Diversity, identity and multilingualism

by Daniel McAuley

As an English language assistant at a school in suburban Paris in 2009, I remember thinking that the way the pupils spoke was far removed from the French I’d learnt at school and university, and that no amount of book-learning could make me understand them. This experience might be familiar to language learners seeing a foreign language used in its natural habitat. If you’re used to Molière, Booba’s a shock. (In any case, he’s better, as he’d tell you himself.)

It turned out I’d been reading the wrong books. I needed different dictionaries – regional ones, slang ones, eventually Romani ones. I needed to understand the context of their communication better. So a few years later I went back there as a PhD student, recorded some of the pupils’ conversations, and did the same in Marseille. I asked questions about their lives, their families’ histories of migration both within France and from elsewhere and, crucially, I found out about their exposure to languages other than French.

Evidently, the French speakers I study belonged to multilingual, multi-ethnic peer groups in diverse urban areas. Their speech provides an interesting snapshot of the ways in which individual experiences of multilingualism play out in contexts in which minority (largely heritage) languages are in contact with each other and with a dominant national language. It allows for examinations of speakers’ own and others’ perceptions of their cultural, linguistic and national identities. Furthermore, we can use this contemporary urban French to discuss tensions between non-standard varieties and the standard, which some consider to constitute a ‘linguistic fracture’ indicative of ‘social fracture’.

These young speakers’ conversations are therefore well placed to contribute to strand 3 of the MEITS project, the core concerns of which are identity, diversity and social cohesion. I look forward to working with colleagues on the project to examine these concepts in quite disparate multilingual contexts. I can see clear comparisons between the domains of use of heritage languages of migration and of regional and minoritised languages such as Breton, Occitan and Irish. I’m excited to explore the tricky questions of how speakers reconcile different national identities and cultural affiliations and how national language policies affect language use.

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