“With my parents I speak integrated Arabic” – Integration, linguistic contrasts and social status relations

21 October 2014

Lian Malai Madsen has recently been announced as the winner of the 2014 Ton Vallen award.  This is an annual award for papers written by new researchers  on sociolinguistic and educational issues in multicultural societies which we at Multilingual Matters are proud to support. In this article Lian discusses the background to her paper which examines integration and linguistic styles in Denmark.

My husband moved to Denmark 12 years ago from the UK. When we met he used to live off microwave meals and industrial white sandwich bread, but now he bakes his own rye bread. Rye bread can be considered a key sign of Danish national belonging (as Martha Karrebæk has shown in her research, e.g. in What’s in your lunch box? 2012), and not only does he consume it, he creates it himself – from basic organic ingredients. I like to joke about this change by calling him well ‘integrated’.  In the most common sense of ‘integrated’ he certainly seems to be, when it comes to food habits: He has adapted to the eating practices of the majority population in the country he immigrated to. When it comes to speaking a standard variety of the national language, however, he is not as successful, and the mastering of the national language is of course also highly significant to integration as it is understood in Western European political and public discourse.

Among the teenagers I have followed with my colleagues during our fieldwork in an urban school in Copenhagen, the term integrated is used in a different way. These teenagers are not unaware of the common meaning and its connection to the wider integration discourse, and their use is not unrelated to this, but the way they employ the term with reference to language use is intriguing and revealing to a sociolinguist. The young Copenhageners use ‘integrated’ as a label for a speech style and claim to speak integratedly to teachers and other adults, for instance, to show respect. They do not only report to speak ‘integrated Danish’, but some of them also speak ‘integrated Arabic’ with their parents, and students with ethnic Danish family background describe it as appropriate to speak integratedly to the elderly. Finally, they playfully illustrate typical integrated speech and speakers with very high-pitched, exaggerated polite and tea-drinking parodies. In this sense, a term otherwise associated with different national and ethnic relationships and newcomers’ adaption to language use and culture, clearly has a new meaning that also includes a more general stylistic and hierarchical dimension.

In the recent academic paper “High” and “Low” in urban Danish speech styles I look into this when I discuss how youth in Copenhagen use and understand different ways of speaking. A significant insight gained from the research documented in the article is that a speech style previously described and conceptualised as multiethnic youth language is understood in contrast to the ‘integrated’ speech style by teenagers regularly using this way of speaking. The ongoing social value ascriptions to the contrasting styles, in fact, seem to map on to a set of opposing binaries involving low/high; street cultural/academic; masculine/feminine; tough/polite; emotion/reason; youthful/adult, and this, I argue, points to a sociolinguistic transformation. Linguistic signs that used to be seen as related to migration, on an insider/outsider dimension of comparison, are now related to status and social class on a high/low dimension as well.

Since language and linguistic styles as tools for daily communication come to be associated with particular people, places, purposes and values, the way young people use and understand language can tell us a lot about how they experience similarities, differences and inequalities in the social world. Public discourse about minority youth tends to emphasise ethnic, cultural and religious differences to explain social inequalities today and thereby perhaps overlooks dimensions of social status and class. But the teenagers I have studied articulate aspects of social inequality (indexed by different ways of speaking) that most of the current discussions about the challenges of diversity fail to capture. So this kind of research on the speech styles and language ideologies is not only interesting for sociolinguists but can also contribute to qualifying societal debates.

My husband would probably never be accused of speaking integratedly (he is from a city in East Yorkshire), and I am not sure he captures the hints at poshness in my ‘integrated’ joke (he grew up in a very working-class environment). But the relatively more high-status signals it stereotypically sends – of having the resources to value environmental and health concerns – when you make your rye bread from organic ingredients (and happily share experiences and recipes), is perfectly in tune with the associations of integrated as it is used by the young Copenhageners about speech.

Perhaps he will get if he reads my paper. Or perhaps I should just work a bit on my jokes.

Lian Malai Madsen

Lian’s webpage at the University of Copenhagen can be found here.


Karrebæk, M. S. (2012), “What’s in Your Lunch Box Today?”: Health, Respectability, and Ethnicity in the Primary Classroom. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 22: 1–22. doi: 10.1111/j.1548-1395.2012.01129.x

Lian Malai Madsen (2013). “High” and “low” in urban Danish speech styles. Language in Society, 42, pp 115-138. doi:10.1017/S0047404513000018.

Being ‘foreign’: Italians and coffee, Danes and rye bread

5 November 2013

TonVallenAward-kleinMartha Sif Karrebæk has recently been announced as the winner of the 2013 Ton Vallen award.  This is an annual award for papers written by new researchers  on sociolinguistic and educational issues in multicultural societies which we at Multilingual Matters are proud to support.  In this article Martha takes us on a tour from coffee in Rome to rye bread in Denmark to introduce us to the themes of her research.

I recently passed some days in Rome with my husband and two children. We had brought a guidebook (Lonely Planet, 2012) to enrich and facilitate our visit, and we spent much time studying the authors’ advice on all thinkable matters. As it is customary, the book included sections devoted to “Eating” and “Drinking & Nightlife” and in the latter the topic of coffee was explored. I quote from this:

“For Romans, coffee punctuates and marks the process of the day, from the morning and mid-morning cappuccino, to the afternoon espresso pick-me-up, or summertime granita with cream. To do as the Romans do, you have to be precise about your coffee needs… [here follows a longish paragraph on the different varieties of coffee and their names caffè, caffè macchiato, caffè all’american etc.]. Then, of course, there’s the cappuccino… Italians drink cappuccino only during the morning and never after meals; to order it after 11am would be, well, foreign.”

The quote presents Romans as having similar and very specific coffee practices, and that the variety of coffee one chooses is defined by the time of the day and of the year (at least). You can easily become recognizable as a tourist – or ‘foreign’ relative to the Romans – if you do not adhere to this specified order. It is clearly one of the goals of the guidebook to educate tourists, or ‘foreigners’, to be able to “do as the Romans do” (evidenced by the many repetitions of the phrase “do it the Roman way / do as the Romans do”, moreover the book had several sections on etiquette). Thus, we were supposed to take the advice into account. Also, the small “well” inserted between commas (to order cappuccino in the afternoon would be, “well, foreign”) indicates that the self-identification as ‘foreign’ is undesirable. In fact, when you do not observe the norm for coffee ordering, it becomes a transgression of a moral order. You show yourself not to be interested to blend in, to integrate – or should I say: to assimilate?

Food (including drinks and beverages) and food practices are culturally specific, and they can be used to define who is, and who is not, part of a social community. Phrased differently, they can be said to ‘index’ cultural and social belonging and identity. Such practices are created and re-created all the time, and they are taught to children and newcomers both explicitly, through manuals such as my guidebook, or through parental advice, and implicitly as demonstrations of normal behaviour in the everyday routines. A community is always defined relative to other communities, and therefore food and food practices can also be used to show who is not regarded as part of the community. Guests, or ‘visiting outsiders’, are often treated with distrust; they are potentially disruptive of the social community. In order to overcome the suspiciousness, guests should demonstrate how they respect and observe the cultural norms of the host community.

Now, of course, this is a very simplified description. Yet it is relevant both to my recent experiences on the trip to Rome and to my fieldwork in an urban school in Copenhagen. As I have reported in the academic paper “What’s in your lunch-box?”, in this school the lunch-boxes of children with an immigrant background were taken to index their and their families’ attitude to Danish society and their educational potential in general. Bread became a proxy for something more important, namely national belonging, national fidelity and solidarity. It was treated as obligatory that the children brought the traditional variety of bread rye bread for lunch. This obligatory status was disguised as part of a health discourse. “Rye bread is healthy, white bread isn’t.” As it is unthinkable these days to refuse to obey advice given in the name of health (the health discourse is pervasive, intrusive and of a moral character) children were forced to bring and eat rye bread, no matter whether they liked it or not, and regardless of the fact that there are many other ways to compose a healthy lunch. Moreover, the children were put in very difficult situations as they mediated between their home where rye bread was not necessarily consumed and where other food items may have been attributed with higher value than rye bread, and school, where teachers were very explicit about their parents’ lack of competence when they did not observe the rye bread order. The children were left to find their own way to navigate between the school and the home as different normative centres of authority.

My family and I are good-mannered people so we refrained from ordering cappuccino after 11 AM – as we were told to – in Rome. Yet, despite this highly conscious work on ‘integrating’ we still managed to transgress some of the food cultural norms. It turned out that it was highly unexpected that we order espresso (caffè) as well as caffè macchiato (instead of at least latte macchiato) and even granita (a sort of sherbet made on a very strong espresso) for our 12 year old son, who drinks coffee with more pleasure than his mother. We were asked, again and again, if this was really what we intended to order; the probably well-meaning waiters tried to convince us that it wasn’t, it couldn’t be. When the coffee eventually was served, the waiter would put it on the table in front of the child with a very inquisitive facial expression, gazing at him, then at his mother, who had insisted on this beverage. We certainly felt that we had failed to demonstrate good or appropriate parenthood. Of course, there may be other interpretations. It may be the case that we just didn’t demonstrate to be the habitual tourists – which would be somehow a success as we really made an effort not be touristic at all. However, in that case I would have expected some comments or reactions that were supportive of our choice, yet, we never received that. No smiles or other approving responses. In the urban school where I did fieldwork, the children were never explicitly told that rye bread was only obligatory for lunch. In the morning you could choose to eat other things, even white bread (although oats with milk was placed higher in the breakfast hierarchy). Neither were they told that possible breakfast items did not include, e.g., lasagne. This was learned gradually in the classroom, in public, while being on display.

To conclude, it is very hard to learn to observe cultural norms unfamiliar to you even when you try to. Many norms tend to be implicit rather than explicit. I haven’t touched upon the consequences of the social transgressions that you then end up doing. For us, in Rome, the social repercussions were minimal, but the children in the classroom suffered a daily marginalization. Their social transgressions had much more serious possibly long-term effects.

So, remember not to drink caffè when you are under 12 in Rome, and not to eat white bread for lunch, and lasagne for breakfast, when in Denmark. Because then you show yourself to be, well, foreign.

Martha Sif Karrebæk

Martha’s page at the University of Copenhagen can be found here.

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