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Living in a multilingual world


​A new project seeks to equip the next generation of linguistics researchers with the skills to successfully engage with communities in which at least four different languages are used daily.

We live in an increasingly multilingual world, where two out of three children grow up in an environment where more than one language is spoken. And in the UK the linguistic landscape is becoming ever more diverse – in London almost half the primary school population speaks a language other than English at home.

But there is still much we don’t understand about multilingualism. What exactly goes on in the brain of someone switching between languages? How do languages interact to shape both personal identity and social structures? And what can multilingual communities learn from each other? Finding answers to such questions can benefit many different fields, from education and social work to international development and conflict resolution.

A recent AHRC-funded project has been helping equip those working in linguistics and related areas with the skills to investigate how multilingualism affects both the individual and society. ‘Skills Development for Language Research and Teaching in a Multilingual World’, which was funded from in 2012 and 2013, involved training activities and placements for participants from London University’s SOAS and its partners, the School of Linguistics at Bangor University and Lund University in Sweden.

"Multilingualism and diversity are concepts generally associated with modern urbanization and globalization. Centuries-old ways of managing cultural and linguistic diversity in so-called “traditional” and rural societies, on the other hand, hardly touch the public mind. This is especially true for African societies that are often depicted as backwards, underdeveloped, and uneducated - an incredibly ironic characterisation in the face of so-called “uneducated” villagers often speaking four, five, or even six languages fluently (something hardly any Western graduate could master)."

Dr Friederike Luepke, SOAS

“We can’t equate identity, nationality and language any more,” says Dr Mandana Seyfeddinipur, director of SOAS’s Endangered Languages Documentation Programme and one of the project leaders. “Much of our understanding of multilingualism is based on the assumption that every speaker learns one language at home and then goes out and learns a second and perhaps a third language. This is because research into multilingualism has often taken place in cultures that have been predominantly monolingual, such as the UK.” But, she says, it’s more often the case that several languages are acquired simultaneously.

As part of the Collaborative Skills Development programme, the project was aimed primarily at PhD students and other early career researchers. Of the 20 participants, ten were funded to undertake three-week placements in research contexts very different to their own. In London, a series of workshops from visiting experts introduced participants to new research methodologies, and the project also ran some public events on topics such as how multilingualism enriches society and its value in the workplace.

In Agnack, the small village where two of the participants of the scheme took part in a placement, the following languages are spoken:

  • Baïnounk Gujaher, a local language and the nominal identity language
  • Joola Suusaana, a language mainly attested in neighbouring Guinea Bissau but ‘imported’ by war refugees
  • Kassanga, a language related to Baïnounk Gujaher, mainly spoken in Guinea Bissau but brought to Agnack by inmarried women from across the border.
  • A Portuguese-based Creole used in the entire region as a language of wider communication.
  • Mandinka, an important language of the area, and the first language of recent settlers
  • Wolof, the national language of wider communication.
  • Balanta, Manjaku, Pepel, different Joola languages, and Fula all spoken by recent settlers, inmarried women, long-term visitors to the village, itinerant traders, or the numerous fostered children.
  • French, the official language of Senegal, which is spoken at school and mastered to varying degrees by everybody who had access to formal schooling.
  • Portuguese, the official language of Guinea Bissau, spoken by those inhabitants of Agnack who went to school there.

An understanding of the mechanics of multilingualism is also important for the preservation of endangered languages as these often do not exist in a vacuum but interact with other languages in the immediate area. The AHRC funding came at a perfect time for a project led by Dr Friederike Lüpke, a reader in the Linguistics department at SOAS who has been working on the documentation of the Baïnounk languages, a cluster of closely related minority languages spoken in corner of Senegal in West Africa.

The focus village is at the centre of an area of extreme linguistic diversity, where individual language communities are very small and there is much mixing due to intermarriage. “It’s mind-blowingly complex,” says Dr Lüpke. “Even in this tiny village, people speak at least four languages on a daily basis and it’s impossible to determine what their mother tongue is. Our linguistics training rarely covers all the different aspects of multilingualism that we need to be able to work in these contexts so when we saw the call-out for the skills development scheme we thought: this is our chance to think about the skills students and researchers need.” It is especially timely as 2014 will see the start of a new £1 million project which will focus particularly on multilingualism in the area.

While on the Senegal placement, participants collaborated in the filming a documentary about the linguistic and cultural diversity of the area. 'KANRAXËL - THE CONFLUENCE OF AGNACK' tells the story of the village’s preparation for an important ceremony. You can find out more about the film and details of its first public showing on the Chouette Films website (opens in new window).

Filming in AgnackOne of the researchers to benefit is Rachel Watson, a PhD student who has been working on the Senegal project. She was able to take the data she had collected there to a placement at Lund University, where she used the sophisticated equipment in their Humanities Laboratory, such as eye tracking and motion capture technology, to investigate the relationship between gesture and language.

“Gesture studies is quite a new thing in linguistics,” she explains. “It’s interesting because you see the same gestures in elderly African ladies in the forest as you see in twentysomethings in urban Stockholm. There are so many similarities across languages, and it means there’s something going on in brain that is the same everywhere.”

While in Lund, Watson worked with colleagues to design a psycho-linguistic experiment for use in Senegal. “We wanted to find out more about what’s going on when a person speaks two different languages. How do these two separate systems operate in their brain?” In many languages there are two noun classifications – masculine and feminine – but in the Baïnounk languages there are around 20 classifications, involving not only people, but fruit, trees, and other objects. The experiment involves asking subjects to classify nonsense words and recording reaction time. “The results will tell us more about their dominant languages, how confused they are between the systems, and how they juggle these languages in their heads,” she says.

Other participants looked at multilingualism closer to home. Charlotte Hemmings was one of three students to take part in a placement at the Bilingualism Centre at the University of Bangor. There they learnt about the latest software that can be used to analyse linguistic corpora (recordings and transcriptions of language), and discover the grammatical rules and patterns that govern the language. They also learnt more about the use and preservation of Welsh by attending the National Eisteddfod.

“We were struck by how often you would hear Welsh being spoken among people of all ages around North Wales and how the Eisteddfod was a brilliant celebration of the language and the culture in a way that did not feel forced or set up simply for the purpose of encouraging language use”, she says. “The placement was particularly helpful at making a new area of linguistic study, with its own questions, methods and tools, more accessible to me and for giving me the contacts to ask for help as I try to master the new concepts.”

Newspapers in many languagesThe overall project culminated in a day of outreach training to give participants the skills to communicate messages about multilingualism to policy makers, other professionals such as teachers, and the general public.

“Multilingualism is still too often seen as a negative thing,” says Dr Seyfeddinipur. “Parents worry that children will never learn a language properly if they give them too many languages, although research has shown there are strong cognitive advantages. And there needs to be a link between university research and knowledge and how to apply it to everyday problems. We need to get the positive messages out there.”

Article by Caroline Roberts

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Date: 20/11/2013