was country of birth. Here, the Census data tell us that 13% of the population in England was born either in an EU country, like Poland, France, or Spain, or in a so-called “other country”, like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, and so on. But – and this is worth emphasising – most likely in a country where English was *not* their main language. And, rather amazingly, 37% of London’s population was born in such an EU or “other” country. Even more striking, 42% of the population in Tower Hamlets was born either in the EU or in such an “other country”.

And – this is what the Census data also tell us – many of these immigrants haven’t been here that long. Almost 2% of the total population of England arrived from outside of the UK within the last 2 years; in London, 4.5% of the population arrived within the last 2 years; and, in Tower Hamlets, just over 7% of the population arrived within two years. Here my point is that it’s really not that surprising that, given such a high amount of people who’ve actually just arrived, some have not yet learned English. Think about this just for London: 0.6% of the total population reports to not speak English, and 4.5% of the population of London has arrived in London within the last 2 years. It seems like these new arrivals might actually be doing quite a good job at learning English in those two years.

Finally – the Census data also tell us how old immigrants were when they arrived to the UK. (The Census surveyed all those 3 years and over.) Indeed, the data revealed that 1.7% of the population in England and Wales arrived between the ages of 0 and 4; 3% of the population in London arrived between the ages of 0 and 4; and 4% of the population in Tower Hamlets arrived between the ages of 0 and 4. Some of these little ones most understandably won’t yet speak English because at home they speak the language of their parents. But they will learn English, when they go to school, and start to meet other little boys and girls around the country, in the capital, and in Tower Hamlets.

So, we have some tentative answers to the question: why is it that some people here speak no English? And these answers don’t have to do with motivation or attitudes. They simply have to do with population demographics. Some people don’t speak English because they’ve “just” arrived to the UK, and young children might not yet speak English because they’re too young to have learned it – they are learning the languages their parents speak to them. But they will learn English; it just takes a bit of time.

The Census data therefore suggest that immigrants to the UK are indeed learning English (and there will be another blog related to this soon). But the data also tell us something else. They suggest that immigrants are losing the language of their heritage. Like in so many other recipient countries, children from immigrant families at one point switch from the language of their parents to English. Although approximately 13% of the population in England was most likely born in a country where English was not their main language, just under 9% of the population reported a language other than English as their main language. Similarly, although 37% of London’s population was born abroad, only 22% of the capital’s population list a language other than English as a main language. And although in Tower Hamlets 42% of the population was born abroad, only 35% of its population list a language other than English as their main language. More people come here with a language other than English as their main language than people actually report having a main language other than English. This effect – and it is standard in recipient countries – is referred to as a lack of intergenerational language transmission. We see it in other recipient countries as well, like Canada and the U.S.

I believe that there was consensus in the panel yesterday at Multilingual Capital that, at the very least, all people who’ve moved to the UK should be, if so desired, supported in their wishes to maintain the languages of their heritage. The reasons for this support are vast, and in my view, ultimately amount to human rights, but there are also practical reasons, such as to support the economic prosperity of the UK, and to maintain a more healthy population, as there are links between health and proficiency in more than one language.

For me, these are all reasons to support multilingualism. Specifically in the capital, this can be achieved, for example, through ensuring support for the maintenance and development of heritage languages alongside the parallel acquisition of English – one in no way precludes the other.

Esther de Leeuw

Multilingual Capital: A Resource for London Communities

15 Mar


London is a multilingual capital. The most recent census results show that over 20% of Londoners use a main language other than English, far above the country’s average. Yet bilinguals face many challenges in using their languages.

Devyani Sharma and I are launching a new initiative called Multilingual Capital: A Resource for London Communities on 18 March 2013 at Queen Mary, University of London to support multilingual communities in the capital and beyond.

The primary aims of Multilingual Capital include:

  1. Engaging with London communities so that the rich linguistic diversity of the capital is accurately represented;
  2. Increasing the visibility of multilingualism in the capital so that groups impacted by multilingualism can share ideas and develop a common voice;
  3. Sharing research findings on multilingualism to ensure that relevant knowledge is disseminated to all groups impacted by, and interested in, multilingualism;
  4. Creating knowledge in the emerging research area of multilingualism through documenting language use and diversity in London and beyond.

This event will include a series of short talks by researchers in the field of multilingualism, with plenty of time for a question-answer session.

Find out more about this event here.

Esther de Leeuw

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