Why are multilingual cities so important in today’s globalised world?

This month we published The Multilingual City edited by Lid King and Lorna Carson which explores the reality of urban multilingualism in a network of cities researched by the the LUCIDE team – part of a European project funded by the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme. In this post, the editors tell us more about multilingual cities and what we can learn from their research.

The Multilingual CityWhy are cities such a useful laboratory for the study of multilingualism?

In many ways, cities are working models of the future, and powerful generators of new ideas on managing and benefiting from new patterns of mobility and diversity. They are places where new policy discourse can be created, where the constraints of national policies and limitations of national discourse may be modified or overcome.

What does the literature on urban studies have to say about multilingualism?

To be honest, not much! While the city has long been a topic of academic, policy and development discourse, and in recent years there has also been significant interest in the potential of the city to resolve social and economic problems, there has also been a persistent underestimation of the importance of linguistic diversity as a catalyst for such creativity and change. This volume seeks to rectify this lack of attention by examining the realities of multilingualism in the eighteen cities represented by the LUCIDE network.

Are there any common themes which might indicate the future for multilingual cities? Or does every city tell a different tale?       

Despite the homogenisation of globalisation, it would appear that diversity is the one striking characteristic of our urban world. The model is not one of ‘the multilingual city’, but of a more complex typology of cities, which are essentially distinct and rooted in particular landscapes. So for many cities, an image as multilingual is seen as highly desirable. Utrecht, for example, presents itself as a multilingual hotspot, and the administration of the city presents this as a positive thing and sign of a better way of life. Other cities, however, downplay their multilingual aspects, some not even recognising the realities of their language diversity.

Yet there are also some common themes which emerge from the cities, despite their economic, demographic and historical differences.

What about the experiences of individual citizens?

Just as authorities choose to promote their city’s image in different ways, so too do individual inhabitants’ reactions to multilingualism differ. Even in the most cosmopolitan cities, not all of the inhabitants share positive and optimistic attitudes. For some, their city is a vibrant, cosmopolitan, creative place where they want to live. For others, it is a more uncomfortable place where the very speed of change has been unsettling rather than inspirational.

The economic crisis has only exacerbated this uncertainty.

How has the political class responded?

In recent years politicians across the spectrum have joined a chorus of concern about the consequences of globalisation and have stressed the need to reaffirm national identities. Many of the accepted liberal consensual views about the value of diversity and the role of the state, particularly in promoting inclusive education, are being called into question. The inability of European leaders to respond to the current influx of refugees is the most vivid and tragic indication of where such negativity could lead.

And what about the future of the multilingual city?

Despite this narrow and inward-looking discourse of politicians, there is an inescapable logic to reality, especially in the more or less democratic and open cities of our network. The strength of urban multilingualism lies in the activities of citizens – in the initiatives and structures which grow up from the ground. These happen because of need and in response to community aspiration. At policy and political level, multilingual vitality will be maintained and will flourish in cities which allow freedom and give support to these communities, rather than seeking to suppress or homogenise growth and diversity. Together, the chapters in our book articulate a rationale for multilingual vitality and for promoting the value and strength of the diverse city.

Linguistic Landscapes titlesFor more information about this book please see our website. If you liked this post, you might also be interested in a couple of our other titles: Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes by Jan Blommaert and Linguistic Landscape in the City edited by Elana Shohamy, Eliezer Ben-Rafael and Monica Barni.

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