The Importance of Intercultural Understanding in Today’s World

19 October 2017

This month we published Teaching Intercultural Competence Across the Age Range edited by Manuela Wagner, Dorie Conlon Perugini and Michael Byram. In this post the editors explain how their book addresses the challenges involved in teaching intercultural competence.

The importance of intercultural understanding cannot be overstated in today’s world. It is no surprise then that educationists of all kinds create task forces to provide tools to help students engage in meaningful and successful intercultural dialogue. As language educators often point out, there are substantial challenges. First, it is difficult to apply theory in practice, and teachers cannot easily imagine how intercultural competence theories play out in the classroom. Furthermore, it appears to be impossible to teach intercultural competence if students do not yet speak the target language or if they are young language learners.

With our publication Teaching Intercultural Competence Across the Age Range we address these challenges. We apply sound theory of Intercultural Communicative Competence (ICC) (Byram, 1997) in our practice. We debunk the myth that intercultural competence can only be taught to students with higher language proficiency and also provide examples of how colleagues can benefit from collaborations in order to implement theory in practice.

We combined a graduate course on theories of ICC with guided collaboration between the graduate students and classroom teachers. Together they designed and implemented innovative teaching units integrating ICC into existing units and practices in systematic ways. In the book we show how to create a community of practice consisting of researchers/mentors, graduate students, and teachers to teach ICC and give students new insights into their own and other cultures within and beyond their local and national environment. Each teacher/graduate student pair co-authored a chapter in which they shared their unit plans, assessments, and experience in implementing the units, meaning that all the participants in this project had multiple roles: teacher, learner, researcher.

Our intention with this publication is to show one way of tackling the teaching of complex issues. Although we want to emphasize that each context in teaching will require a customised curriculum, we hope that teachers as well as curriculum designers, program administrators and teacher educators will find the detailed unit descriptions helpful for creating their own units in a variety of contexts. Our emphasis on collaboration, both the benefits and the challenges, reflects our belief in the power of learning and acting together. One important lesson we learned is that seeming bumps in the road often represent learning opportunities. As readers will see, this also reflects the model of ICC which enables students to learn how to mediate between different groups of people and to apply criticality in the here and now.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like From Principles to Practice in Education for Intercultural Citizenship edited by Michael Byram, Irina Golubeva, Han Hui and Manuela Wagner.


New series: Psychology of Language Learning and Teaching

10 October 2017

In January 2018 we will be publishing Language Teacher Psychology edited by Sarah Mercer and Achilleas Kostoulas, which is the first book in our new series, Psychology of Language Learning and Teaching. In this post, series editors Sarah Mercer and Stephen Ryan introduce the new series and explain the inspiration behind it. 

Both of us started our careers in the classroom as language teachers and it was there that we first developed our fascination with the differences we noted in how our learners approached their learning … or did not, as the case may be. Little did we know back then just where that fascination would take us. From those initial sparks began an ongoing interest in language learning psychology. Our curiosity led us to seek ways to understand what made our learners tick and, somewhat inadvertently, into the exciting world of educational psychology. Once exposed to these – at least to us – new ideas, we then became interested in how best to apply these insights in our teaching. It was classroom practice that triggered our early interest and that practical focus continues to be a key driver for us in our research and we hope in this new Multilingual Matters series too.

Over time, our own understandings of psychology have grown and become – we like to think – more nuanced. In the same way, and over a similar timeframe, a new academic field has grown, both in scale and sophistication, around in interest in the Psychology of Language Learning and Teaching (PLLT). One of the great joys for us in recent years has been the discovery of many like-minded, curious teachers/teacher-researchers/researchers looking to explore the potential of educational psychology theory and research in an attempt to better understand language teaching and learning. For many years, discussions of psychology in language education were dominated by the concept of learner motivation and while that remains a key area of inquiry, we are now seeing a whole range of other topics moving into focus. In addition to motivation, the new field covers various dimensions of the self, identity, affect, cognition, attributions, personality, strategies, self-regulation, and agency among others. A distinguishing trait of this new field is that it seeks to explore the connections between these concepts as opposed to separating them from each other and attempting to analyse them in isolation. Another key shift has been a growing attention to teacher psychology. While there is a strong body of research in certain areas, large domains of teacher psychology have remained almost completely unexamined in the field of language education. Given the tight connections between learner and teacher psychology, it is surprising we know so little about what makes such key stakeholders in classroom life function and potentially flourish in their professional roles.

The first book in the series, Language Teacher Psychology

As a part of the emergence of this new field, there has been an accompanying increase in the number of publications with a PLLT focus. At first, these were scattered across publishing houses, but we felt that there was a need to bring them together under one roof to make it easier for people to find related works, to see connections across areas of research and practice, and to foster cooperation rather than further fragmentation. Multilingual Matters already housed many key PLLT publications within its broader SLA series and it is from that highly successful series that the new PLLT was born. The birth of the new PLLT series has coincided with the further growth of a biennial conference dedicated to the field as well as the formation of a professional association for those working in the area. It is tremendously exciting to witness the new series taking shape and we feel enormously privileged to be a part of this innovative new project. We can already see some thrilling publications on the horizon as academics from across the globe come forward to share their work on PLLT through the series. We hope you will enjoy reading the books that will make up the new series and we also hope that some of you may consider making your own contribution in the future.

For more information about the Psychology of Language Learning and Teaching series, please see our website. Book proposals for this series should be sent to Laura Longworth.


6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses

3 October 2017

Next year, the 6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses is due to take place. Multilingual Matters is sponsoring the conference, specifically in order to enable two early career researchers from developing countries to attend it. This post is written by Massimiliano Spotti, the Conference Host and Co-organizer.

In October 2018, the International Conference on Multicultural Discourses sets its foot in Europe for the first time. To be more precise at Babylon – Centre for the Study of Superdiversity, at Tilburg University. Together with Jan Blommaert (Director of Babylon) and Shi-xu, Founder of Cultural Discourse Studies (CDS) and founding Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Multicultural Discourses (JMD), I reflect on the developments of this field ten years down the line.

In introducing this conference and its landing in Europe, I think we should start from the body of scholarship that has characterized CDS’ very first days. The first goal of CDS was (and still is) to draw attention to the cultural nature of human discourse and communication. As one of the first issues of its Journal stated, the purpose was to consciously and critically consider issues of cultural diversity and Western-centrism across arenas such as politics, academia, education and public discourses. To be honest, what struck me the most when publishing there one of my first peer-reviewed articles on teachers teaching to migrants, was a permeating feeling of voicing the unheard, the left-out, those in short that were for one reason or another in a minority position.

Although chased by the continuous pressure of the increasingly complex nature exerted on human encounters and discourses by globalization in both society and academia, CDS has remained able to keep its word. It has set forth on exploring the implications of discrimination through power on policy and human interactions, becoming an outstanding outlet for both Western and non-Western scholars to fight back and either re-discover or aspire to and, through that, reclaim their voices and academic identities within an established research paradigm.

There is still much more to do though. The increased entanglement of discourses across the global North and the global South; the unexpected results of their (often) unplanned points of intersection; the new centers of coagulation that these processes of entanglement bring to bear; the production of culturally rooted discourses around them. These are all emergent phenomena and urgent attention is needed there.

Ultimately, this is what we hope to do in the 6th International Conference on Multicultural Discourses. That is to contend – once again – that culture is not just a different and thus innocent perspective in knowledge forming and value giving to people and their doings. Rather, our hope and wish for this conference is that it will allow us to unveil another layer of those historically evolving sets of discourses, rules and actions that put some people in power while others are marginalized.

You can find out more about the conference on its website here.


Stories of Dreamers: Linguistic Privilege and Marginalisation

28 September 2017

This month we published Narratives of East Asian Women Teachers of English by Gloria Park. In this post the author explains how her book has provided a platform for six East Asian women to share their experiences of living in the midst of linguistic privilege and marginalisation.

Writing Narratives of East Asian Women Teachers of English: Where Privilege Meets Marginalization has been an amazing journey. Amazing in a sense that I was able to revisit the stories of the five fabulous women who have opened their lives to me, but also, being able to reflect on my life – the very stories that have shaped me into who I am today. While this book is about Han Nah, Liu, Xia, Yu Ri, Shu-Ming, and Gloria, the stories that unfold in each chapter can touch the lived experiences of many other women teachers of English around the world.

The stories in this book are symbolic of how issues of privilege and marginalization continue to (re)surface in our lives – how issues of race, gender, and class intersect with the English language and traverse the territories of the US and our mother lands. In our times of political turmoil where difference is negated, placed on chopping blocks, and silenced, our stories and other stories of transnational and mobile individuals become critical. Critical because these are shared stories of experiences of the Dreamers – those of us who seek out opportunities, both directly and indirectly, to live and interact humanely in this world. The stories of the six women depicted in this book may be privileged narratives, but I can’t negate the ways in which even the most privileged are somehow marginalized – the stories of privilege intersecting the linguistic and racialized discourses that continue to haunt these women and others in similar minority positions in the United States. Yes, indeed, this book has been my platform to shout out the lives we all know exist for those who are perceived to be (il)legitimate speakers and users of the English language.

Yet, these platforms are not always accessible to everyone. Those who are perceived to be powerless or special victims will never have the opportunity nor a platform to fight their battles for voice, for democracy, for visibility, for a better life, and most of all, for a chance to live out their DREAMS as the DREAMERS. While those who think that they can MAKE AMERICA GREAT have no clue about the legacy of America and those who have stepped up to build America in more ways than one. There is no singular truth in our complex world – there is no supremacy in the United States – it is a land of opportunity that should and MUST continue to champion those who need to live out their DREAMS. Each person’s dream is unique, as depicted by the stories of these six women, in that it changes with time given both local and global contexts. Narratives of East Asian Women Teachers of English is one step toward finding our voice, our agency, our democracy, our opportunity, and most of all, our DREAM to live and interact safely in this world now and in the years to come.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Desiring TESOL and International Education by Raqib Chowdhury and Phan Le Ha.


The Development of the Field of Norwegian Second Language Acquisition

26 September 2017

This month we published Crosslinguistic Influence and Distinctive Patterns of Language Learning edited by Anne Golden, Scott Jarvis and Kari Tenfjord. In this post, the editors discuss the development of the field of Norwegian second language acquisition.

The studies presented in the book Crosslinguistic Influence and Distinctive Patterns of Language Learning: Findings and Insights from a Learner Corpus all concern Norwegian as a second or later-learned language, and in this blog we thought it would be useful to put the book into its proper context by saying a few words about the development of the field of Norwegian second language acquisition (SLA). This will help readers of the book not only to understand the position and impact of the field of Norwegian SLA on the teaching of Norwegian as a second language, but – perhaps even more importantly in the present context – also help them to understand why the effects of learners’ native language (L1) on their L2 learning have never been abandoned by Norwegian SLA researchers, contrary to what has happened in many other parts of the world.

In this short blog, we will say a few words about each of the following:

  • modern migration to Norway starting around the 1970s
  • the close connection between schools, teachers, and learners, on the one hand, and the development of SLA as a recognized field of science at Norwegian universities, on the other
  • the strategic decision in the early 2000s to build a learner corpus dedicated to the exploration of L1 influence in learners’ acquisition and use of Norwegian as a second language

The fact that Norwegian is among the less commonly taught languages around the world is not hard to understand since Norway has a relatively small population. As of 2017, the overall population of Norway is about 5 million inhabitants, of which about 880,000 are immigrants. The overall population of Norway has grown by about 35% since 1970, but its immigrant population has grown by more than 1000% (from about 60,000 in 1970). In the 1970s, large groups of foreign workers mainly from Turkey, Morocco, and Pakistan, as well as refugees from Chile and Vietnam, arrived in Norway. The Norwegian schools were not prepared to receive or educate these new immigrant populations, and this crisis created a sense of urgency among teachers and the entire educational system that forced the universities to take action to address the problem. To be clear, SLA did not emerge as a field of science at Norwegian universities as a natural outcome of organically evolving scientific discoveries and practices; rather, it was deliberately developed in response to the urgent external needs and experiences expressed by teachers in the public schools.

Teachers’ everyday encounters with different groups of immigrant pupils led unmistakably to the observation that speakers of different L1s experience different types of challenges in learning L2 Norwegian. The different needs and challenges of different L1 groups soon became widely recognised among educators in Norway, and the specific challenges of the different groups were also made explicit. The first Norwegian Master’s thesis (1980) in the field of SLA investigated the effects of the L1 on L2 learning, and it is important to note that many of the subsequent SLA theses were written by students who were motivated by their prior experiences as teachers of L2 Norwegian. Looking back, it is easy to see that it was the close contact between the schools and teachers who worked closely with learners from different L1 backgrounds that led to a condition – including at Norwegian universities – where the effects of the L1 on L2 learning were never in doubt.

Critical to the background of our new book is the ASK corpus, which was designed and compiled specifically for the purpose of conducting research on crosslinguistic influence. The texts in the corpus are essays written as part of an official test of Norwegian language ability by L2 learners of Norwegian (mostly immigrants) representing ten of the largest L1 groups in Norway around the year 2000 and the Polish group is now the largest immigrant group in Norway. The ASKeladden research project – funded by a grant from the Research Council of Norway – was the vehicle that ultimately made the studies presented in this book possible.

For more information please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Crosslinguistic Influence in Second Language Acquisition edited by Rosa Alonso Alonso.


Exploring the living experiences of Confucius Institute Chinese teachers in the UK

22 September 2017

This month we published Taking Chinese to the World by Wei Ye. In this post the author gives us an insight into her own experience of living in the UK as a Confucius Institute Chinese teacher.

At chilly spring dusk, like any of the after-work Friday afternoons in the past few months, I was sitting in a small tavern named “El Guapo” among my chuffed American social circles, sipping a margarita while half-listening to their chattering. I had no interest in Super Bowl or Sarah Palin. Or let’s be frank, I couldn’t fully catch their words. Savouring Chinese food and watching Chinese drama were the treats I yearned for after peanut butter jellied buzzing weekdays. Some of my associates, who had been abroad and had experience dealing with foreigners, would kindly slow down and ask which team I support, or have a few words with me from time to time. For the rest, I was an excellent companion. What else could I do? If I wish not to become “unsociable, eccentric and maladjusted” like my predecessors, as I had been reminded upon arrival, I should be cheerful, sweet, devoted, always say Yes, why not? Great, let’s do it! And smile.

I didn’t realize what Super Bowl and margaritas had done to me until a year later I was entrenched in the research of study abroad. The daily life in Britain immersed me into the intangible power relationship between language, culture, capital, and identity. I was also amazed at the changes that had taken place for my expatriates and me.

My book explores the work and living experiences of Confucius Institute Chinese teachers in the UK through their accounts and reflection, and how this context and the wider globalised social environment have impacted on their understandings and their personal growth.

To sum up, this book germinated from Super Bowl and margaritas but fermented in English ale, might be of interest to those focused on identity and interculturality in the context of globalization.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Soft Power and the Worldwide Promotion of Chinese Language Learning by Jeffrey Gil. 


The Impact of Neoliberalism on Education and Language Learning

14 September 2017

This month we are publishing Language, Education and Neoliberalism edited by Mi-Cha Flubacher and Alfonso Del Percio. In this post the editors explain how the book came about and touch on its main themes.

Nowadays cuts in spending, austerity plans and restructuring of the public sector have become commonplace for a large part of the world population. This development is far from new, but rather stands in the tradition of neoliberalism, as introduced on both sides of the Atlantic by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

In the context of education, central elements to these reforms have been privatisation, competitiveness and marketisation. The colonization of education by market principles has introduced a paradigmatic change which has resulted in an abdication of a Humboldtian education model to one which favours ideas of employability and profitability. This change proves problematic for most humanities, social sciences and language studies which have to legitimise their worth. The neoliberal austerity measures thus also have a very direct impact on us as researchers and teachers alike.

Against this backdrop, we wanted to engage in an empirical discussion on the interplay and effects of the implementation of neoliberal policies, the increasing hegemony of neoliberal governmentalities on education and on language learning and teaching. In short, as we, the editors of this volume argue, the current political economic conditions bring about a resignification of education, language, and the self that fits the neoliberal agenda, which pushes, among other things, the turning of language into skills and items of branding, the responsibilisation of individuals and the turning of them into entrepreneurs of themselves.

We follow the trajectories of students, teachers and educators as well as of institutions that are subjected to these political economic transformations. Touching upon a variety of geographical, social, and linguistic contexts, the researchers contributing to this book will provide first-hand accounts and critical inquiries into issues that range from the detrimental ideologies of self-deprecation of South Koreans in the face of hastily implemented English as the general medium of instruction for higher education, to efforts of the Chinese government to commercialise the teaching of Mandarin and the contradictory effects this has on notions of linguistic authenticity and legitimacy.

Further insights are offered in terms of language teaching, i.e. the neoliberal conditions teachers of English for Academic Purposes have to face, due to which they turn to veritable “resource leeching” or the joint-initiative of teachers and parents to support their refugee children, left behind in official US school policies that is entirely output-oriented. University students also form the object of interest in this volume, as conscious agents trying to accumulate linguistic capital even if only for symbolic reasons, both Italian-speaking students in German-speaking Switzerland or Brazilian students in Anglo-Canada. A third stream brings contributors to discuss minority languages in educational settings in the US (Spanish-English dual bilingual and Mexico and their recalibration along neoliberal ideas of commodification and valorization). A final focus centres on language teaching for vocational purposes.

Come and join us on this journey – even if you might not like what you see.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like A Post-Liberal Approach to Language Policy in Education by John E. Petrovic.


Three decades working with language learner autonomy

5 September 2017

This month we are publishing Language Learner Autonomy by David Little, Leni Dam and Lienhard Legenhausen. In this post the authors reflect on three decades’ work in the field.

Learner autonomy entails that learners are fully involved in planning, implementing and evaluating their own learning. We were first introduced to the concept in the 1980s. For Leni Dam it offered a way of responding to the challenge of differentiation in teaching and learning at school; for Lienhard Legenhausen and David Little it was a prerequisite for successful self-access language learning at university. Our collaboration of almost three decades, however, has focused on classroom learning. Leni and Lienhard have used empirical techniques to explore the outcomes of autonomous language learning and compare them with the outcomes achieved by learners working with a ‘communicative’ textbook; while David has been concerned to derive pedagogical principles from successful practice to facilitate replication in other contexts.

Although learner autonomy has been a focus for innovation in language education for almost forty years, it’s equally relevant to other areas of the curriculum. In our view its operationalization entails that learner self-management and reflective learning are exercised and further developed via ‘practice’ appropriate to the curriculum subject in question. In a language classroom, practice means use of the target language as the preferred medium of communication and reflection. Under guidance from their teacher, autonomous language learners use the target language from the beginning to plan, implement and evaluate their learning. Writing plays an indispensable role: learning is documented in logbooks and portfolios, and this supports use of the oral language and facilitates reflection on the process and content of learning.

It is sometimes assumed that learner autonomy is concerned exclusively with individual learning, but this is a misunderstanding. All effective classroom learning is based on interactive communication; what makes the autonomy classroom different is the fact that, by definition, the learners have equal right of access to all discourse roles, initiating as well as responding. Our experience leads us to define the autonomy classroom as a self-generating and self-maintaining community of practice whose members develop proficiency by using the target language to manage their own learning individually and collaboratively. This means that they devise their own learning materials and produce a wide variety of creative texts – stories, poems, plays, and reports on projects of many different kinds.

Some years ago, Leni asked a class of 15-year-olds, ‘After four years of learning English, how would you assess your overall progress?’ This is what one girl wrote (transcribed without correction):

“I already make use of the fixed procedures from our diaries when trying to get something done at home. Then I make a list of what to do or remember the following day. That makes things much easier. I have also via English learned to start a conversation with a stranger and ask good questions. And I think that our “together” session has helped me to become better at listening to other people and to be interested in them. I feel that I have learned to believe in myself and to be independent.”

Clearly, in four years this learner has acquired a proficiency in English that extends her communicative and reflective capacity and with it her identity. Her facility in writing implies that English is a fully integrated part of her developing plurilingual literacy.

The autonomy classroom shares fundamental pedagogical principles with inclusive education. It is thus not surprising that autonomous learning succeeds with students whose learning difficulties might cause them to fail in more traditional pedagogical settings. We have also found that learner autonomy empowers adult refugees learning the language of their host community; and that when primary pupils from immigrant families are encouraged to use their home languages in the classroom (even though their teacher may not understand them), this not only helps them come to grips with curriculum content but also gives them an interest in taking autonomous learning initiatives.

Everything we have written about learner autonomy over the past thirty years or so has taken successful practice as its starting point, and we have always believed that learner autonomy is first a pedagogical imperative and only secondly a fertile research topic. Aimed at student teachers, teacher educators and language learning researchers, our book will have served its purpose if it encourages more language teachers to embrace the principles of learner autonomy and find ways of implementing them in their classrooms.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also enjoy Managing Diversity in Education edited by David Little, Constant Leung and Piet Van Avermaet.


Understanding Racialized Expectations in the ELT Profession

10 August 2017

This month we are publishing Race and Ethnicity in English Language Teaching by Christopher Joseph Jenks. In this post the author discusses where racialized expectations come from and how they shape language teaching and learning.

Expectations are everything; they help us make decisions and make sense of existing life experiences. Our expectations shape decisions to seek out particular food items, holiday destinations and places of residence, and influence the extent to which we are satisfied with them. For instance, the satisfaction that I receive from eating a kale salad is not tied to my expectation that this particular food item tastes good. This would, without saying, be a foolish expectation. Rather, consuming a kale salad brings me satisfaction because of my expectations that it will result in good health and allow me to align myself with the all-important hipster community. Of course, the belief that kale is a food item of both a health-conscious individual and an advanced human being is the result of many years of cultural conditioning, which materializes in my decision to seek out particular foods and shop at grocery stores that will remain unnamed.

The decision to enrol in a particular school taught by an instructor that looks a certain way and speaks a specific language variety is also shaped by an existing set of expectations. My book, which examines race and racism in English language teaching and learning, is essentially about understanding where racialized expectations come from, and how they shape our understanding of, and actions pertaining to, the profession. That is to say, a preference for hiring White instructors from so-called Western countries does not materialize in a vacuum – a key observation in my book – but this ideology is rather rooted in a history of cultural conditioning that informs individuals what they should expect to see and hear in the language classroom.

What discourses and ideologies are responsible for such expectations? The expectation that English is a language (best) spoken, and therefore taught, by a small group of countries comes from a number of discourses and ideologies, and indeed varies from one region of the world to another, including colonial and imperial histories; in a place like South Korea, English is often associated with North America because of the role the United States has in military, political, and economic affairs.

My interest in writing this book comes from the many unanswered questions that exist regarding how such expectations become racialized in and through the discourses that are circulated within the English language teaching profession. For instance, I was motivated to understand how neoliberal forces shape the expectations one has when thinking about what English course to take. Although I am not interested in criticizing neoliberalism as an economic theory necessarily, I was motivated to show that the commodification of English facilitates the creation and circulation of racialized expectations. The book was also written because I was very much interested in examining how expectations are formulated from the point of view of privilege, such as White instructors from places like the United States. I show in my book, for example, that racial privilege creates the expectation among White instructors that they are in the best position to facilitate language learning, and this in turn influences how said teachers orient themselves within the profession; I refer to this expectation as White saviorism.

Although this project is ultimately about understanding where racialized expectations come from and how they shape language teaching and learning, the book also explores what needs to be done in the profession to create new discourses and ideologies that attend to the racial diversity that exists within the workforce. Like my desire to eat kale salads, I attempt to show that racial discrimination and privilege are misplaced expectations that come from years of cultural conditioning. This is no easy task, as racism is tied to decades of complex political and cultural struggles; yet I will be happy if my book makes even the smallest of contributions to the eradication of racism in the profession.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you enjoyed this, you might also be interested in Why English? edited by Pauline Bunce, Robert Phillipson, Vaughan Rapatahana and Ruanni Tupas.


No, Where Are You Really From? The Impact of Categorizing Others

8 August 2017

This month we are publishing Becoming Diasporically Moroccan by Lauren Wagner. In this post the author discusses the themes of microaggression and othering that are explored in her book.

© Kiyun Kim – from Racial Microaggressions, December 2013

Contrary to the typical imagination of discriminatory speech being direct and obvious, othering or categorizing statements often happen more subtly through microaggression. It can be understood as the ways underlying stereotypes about race, class, gender, and other social attributes are reproduced in casual encounters – like the experience of the woman in the picture on the right, from photographer Kiyun Kim’s project on microaggressions in a NYC university (For more testimonies, see the Microaggressions Tumblr or this nice video at Quartz with examples from film and TV). Microaggressions can be found anywhere, and experienced by anyone who might find their own sense of identity and belonging inadvertently or purposefully stereotyped by someone else. As they are becoming more widely researched and recognized as fostering social divisions, universities around the US are mandating that incoming students learn about the negative impacts of microaggression on their peers.

Yet, the existence of ‘microaggression’ is coming under attack by media and researchers, who question many of the claims made about potentially negative impacts of subtle speech. In Becoming Diasporically Moroccan, I try to show how the very subtle communicative and embodied modes for categorizing others do have an impact – not necessarily a direct and immediate one, but a cumulative and collective impact, as whole communities can come to feel ‘othered’ by the repetition, across members and over time, of small speech acts that create distinctions between us and them. This book doesn’t concentrate on how ‘othered’ groups feel harmed; rather, I try to focus on how othering contributes to evolving ideas of membership, participation, and a sense of belonging in an emerging group.

Let me take the example from the photograph above to illustrate how categorization happens in ordinary conversation.

No, where are you really from?

This is a question I hear quoted all the time by my research participants as one of the most troublesome ones they receive. While they are Moroccan-origin individuals who grew up in Europe, they share the problem of many migrant-origin individuals around the world of somehow not being allowed to be ‘from’ the place where they grew up.

The person asking this question may be on a genuine quest for information, but this includes layered, embedded assumptions that make it microaggressive. It is, firstly, context-specific, and depends on local knowledges and shared assumptions about what is ‘normal’; what should a person who is from somewhere look, sound, or be like? That leads to a second factor: that statement takes into account some kind of visible embodiment as categorizable in a combination of place (e.g. the somewhere she is from) and descent (or, the family lineage she comes from). This statement makes an assumption that place and descent map onto each other following a ‘normal’ category. Asking where she is really from implies that her claim to be from that somewhere is impossible. When these assumptions work together, they perpetuate this kind of (maybe unintentional…) microaggression, where this woman may feel like she has to justify being from the somewhere she feels she is from.

No wonder she is rolling her eyes…

Categorization at ‘home’

In Becoming Diasporically Moroccan, I pick apart face-to-face interactions where similar kinds of categorizing talk takes place, but in a different kind of context. Instead of looking at how Moroccan-origins manage their categorization in their European homelands – which might be compared to how lots of other minorities and migrant-origin groups have to deal with microaggression within a dominant (often ‘white’) group – this book looks at how these categorizations take place between Moroccans who live in Morocco and Moroccan-origin adults who visit Morocco from Europe. Like some other communities that develop in one place and can trace their familial descent to another place, Moroccans have a chance to regularly visit ‘home’. When they do, however, they often feel ‘othered’, in the opposite way to how many feel ‘othered’ in Europe.

By looking at individual examples of interactions in marketplaces, between resident Moroccan vendors and Moroccans-from-Europe, I show the subtle conversational details of how this ‘othering’ works. My conclusion, however, is not about how one or the other party may be doing wrong… Instead, I advocate that we start to think about how individuals like this – who grow up connected by descent and place to multiple homelands – together create new categories that help us evolve our thinking about where anyone might ‘belong’.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Local Languaging, Literacy and Multilingualism in a West African Society by Kasper Juffermans.


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