How do Doctors use Language to Shape, Challenge and Form Relationships?

13 June 2017

This month we published Reflective Writing in Medical Practice by Miriam A. Locher. In this post the author explains the focus of the book and how it came about.

This book is about the linguistic analysis of written reflective writing texts that were produced in the context of medical education and medical practice. The texts were collected from medical students from the University of Basel and the University of Nottingham (in connection with courses on communication skills in doctor-patient interaction), and are supplemented by a corpus of texts written by doctors for columns published in medical journals.

The genre of reflective writing has several purposes: it invites the writer to learn from a past experience and to reflect on potential future behaviour. In its focus on a past experience it involves narrative elements and in its trajectory on learning it involves reflection and projection. As a practice, the value of reflective writing has long been established within the medical humanities and medical professionals are encouraged to make reflective writing a life-long habit.

My own expertise in online health communication and (im)politeness studies led me to ask how medical students and doctors use language to shape, challenge and form relationships (a process for which I use the term ‘relational work’), and thus to study the texts in the reflective writing corpus from an interpersonal pragmatics perspective. In addition, the texts are explored with respect to topic, composition, and genre. In the book, we explore:

  • what topics and communication skills the authors write about
  • how the narratives develop
  • how these texts are shaped
  • what genres influence their composition
  • how relational work surfaces in them
  • how the writers linguistically create their identities as experts or novices

The medical humanities have long played an important role in medical training at the University of Basel. When I joined the staff of the English department in 2008, two important scholars on the medical humanities committee, Prof. Alexander Kiss (psychosomatics) and Prof. Franziska Gygax (English literary and cultural studies) approached me and we developed a joint interdisciplinary project entitled ‘Life (Beyond) Writing’: Illness Narratives, (funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation). This project joins the study of life writing, reflective writing and medical education. During the years that the project was funded, we have learnt from each others’ different ways of developing questions and approaching data. We also organized an interdisciplinary conference, which resulted in an edited collection (Narrative Matters across Disciplines in Medical Practice, Benjamins, 2015).

The current book is the result of the linguistic branch of the project, which deals with the reflective writing corpus as outlined above. Our collaborator Victoria Tischler (Nottingham) and the linguistics project member Regula Koenig were important team members throughout the genesis of the book. While bringing the ideas together as a whole and writing it up was a single-author experience, I feel indebted to both and therefore use the authorial “we” when writing. Without their help in obtaining data, coding and feedback, the completion of this project would not have been possible.

More information on the author can be found on her website.

More information on the interdisciplinary project can be found on the project website.

For more information about this book, please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Medical Discourse in Professional, Academic and Popular Settings edited by Pilar Ordóñez-López and Nuria Edo-Marzá and English in Medical Education by Peih-ying Lu and John Corbett.

 


Engaging Superdiversity? Yes, Very Engaging.

16 December 2016

This month we published Engaging Superdiversity edited by Karel Arnaut, Martha Sif Karrebæk, Massimiliano Spotti and Jan Blommaert. In this post, Jan explains more about the background to the book.

Engaging SuperdiversityAs all of us know, there is a tremendous pressure in the academic system at present to operate as an individual in a competitive ‘market’ of science focused on deliverables – or more precisely, a market of money for science and other more symbolic and status-related perks. All of these elements – individualism, competition and result-driven orientation – are fundamentally unscientific, and render our lives as science workers increasingly less interesting. Science is a collective endeavor characterised by solidarity and focused on processes of knowledge construction. Why else do we need references at the end of our publications, than to illustrate how we have learned from others in a perpetual process of critical and productive dialogue?

This critical reflex was the motive, almost a decade ago, for a small team of scholars to join forces in a consortium called InCoLaS (International Consortium on Language and Superdiversity) – a ‘dream team’ of people who decided to care and share, to explore domains only superficially touched by inquiry, mobilising each other’s resources in the process,  and to do all this without a pre-set target or road map. After all, exploration is not the same as driving in a limo on a highway with the GPS on: by definition, you don’t know where it will take you. There is no ‘draft proposal’; there are ideas.

This mode of collaboration turned out to be immensely ‘profitable’, to use the terms of the market. Several high-profile publications emerged, and our buzzword ‘superdiversity’ has become a modest celebrity in its own right, attracting what must be seen as the ultimate intellectual compliment: controversy. There are ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’, and both camps have had, over the past years, sometimes heated debates over the value of the word ‘superdiversity’.

We ourselves don’t really care about that word. Sometimes one needs a new word simply to examine the validity of the older ones – the word is then just a sort of stimulus to shed some of the attributes and frames inscribed in the older ones; and it is not the word that is central, but the ideas it points to and the data it can help explain. Whether research is convincing or not rarely depends on which words are used to write it down; usually it depends on the quality of analysis and argument.

Engaging Superdiversity offers another set of studies on language and superdiversity, drawn from one of the key features of our collective mode of work: team workshops in which we listen to and discuss the work of our team members – senior as well as more junior researchers – and insert their results in the collective explorative process described earlier. In these workshops, all of us are ‘free’ – free to come up with unfinished ideas, unsolved problems, struggles with complex data. The joint work of critical dialogue, usually, results in products that are, to say the least, engaging.

This collection of essays, more than any other publication so far, gives people a sense of the ambience in InCoLaS activities. It covers the terrains we find important – inequality, the online-offline nexus, power – and expands the theoretical and methodological framing of the process of exploration. There is a very large number of new things in this book (for the benefit of the “non-believers” who question what is so new about superdiversity), and some of the chapters will, I believe, have considerable impact in the field.

I joined the editorial team rather late in the game, and my gaze is thus, perhaps, a bit more that of a detached spectator than Karel’s, Martha’s and Max’s. So let me say this: When reviewing manuscripts for journals, book proposals, or even student’s essays, I always make a distinction between work that is good and work that is interesting. Most work I see is good, in the sense that there is nothing wrong with it, other than that I would never read it: it’s not interesting. Engaging Superdiversity is good and interesting – extraordinarily so – and I am proud to see it in print.

Jan Blommaert

Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic LandscapesFor more information about the book, please see our website. You might also be interested in Jan’s previous book Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes.


Prescription and Tradition in Language

1 December 2016

Last month we published the book Prescription and Tradition in Language edited by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and Carol Percy. In this blog post, Carol tells us more about what inspired her and Ingrid to put the book together.

Carol Percy presenting her plenary at the Prescription conference, introduced by Ingrid Tieken

Carol Percy presenting her plenary at the Prescription conference, introduced by Ingrid Tieken

The academic study of linguistic prescriptivism is relatively new. Historical linguists like my co-editor Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and me, Carol Percy, have both hosted conferences on the topic. My bilingual conference in Canada inspired essay collections that focussed mostly on English and on French. Ingrid’s meeting in the Netherlands was truly multilingual in scope, and realizing the significance of this we commissioned chapters on a wide range of languages for Prescription and Tradition in Language. Our multilingual mandate and our English-language medium really highlight how the codification of language norms needs to be considered in unique cultural contexts, across Time and Space.

Some of our contributors consider prescriptive traditions for English. We see journalists and academic linguists contributing to the formation and dissemination of norms. In a chapter contrasting the prescriptive traditions of English with French, the pronunciation guide compiled by lexicographer Robert Burchfield for the BBC (1981) underscores the broadcaster’s “semi-official status” in the absence of a state-sponsored language academy for English. In reviews of Burchfield’s supposedly ‘descriptivist’ edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), we can compare the opinions of journalists and linguists. And in what is actually a very depressing chapter, we see that pervading popular ‘news’ about language (whether the Middlesborough dialect or immigrant children’s bilingualism) is an inflexibly unwelcoming ethnolinguistic nationalism. Indeed, another contributor makes the case that traditional prescriptive rules define communities, naturalize assumptions (about rules and the people who observe them, or don’t), and thus ultimately validate prescriptive rules. This argument is probably not English-specific!

Prescription and Tradition in LanguageMore contributors consider prescriptive traditions for other countries and languages—and we are delighted to be disseminating this material in English. For major languages including French, Russian and Chinese, our contributors synthesize traditions and analyze challenges posed by globalization and new media. In the state’s official Dictionary of Modern Chinese (2012), the inclusion—and exclusion—of words referring to economic and social changes is discussed in the media. English delivers technological terms to languages including French and Russian. In France, official committees devise French equivalents to English terms and disseminate them on websites as well as in print. For Russian, shifts in its status and its norms are particularly visible (and open to debate) as the rise of new media coincides with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Some of our chapters contrast the status and standardization of the ‘same’ language in different contexts. Nineteenth-century Dutch in the temporarily-reunited Low Countries varied less in practice than in commentators’ imaginations. But the Russian written officially in Kazakhstan or spoken as a lingua franca in Dagestan is diverging from what is known as ‘Moscow Russian’. And although Macedonian is now recognized as a national language, elsewhere it is a minority language, with official recognition differing from country to country. Basque is recognized as a minority language in Spain but not yet in France: a committee is currently crafting a standard that can be spoken colloquially in multiple contexts. And (how) do sociolinguistic norms for German change when it is taught to foreigners?

While our collection can’t consider every language, it contains general and theoretical chapters. (How) do language norms vary by writing system? (How) does a language’s multilingual vs monolingual contexts or spoken vs written use relate to establishing its norms? Pam Peters recontextualizes these and other issues in her generous Epilogue to the volume. Both Ingrid and I learned (Ingrid “learnt”!) a lot from our contributors when we edited this volume, and we hope you enjoy it.

For more information about this book, please see our website.


War – The Mother of all Metaphors in Cancer Discourse

23 September 2016

This month we are publishing Medical Discourse in Professional, Academic and Popular Settings edited by Pilar Ordóñez-López and Nuria Edo-Marzá. This post debates whether some of the metaphors used to discuss cancer are more appropriate than others.

Medical Discourse in Professional, Academic and Popular SettingsCancer metaphors are not new. However, they still spur interest among researchers, patients, families and doctors. Are some metaphors more appropriate than others? Their use helps to create our mental image of the immensely diverse group of diseases we understand as cancer. In the same way, nonetheless, they can provide an excessively simplified or negative image of treatments.

While some studies have been critical of war metaphors for decades, others prefer to consider the validity of metaphors regarding their usefulness for the experience of each patient. While some patients can be encouraged to deal with the disease in terms of battling, others can suffer if they see themselves as the losers in a fight after doing their best. Therefore, some patients or professionals prefer to refer to cancer with other metaphors such “the disease as a journey”.

Two chapters in this new book, Medical Discourse in Professional, Academic and Popular Settings, address cancer metaphors from different perspectives. The first reviews metaphors used in a particular cancer type, lymphoma caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), through the analysis of texts of different genres: research papers, science news and press articles. The most formal genre, the research article, reduces metaphor usage while press authors exploit metaphors more deliberately for discursive and argumentative purposes.

The next chapter focuses on analysing the case of the two FC Barcelona figures who were diagnosed with cancer, the player Eric Abidal and the manager Tito Vilanova. It concludes that the journalistic discourse on the disease, even in a sport context, is still dominated by the war metaphor. Although the two figures often used sport metaphors publicly (“I know I’m not playing this match alone”), as did the media (“Tito faces his most difficult match”, “Vilanova plays the hardest competition, cancer, against the worst rival, death”) war metaphors were predominant.

There are similarities between war and sport metaphors (two opposing teams, the battle/match, the winners/champions), but there are also differences. The losers in war are captured, humiliated, even killed. The loser in a football match may have the feeling of having played better than the opponent or think that they were just unlucky. The media collect different metaphors and sanction them through use. As we can see, although new metaphors are introduced and enjoy general acceptance in certain contexts, as happens with the sport metaphor, military alternatives are still the mother of metaphors when discussing cancer.

This interesting debate shows how to face the challenge of defining such a complex disease, one that scares us, a disease described by Dr. Siddhartha Mujkerhee – using a new metaphor – as “the emperor of all maladies”.

 English in Medical EducationFor further information about this book, please see our website. You might also be interested in English in Medical Education edited by Peih-ying Lu and John Corbett.


Are languages dying out or just becoming more diverse?

28 July 2016

This week we published Linguistic Genocide or Superdiversity? edited by Reetta Toivanen and Janne Saarikivi. In this post, Janne discusses the question of whether languages are dying out or whether, in fact, the world is just becoming more linguistically diverse.

Linguistic Genocide or Superdiversity?Since the 1990s linguists and anthropologists have become increasingly aware of the fact that most of the world’s languages are under threat of extinction. The main threat for languages comes from the erosion of their traditional communities due to urbanisation and changing ways of life, as well as improved standards of education and new working environments.

Languages today are used for entirely different purposes than in primordial societies. In communities characterised by agriculture, fishing, hunting or gathering, all the members of a community typically worked the same way and inherited their social roles from their parents and family. Language was primarily used as a means of oral communication.

A postmodern society, by contrast, is dependent on an elaborate division of labour, and also on the different social identities of their members. The most important tools for this identity creation are reading, writing and studying, i.e. activities carried out within language. For an increasing number of people around the world, language is both the main working tool as well as the main outcome of their work.

Languages are often measured and compared by the number of their native speakers. But for some purposes a more adequate way to ascertain the size of languages would probably be to measure the number of different texts composed in a particular language. For instance, languages such as Icelandic or Estonian have far fewer native speakers than languages such as Kanuri (in Nigeria) or Uighur (in China) but since they are national languages of independent states, countless texts are produced in them every day by language specialists in schools, ministries and media. This language use is currently evolving into an endless stream of text in social media, where practically every speaker of the language community is also an author of new text. Meanwhile other languages with more speakers but fewer elaborate societal functions have little use outside oral intercourse.

The modern language situation has been characterised as a genocide of languages, because so many languages have disappeared, but it has also been called unprecedented plurilingualism, where languages are used in more diverse ways than ever. In a modernising society some minority languages disappear within a few generations, sometimes almost without a trace. But in many contexts they also change, become creolised to a mixed code that carries and creates new types of modern identities in urban and virtual environments. For some minority languages this means more variation than before instead of disappearing.

The new social situation with more interaction in global networks and new media accelerates the pace of language change and creates new pidgins, creoles, mixed and intertwined codes. The languages of east and west are used in the growing multicultural urban centres of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas in countless new mixed genres, some of which are bound to a particular city, others to a particular music style and clothing, still others to particular professions and education.

Is the world of languages thus becoming more or less diverse? Is the new linguistic variation somehow different from the variation that has been described in dialectological and sociolinguistic investigations for decades? There are some grounds to suggest that this is indeed the case. The difference is not so much that languages interact on a global scale, but that much of this interaction takes place in a written medium and is affected by standards and ideologies learned through ever more common formal education. Much of what happens in language contact has been described many times in studies concerning dialects, but other things are new: the fact that language use is now work for many, or the fact that language choice is one of the primary ways to create modern identities.

But can the new linguistic variation compensate for the languages of the hunters, gatherers, fishermen and nomads, many of which are already gone forever? And will it be long-lasting?

It is still fair to say that much of the world’s linguistic diversity is under threat. But its disappearance might not just be voices vanishing to silence. More likely, it is going to be like a star shining brighter than ever just before it explodes into a vacuum.

Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic LandscapesFor more information about the book please see our website. If you found this interesting you might also enjoy Jan Blommaert’s book Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes.

 

 

 


Multilingual Matters at the Sociolinguistics Symposium

30 June 2016

Earlier this month Anna and I headed to Spain for the biennial Sociolinguistics Symposium which this year was hosted by the University of Murcia.  The last symposium was such a good conference (you can read about it in our blog post here) that this one had a lot to live up to, but it certainly delivered!

The gathering was very well attended and had a busy timetable of panels and sessions going on throughout the 4 days of the conference.  There were a high number of attendees from all over the world and we were pleased to sell books to delegates who had come from places as far flung as New Zealand, Cape Verde and Aruba!  It’s great to know that our books are reaching many corners of the earth and to meet the people working in such places.

Laura and Anna sporting conference caps and fans at the stand

The equation of Spain plus June certainly equals hot sunshine and we braved the soaring temperatures to set up our bookstand outside in the beautiful university courtyard.  We and the books survived the heat and were grateful to the conference organisers for thinking to include hats and fans in the conference bag! We thoroughly enjoyed tasting all the yummy refreshments provided during the breaks and sampling local tapas and drinks in the many squares of Murcia in the evening.

Book contributor and customer at the stand

The bestsellers at the stand included Jackie Jia Lou’s new monograph The Linguistic Landscape of Chinatown, the enduringly popular Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes by Jan Blommaert and Lid King and Lorna Carson’s new edited collection The Multilingual City.  As ever we enjoyed meeting lots and lots of our authors and contacts, including some whose first ever chapter we have just published.

One of the highlights of the conference was the dinner which was held in a typical Murcian restaurant in the heart of lemon and orange groves.  The local food and drink was delicious and the traditional Spanish dancing displays were great fun to watch.  The next Sociolinguistics Symposium is to be hosted by the University of Auckland in New Zealand and will be the first time that the conference will be held outside Europe.  Needless to say, we’re already looking forward to the next gathering in 2018!

Laura


Talking About Global Migration

4 May 2016

This week we published Talking About Global Migration by Theresa Catalano which explores the narratives of 70 migrants and examines the language they use when talking about their experiences. Here, Theresa introduces some of their stories.

Talking About Global MigrationMartez was born in Mexico City to Spanish parents. He met his wife in veterinary school in Costa Rica. They then moved to Alabama, then Canada, back to the US and eventually back to Canada. Even though he has lived in four different countries and gone back and forth among them, he has always felt Mexican. Martez has noticed how different countries have different terminology to talk about the legal status of migrants in their country such as calling migrants “legal aliens” (US) versus “landed immigrants” (Canada). The latter makes him feel more welcome.

Even though Thinh was very young when he arrived in the US, he remembers what a ‘struggle’ it was. He and his family did not speak English, and they had to rely on others for translations. Thinking back, Thinh recalls how shocked they were by everything in their new home, ‘bright city lights….Everything was amazing.’ Thinh was enrolled in English as a second language classes but when he was in third or fourth grade, he decided he did not want to be in those classes anymore because he felt that he had ‘grasped the language’.

Xui moved from China to Qatar for three years and then followed her husband to the US. She found it difficult to adapt to her new environment, but says that once you understand the culture of your new home, you might realize that your life there is more meaningful and colorful.

Cristina always dreamed of seeing the world. Born in Colombia, she moved to Spain for a job and then later moved to the US where she is now a professor. Cristina believes that immigration is a great risk, but it is a risk she would be willing to take again, even though she often feels as if she is living ‘in a limbo’— part of her in Colombia, part in Spain, and part in the US.

The above vignettes demonstrate the very diverse and complicated lives of globally mobile people in an increasingly mobile global landscape. This dynamic interplay of migrants of multiple-origin has changed city and rural environments around the world (referred to by Vertovec [2010] as ‘super-diversity’) and the increased movement of transnational migrants underscores the need for educational responses to migration that attend to the linguistic and cultural diversity of demographically changing student bodies and address the educational needs of newcomer students.

Hence, Talking About Global Migration attempts to re-complicate the often simplified and stereotyped stories of migrants who reside in increasingly diverse places in diverse contexts by talking with over 70 participants in 12 different countries, and providing useful information for language teachers (as well as anyone who comes into contact with migrants). In addition, I examine the metaphors and metonymies (see bolded words above) that migrants use when talking about their experiences. In doing so, I hope that people can better understand the way migrants perceive themselves and the migration experience and how this differs greatly from the way they are portrayed in the media. Furthermore, I hope to shed light on how migrants are affected by the way others refer to them, such as how Martez notes the different effect on him that the terms “legal alien” vs. “landed immigrant” have. In this way, I aim to raise consciousness about our own way of thinking and talking about migration.

If you would like to contact me about the book I can be reached by email: Theresa Catalano, tcatalano2@unl.edu

References:
Vertovec, S. (2010). Towards post-multiculturalism? Changing communities, contexts and conditions of diversity. International Social Science Journal 199, 83-95.

migration booksFor more information on Theresa’s book please see our website. You might also be interested in some of our other migration titles Refugee Resettlement in the United States edited by Emily M. Feuerherm and Vaidehi Ramanathan and Language, Immigration and Naturalization edited by Ariel Loring and Vaidehi Ramanathan.


Linking Discourse Studies to Professional Practice

14 October 2015

In August we published Linking Discourse Studies to Professional Practice edited by Lubie Grujicic-Alatriste. In this post she tells us a little bit about how the book came together.

Linking Discourse Studies to Professional PracticeLinking Discourse Studies to Professional Practice is an inspirational volume for analysts, researchers, academics, students and practitioners in various teaching and professional programmes including, but not limited to, applied linguistics, discourse studies, critical discourse and gender studies, political, news discourse and communication studies, sociology of work and professional training. It aims to raise awareness about the importance of considering research findings within the broader life framework by reaching out to the stakeholders in the places of professional practice.

Analysts from Australia, Europe and the USA were invited to consider their original research findings in (for them) a new way: how to begin to disseminate their work in real world settings (or ideally in the settings where they originally collected the data). Chapter 1 provides the theoretical background for the volume and describes the components of the Framework for Application. Each of the remaining 13 chapters generally opens by stating the key findings, presents a brief theoretical overview and description of the original research study, and then showcases the key excerpts from a larger body of discourse data. Most significantly, the authors engage the Framework for Application by presenting a plan for dissemination and the tools for gauging research relevance and, in some cases, by reporting the initiatives already taken towards outreach to the places of practice. The Framework includes outreach tools and feedback tools so that future analysts can both see pertinent elements and also include them in their own dissemination efforts. Finally, I carefully examine challenges that lie ahead so as to fairly present to all the work lying ahead.

The blueprint for application is the central part of this volume and the one that really makes each chapter both unique and uniformed. Though the volume’s plans for application are diverse, as the research settings are themselves diverse, each chapter does share the same kernel idea: that of disseminating the research findings by providing a clear practical path to it. This innovative and unusual aspect of the book is what all reviewers have pointed out as an invaluable and most welcome one.

The chapters include studies done on spoken and written discourse, using Conversation Analysis (CA) in combination with other methods, genre analysis in combination with other methods, and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). Contributions are loosely grouped by setting and include the following: workplace and business settings both in private companies and university business offices; educational settings including second language classroom and college writing programs; private and public settings that showcase individuals with disabilities and family interaction including identities of grown children; and government and media settings with a special focus on Chinese news reporting and translation of international news; in addition media representation of gay marriage issues covering a few decades is presented here through the CDA lens.

The volume does show the value of both conversation analysis and written discourse analysis as research tools, but it does not base its organizational principles solely on methodology. Instead it uses the settings as the first principle and the methods of data collection and analysis as the second organizational principle in order to include as many researchers as possible in this discussion of application. It is my hope that many different researchers and their students will find each of the chapters equally engaging, no matter what the base methodology is being focused on. I wanted to showcase how applied linguists can and should share their research findings without being too constrained by the school of methodology they espouse. As editor of this volume, I encourage readers to consider the global purpose of our work more than local issues in the field. Equally importantly, I encourage and invite discussion on any of the issues presented in the volume, be it by responding to this blog, or by writing additional comments elsewhere.

As an illustration of the volume and its history, I here provide a bit of chronology. For many years, as a doctoral student first and then as a professor and researcher, I felt frustrated with the lack of connection between scholars and practitioners, not just in education, but in many other walks of life where linguists collect data and conduct research. The question of how valuable our research could really be to the real world of language users if the same research is never shared with broader real life or professional audiences kept irking me. Finally, in early 2010, I set out to plan this volume. At the onset of this project in 2010, I could not have imagined the road ahead. We discovered that the process of creating a plan, or an outline for dissemination of research findings, was a bigger challenge than first anticipated. As the project moved along, it became clear that the outlines for dissemination of findings provided in this volume would need to be tested out in order to illustrate the process but also to show the results. We hope to continue this work and present it in a separate volume in the near future.

Communicative Practices at WorkFor more information about the book please see our website. If you found this title interesting you might also like Jo Anne Kleifgen’s book Communicative Practices at Work.


Local Languaging: Challenges Existing Definitions of ‘Language’ and ‘Literacy’

9 October 2015

Last month we published Local Languaging, Literacy and Multilingualism in a West African Society by Kasper Juffermans. The book challenges existing definitions of ‘language’ and ‘literacy’ in The Gambia. In this post, Kasper gives us a bit more background to the ideas discussed in his book.

Local Languaging, Literacy and Multilingualism in a West African SocietyHow many languages do you speak? If we think a bit longer about this rather common question, it is not the same kind of question as How often have you been to Africa? or How many children do you have? Generally, travels and children are rather easy to count and remember. With language that’s not quite the case. Languages are difficult to count not because people often speak such a large number of them – usually they don’t – but because it’s hard to tell where one language begins and another ends, as well as what counts as speaking it.

As a student of African studies at a Belgian university I began carrying out field research in The Gambia, Africa’s smallest mainland country. The Gambia gained independence from the UK in 1965 and like many African states it has maintained its colonial language as official language. This includes use as a medium of instruction throughout the public education system and almost exclusive use in the written media and the public space.

I began my research in a modern multi-ethnic village in the southwest of the country. The village comprised people of Mandinka, Jola, Fula, Wolof and Manjago ethnic groups living together. It was a very encouraging environment to learn Mandinka with numerous people around me with the patience and the interest to teach me, and enough (elderly) persons who did not, or pretended not to, speak any English. The more time I spent in the village, the better my Mandinka became. Before long my communicative skills were enough to engage in small talk with neighbours, fellow passengers, street vendors, etc. But then people would challenge me and ask me if I could, or why I didn’t, speak their language. This way I learned to recognise and greet in Wolof, Jola, and Fula too. Not only did I have to learn the local language, I had to learn to language locally, to respond adequately in greeting sequences involving Arabic, the interlocutors’ ethnic language and the lingua franca of the situation. I had to learn to choose the right moment to switch, and get the cultural pragmatics of turn-taking and back-channelling right. All of this is not learning different languages, but rather learning local languaging.

In my research I learned to look beyond languages in the plural to understand multilingualism and literacy in Gambian society. I discovered that I had entered the field with a rather European conception of language and that this was different from African ways of understanding language. In the linguistic landscape – i.e., the public space as marked by linguistic objects – I could hardly see any language other than English. There were only very few occasions of local language, and then usually only in Wolof. What did this mean? Are African languages somehow not written languages? Is Wolof more vital than other Gambian languages? And how do we read the prolific use of images complementing text in the public space? My book attempts to address these questions.

The Gambian government prepared an education policy for 2004-2015 that announced the introduction of the five most commonly used local languages as subjects throughout the education system and as medium of instruction in the first three years of basic education. But why can’t we see any evidence of this policy in the school I investigated? Could the problem be situated in the fluidity of local language practices and the fixity (and eurocentrism?) of such a policy document? Community members declared their support for the introduction of moo fing kango (‘black people’s language’) in their school, but refused to make a choice about which of the local languages should be introduced. The book argues that such voices need to be taken into account and attempts to proceed from there in understanding language in education and society at large.

During my fieldwork I gradually unlearned to conceptualise language in the plural, and to understand language rather as a verb. The present book contributes to the languaging turn in sociolinguistics by emphasising the dynamics and fluidity of language as practiced locally in a globalising world. Whereas English and literacy have in the past strategically been pluralised to emphasise diversity in practices across cultural contexts (Englishes, literacies), it is now time to singularise them again and think of language and literacy as material nouns. This book can be read not only as a sociolinguistic monograph of one West African society, but also as an exercise to unpluralise language.

For more information about this book please see our website.


Martial Arts and Sociolinguistics

28 August 2015

Earlier this month we published Lian Malai Madsen’s book Fighters, Girls and Other Identities. In this post, she explains how her interests in martial arts and sociolinguistics came together in this volume.

Fighters, Girls and Other IdentitiesI was 12 when I began practicing taekwondo in a small village club. At first it was my gender-egalitarian occupation that attracted me to the martial arts. Later it became an integral part of my self-perception, my main leisure activity and a source of lasting friendships. I continued to enjoy the sport as a fun way to keep fit, but it was the social community around the sport that had the greatest impact on my life.

I was 19 when I was first introduced to sociolinguistics at an urban university. At first I thought studying Danish was mostly about literature, but my teacher in linguistics opened my eyes to the connections between language use and social relations. I became involved in his research project and developed a keen interest for language, identity, diversity and inequality. During my years as a university student I became a black belt, an instructor and a board member in a large urban taekwondo club.

Although these paths in my life seemed like two very different worlds they eventually became united in the book Fighters, Girls and Other Identities: Sociolinguistics in a Martial Arts Club that investigates the martial arts club as a site where language, identities, diversity and inequality take effect.

In research on sports and identities, language has mainly been studied as discourses about sport, rhetoric surrounding sports or as speech genres connected with specific sports activities. But in tune with a wish to capture the social and linguistic diversity and mobility of today’s societies, sociolinguistic research has also turned to sports as an important site for studying linguistic hybridity and multilingualism. Such interests in globalization and superdiversity make the combination of the language use, sports and identities a fruitful research cocktail. It was my involvement in these topics as a scholar that led me to exchange the punching pads for a pen, notebooks and recording equipment for a while and to look at the social community of young martial artists in Copenhagen through the glasses of a sociolinguist.

I am 39 and the results of this research have finally been published, and, in the meantime, I have even become a taekwondo-mum.

Lian Malai Madsen
Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen
lianm@hum.ku.dk

For more information on this title please contact Lian or see our website.


%d bloggers like this: