‘Home language’: some questions

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Jan Blommaert

This short research note is part of the Durkheim and the Internet project.

‘Home language’ is a variable often used in policy-oriented research on language-in-education. It is assumed that differences in ‘home language’ are causally related to differences in learning outcomes in diverse populations. In Belgium, for instance, systematically reoccurring PISA-results indicating lower scores for ‘migrant’ learners are easily attributed to one ‘home language’ factor: the assumption that Dutch is not the ‘home language’ in many immigrant learners’ families. This point is correlated with, and in a self-confirming loop supported by, two other variables: the ‘level of education’ and ‘occupation’ of the parents of the learner.

Aaron Cicourel (1964) told us half a century ago that variables used in statistical research need to be ecologically validated – they need to be grounded in ethnographically observable facts, where ‘ethnography’ refers to a methodology in which the ‘insiders’ perspective’ is being described. Such facts, Gregory Bateson underscored (1972: xxviii) cannot be denied, and they are always evidence of something. This something can be a pattern as well as an idiosyncrasy, and what it is precisely cannot be determined by assumption; it must be investigated empirically. The trouble with variables such as ‘home language’ in the kinds of research I pointed to, is that they are established as unchecked assumptions and turned into powerful explanatory factors, while, in actual fact, they remain poorly argued and fragile assumptions.

Let me point out some crucial weaknesses in this mode of practice.

  1. Behind ‘home language’, a particular, and elaborate, sociological imagination is hidden, and this imagination is carried along in the usage of the term as variable and explanatory factor. So the general question to be raised about ‘home language’ is: what exactly is meant by this? Which realities is it supposed to stand for? And once we have found an answer to this, how can these realities be used as an explanation for other realities (i.c. educational performance scores by ‘migrant’ learners).
  2. In current practice, we see the following sociological imagination emerge
    1. ‘Home language’ refers to the language(s) spoken among the members of the family in direct interaction;
    2. More precisely, it refers to parent-child interaction; very often, the mother is implicitly seen as crucial in this respect;
    3. This ‘home language’, thus established, has a transmission effect: children learn and adopt the language(s) of their parents;
    4. This transmission effect is important, even crucial: the language(s) transmitted in direct interactions within the family act(s) as a resource as well as a constraint for learning. Home is the crucial socialization locus.
  3. From an ethnographic point of view, all of these points are weak hypotheses. Here are some critical remarks.
  4. As to 2.1: what is meant by ‘language’? Is it just the spoken language? If so, where is literacy? And why would the spoken variety of a language prevail over its literate registers when we are trying to determine the effects of ‘home language’ on learning outcomes, knowing the important role of schooled literacy in formal learning trajectories? I shall add more complications to this issue below.
  5. About 2.1 and 2.2. Is parent-child interaction all there is to ‘home language’? Children usually grow up in a ‘home’ environment where popular culture, social media and peer groups are very much part of what ‘home’ is all about. Thus, even if parent-child interaction would be ‘monolingual’ (in reality it never is, see below), the actual ‘home language’ environment experienced by children could be outspokenly ‘multilingual’, with complex modes of spoken and written interaction deployed in a variety of relationships – with parents and family members, non-family friends and peer group members both online and offline, and ‘distant’ popular culture networks, to name just these. Children might spend far more time interacting with, say, members of their after-school soccer team than with their parents.
  6. About 2.2. Even if we accept parent-child interactions as being of paramount importance in defining the ‘home language’ environment, which types of interactions are we talking about? There are homes where parent-child interactions predominantly revolve around order and discipline (the ‘eat-your-veggies-and-clean-up-your-room’ type, say) and homes where more intimate and elaborate genres are practiced (the ‘mom-is-your-best-friend’ type, say). If we consider parent-child interaction a crucial form of input in language socialization, we need to be precise about what such modes of interaction actually involve, for children will learn very different bits of language depending on the types of interaction effectively practiced.
  7. About 2.2. The previous remark leads us to a more fundamental one (complicating my point (4) above): ‘language’ is a very poor unit of analysis for determining what different modes of interaction actually do in the ‘home language’ environment. Register is far more relevant as a unit: we organize different modes of interaction by means of very different linguistic and communicative resources. Concretely, when a child grows up in the ‘eat-your-veggies-and-clean-up-your-room’ culture mentioned above, it is likely to learn the discursive resources for commands and instructions, not those for talking about one’s deeper feelings or dreams. In that sense, ‘monolingual’ is always a very superficial descriptor for any real sociolinguistic regime – it’s never about language, and always about specific bits of language(s) operating in normatively defined (and complex) form-function mappings (called ‘languaging’ in current literature).
  8. About 2.3. That there is a transmission effect cannot be denied – see the previous point. The thing is, however, what exactly is transmitted? Which particular register features ‘spill over’ from parents onto children in the different modes of interactions mentioned earlier? And which ones are activated, acquired and shaped in the different forms of interaction, within the broader reality of ‘home language’ described above? And how about the specific school-related registers? How do they actually relate to the registers deployed in the ‘home language’?
  9. About 2.3 and 2.4. What really needs to be established is the actual structure of the repertoire of the children. And how does parent-child interaction (and its transmission effects) fit into such repertoire structures? We might learn, from such inquiries, that children might actually reject the ‘home language’ in its narrow definition and that far more powerful transmission effects emerge from, e.g., peer groups or popular culture (and not just by teenage children). Socialization, we should realize and accept, happens in far broader social-systemic environments, and the home (in the imagination outlined above) cannot a priori be assumed to be the most important one. The specific role of the home within such broader socialization environments needs to be established empirically. In an age of intense online-offline dynamics, the old Durkheim-Parsonian views of ‘primary’ socialization units such as the family need to be critically revisited.
  10. A general remark. I referred to some other variables commonly correlated with ‘home language’: the level of education and the professional occupation of the parents – usually the mother. An unspoken assumption is that optimal learning effects can be derived from (a) a Dutch-dominant ‘home language’ environment, (b) with highly educated parents (c) employed in prestige-carrying occupations, acting as main transmission agents. But according to the logic of this particular bit of sociological imagination, the most powerful transmission effects may come from parents not fitting this picture. An unemployed parent is likely to be far more available for parent-child interaction than a full-time employed one. As for the latter, such powerful transmission effects cannot be just assumed, and the earlier issue of interaction types and specific registers becomes more pressing. In homes with ‘absent parents’, the effects of the broader socialization environment must be taken seriously. The implicit status hierarchy contained in (a)-(c) above just may be a sociological fiction.

From an ethnographic viewpoint – and, by extension, a viewpoint emphasizing ecological validity in research – the unquestioned use of ‘home language’ in the sense outlined here will inevitably result in fundamentally flawed research, the outcomes of which are entirely dependent on a series of assumptions that do not stand the test of empirical control. The problem is situated at the level of the sociological imagination motivating such assumptions; and this imagination, we know, has lost touch with sociological reality. The good news, however, is that there is a significant amount of ethnographic research addressing these issues, from which one can draw a more realistic set of assumptions and against which the ecological validity of current findings can be checked. The potential benefit of doing that has been, one hopes, sufficiently established here.

References

Bateson, Gregory (1972 [2000]) Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

Cicourel, Aaron (1964) Method and Measurement in Sociology. New York: Free Press

Postscript:

An intriguing rebuttal came my way shortly after posting this text: the kinds of research I advocate here would yield way too much diversity and, thus, prevent generalization. It’s an old argument, and those who use it display an amazingly superficial knowledge about generalization as a scientific practice. Reading the two classics I cite here, and especially Bateson’s old Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972), could be helpful. But more disturbing is the implication of this argument: that sociological fiction is fine because it is generalizable – we know that our assumptions are wrong or unfounded, but we will still use them because they satisfy a formal-methodical criterion of ‘generalizability’. Unfortunately, fiction doesn’t become science when it’s generalized. It becomes generalized fiction.

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Four lines of sociolinguistic methodology

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Jan Blommaert 

In the Durkheim and the Internet project, I explored the purchase of sociolinguistics for constructing new social theory adjusted to the online-offline social world which has become a default worldwide. One of the recurring problems in social theory is that of the nature of groups – from “society” over “social groups” and “social formations” to “class”, “professional group”, “ethnic group”, “micropopulations” and “aggregates” of people in some joint activity.

Many of these concepts contain reifications – we imagine an object, usually a collection of people in some kind of order. This order is in turn imagined metaphysically, in terms of shared symbolic units such as “values”, with – often empirically weak and questionable – connections between such values and actual forms of behavior.

This problem of reification and empirical weakness was already spotted by Simmel, who preferred the active term “sociation” over the nominalization “society”, and I follow him in this preference. For sociolinguistics may have a simple four-step methodological program for empirical investigations into “groups” of any kind and configuration. Here it is:

  1. Patterns of communication necessarily involve meaningful social relationships as prerequisite, conduit and outcome;
  2. Such relationships will always, similarly, involve identities and categorizations, interactionally established;
  3. Thus, when observing patterns of communication, we are observing the very essence of sociation and “groupness” – regardless of how we call the “groups”.
  4. And specific patterns of interaction shape specific forms of “groups”.

Sociolinguistically, thus, we approach groups pragmatically and axiologically, from the angle of the actual observable communication practices that, eventually, characterize them through the values attributed to such practices.

Groups, then, are not collections of human beings but patterned sets of communicative behaviors and the relationships with which they are dialectically related. Whenever we see such ordered forms of communicative behavior, there is an assumption of active and evolving groupness – sociation – but the analytical issue is not the nature of the group (or the label we need to choose for it) but the specific social relationships observable through and in communication – a Batesonian focus, if you wish, overtaking a Durkheimian one. All other aspects of sociation can be related to this. So if one needs the definition of a group: a group is a communicatively organized and ratified set of social relationships.

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25 years of right wing extremism in Belgium: Lessons for the present

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Jan Blommaert

The Brexit, followed by the election of Donald Trump in the US, have raised worldwide concerns about the rise of right wing extremism. The phenomenon is, however, 25 years old in Belgium. Lessons can be drawn from that longitudinal experience.

24 November 1991 is known as “Black Sunday” in Belgium. On that day, a relatively new party called Vlaams Blok radically redefined the electoral landscape in the country with a first massive victory at the polls. Prior to that national breakthrough, the party had won the local elections in Antwerp. But Black Sunday sent shock waves through the Belgian political system, and its effects are enduring.

The Vlaams Blok program

Vlaams Blok (“Flemish Block”, later renamed Vlaams Belang – “Flemish Interest”) won its seats in Parliament due to a mixture of three powerful elements. The mixture will sound familiar to observers of the present.

  1. Extreme nationalism. While in Flemish Belgium moderate forms of nationalism had been common – most Flemish parties would support a degree of autonomy for Flanders, and some more radical ones would demand a federal structure for Belgium – Vlaams Blok demanded the unspeakable: Flemish independence.
  2. An anti-immigrant program. Vlaams Blok was the party that put immigration and Islam not just on the political agenda, but made it into THE electoral trump card.
  3. Charismatic and undisputed leadership. Vlaams Blok won its first election with two highly articulate and technically competent young politicians, Filip Dewinter and Gerolf Annemans. Unbeatable in media debates and easily perceived as champions of the “common man”, these two figureheads survived several generations of politicians and are still active today. Their leadership in the party remained unqualified until very recently.

The main innovation brought by Vlaams Blok was point (2) in this list. Until 1988, immigration and multiculturalism were marginal as political themes. As a policy domain of very modest scope, these themes had emerged in Belgium in the late 1970s only, and they had emerged in the broader context of the socio-economic issues following the economic recession of the mid-1970s. Immigrants had been particularly hard-hit by the economic contraction, and politicians felt that specific measures should be taken. The problem with immigrants was defined as a socio-economic one.

Vlaams Blok brought a radically different definition of the problem. Immigrants presented a cultural and political threat to Flemish society. Their presence distorted and threatened the fundamental identity of Flanders as a white, Christian and Dutch-speaking region characterized by a set of values and preferences with which those of – notably Muslim – minorities were profoundly at odds. Since, in addition to this, the economic role of immigrants had declined due to the recession, immigrants should be turned back to their countries of origin.

Onto this anti-immigrant theme, several others could be grafted.

  1. Vlaams Blok strongly advocated a law-and-order approach openly focused on immigrant youth, seen as the source of urban unrest, waves of petty crime (often drugs-related) and widespread feelings of insecurity in some urban neighborhoods. Of course, 9/11 and the proclamation of the worldwide War on (Muslim) Terror provided powerful boosts to this aspect of the Vlaams Blok agenda.
  2. The party also advocated the restrictions of social welfare benefits and civil and political rights to “native” Flemish people, excluding immigrants from the welfare state and/or creating a dual system of social policy. Naturally, full citizenship (including the right to vote and seek political mandates) should be the privilege of “native” Flemish people only.

The most dramatic impact of Vlaams Blok, however, was more general:

  1. They redefined the meaning of “democracy”. They did so with a simple slogan: “we are saying what you are thinking”. And they added a simple argument to that, directed at their political adversaries: since we win elections, we represent “the voice of the people” and you don’t. The other parties were defined as “traditional”, an enclosed “political elite” alienated from the “common man”, and this traditional elite politics had created a “gap between citizens and politics” which Vlaams Blok had filled. The party systematically presented itself as the champion of freedom of speech, and would never stop complaining about media censorship and silencing tactics performed against them by the “elites”.

Vlaams Blok was proud of its extreme right-wing roots and program; prominent members would attend events celebrating Flemish SS-veterans of World War II, and the party established a strong network with other extreme right-wing and neofascist movements across Europe. Vlaams Blok members would proudly call themselves “right wing”, “radical” and “uncompromising”, thus adding previously unheard political self-qualifications to the political-discursive register of Belgian politics.

The impact of Vlaams Blok

The political adversaries of the Vlaams Blok reacted swiftly to the electoral shockwave of Black Sunday. A cordon sanitaire was declared by all other parties, promising never to enter into formal political collaboration with the party. Politicians would, until this day, explicitly proclaim their fundamental differences with Vlaams Blok and their refusal to enter into coalitions with them. Much later, in 2004, the party was brought to court on racism charges. The controversial trial led to a conviction, and the party was forced to change its name into Vlaams Belang.

Implicitly, almost all parties followed and adopted the Vlaams Blok themes and arguments.

This was the explicit part of the reaction. Implicitly, however, almost all parties followed and adopted the Vlaams Blok themes and arguments, in a kind of pied-piper reflex aimed at regaining the lost electoral ground. Even more: the six points listed above have, 25 years after the electoral breakthrough of this right-wing extremist party, become mainstream. Thus, while the cordon sanitaire excluded the party from power, its influence was pervasive and persistent. The party caused a decisive political-discursive shift – the same shift as the one now witnessed elsewhere in Europe and the US.

By opening a discursive terrain that moved what was politically thinkable and publicly sayable to previously illegitimate zones, the benchmarks for what was politically “normal” were shifted

This shift can be described as follows. By introducing new “extreme” topics and modes of political speech (qualified, systematically, as “simply stating facts” and therefore matters of “freedom of speech”), all previously “extremist” positions became “moderate”. Thus by opening a discursive terrain that moved what was politically thinkable and publicly sayable to previously illegitimate zones, the benchmarks for what was politically “normal” were shifted along. Concretely, when one demands that all illegal aliens ought to be deported, every proposal for repression short of deportation becomes “moderate” and reasonable in comparison to the “extreme” one. Similarly, if one demands independence for Flanders, proposals for a confederal state can be presented as moderate and reasonable, even if they are vastly more radical than previously held plans for a federal state. And so forth. The entire specter of Belgian politics moved, quite dramatically, in that direction.

Thus, after 1991, all parties embarked on large-scale exercises of rebranding and reorganization, aimed at “closing the gap” with the citizens defined by Vlaams Blok. The traditional system in which parties articulated the interests of large and well-organized civil society organizations (trade unions, religious and socio-economically defined communities, local and regional constituencies) and relied on a large membership of militants was rapidly replaced by an entirely new format of political practice based on high-profile personalities, marketing, polling and mass mediatized propaganda, later significantly expanded by the use of internet-based new media. Politicians became celebrities (and celebrities became politicians), and the voter was, henceforth, approached as a “customer” rather than as an ideologically affiliated fellow-traveler. The era of the glib and quotable one-liner and “politics-as-lifestyle-option” had arrived, replacing that of the slow and careful technical explanation of policy options. All parties desperately wished to avoid being trapped in the label of “elite”, and all claimed to express “the voice of the common man”. Populism, in short, became the default mode of politics. New types of political leaders, new types of political style, discourse, tactics and strategy were established, and new themes started dominating the political landscape.

For the same shift towards the Vlaams Blok could be seen in all the thematic domains listed above. Far more radical versions of Flemish nationalism became mainstream. And when an erstwhile “moderate” Flemish-nationalist party exploded in the early years of the millennium, a far more radical one succeeded it, called N-VA. Article 1 of their Statute identifies Flemish independence as the ultimate political goal. This party is currently the largest Flemish party, and dominates both the Flemish and the Federal Governments. More on this below.

Immigration and multiculturalism became overwhelmingly culturalized, and the socio-economic line previously followed was all but entirely abandoned and replaced by Huntington-ian discourses of “integration problems” caused by fundamental cultural-religious differences between “us” and – increasingly but incessantly – Muslims. Law-and-order repression replaced softer approaches aimed at employability, education and training, and improved social mobility for minority members. Voting rights became a taboo issue, and immigrants acquired voting rights only as part of the implementation of EU-directives in 2004. The dominant discursive and policy model now is that minority members “need to take responsibility” for their own position of inequality, that racism is too often used as an excuse for failing to use the opportunities “we” offer “them”, and that Muslim “extremism” means that “integration has failed” and that a more coercive approach is warranted.

Not just parties adopted the presuppositions and arguments of the Vlaams Blok; mainstream media did so too

Not just parties adopted the presuppositions and arguments of the Vlaams Blok; mainstream media did so too. Black Sunday was explained in the media in precisely the terms defined by Vlaams Blok: yes, there was a problem of democratic legitimacy for the “traditional” parties, and yes, Vlaams Blok asked “the right questions” (but gave undesirable answers). Throughout the 1990, the mass media provided encouraging commentary for the shift towards populism and the adoption of important parts of the Vlaams Blok agenda. In a political system increasingly dominated by mass-mediatization, this support mattered, it mattered a great deal.

Lessons for today?

Vlaams Blok became the single most consistently successful political formation in Belgian politics since World War II. From its first electoral success in 1988 until 2006, the party won 13 consecutive electoral victories. It did so in spite of a cordon sanitaire which deprived voters from any hope of real executive power, and in spite of the mass copying and imitation acts of all other parties. This success story also turned Vlaams Blok from an early mover in the European extreme-right-wing universe into an exceptionally consistent political formation, and a model for several more recent similar European parties.

The tactic of copying and imitation, thus, did not pay off for the other political parties. The Flemish Social-Democrats, for instance, lost half of their electorate in the period since Black Sunday. Filip Dewinter himself would provide a simple explanation: people would always prefer the authentic brand product above its imitations or counterfeit versions. He was right, of course: given their adoption of substantial parts of the Vlaams Blok agenda, parties found it increasingly difficult to wage a convincing and consistent opposition against Vlaams Blok. And given the technical brilliance of the latter’s leaders in media performances, defeat was almost inevitable for the “traditional” parties.

The party lost some of its electoral force after the worldwide crisis of 2008, when socio-economic themes regained prominence in political discourse and programs. But the first really bad defeat only occurred in 2014, when the previously mentioned recently created N-VA party captured about one third of the Flemish electorate, led by a charismatic and highly media-friendly leader Bart de Wever. Interestingly, this party did copy and imitate Vlaams Blok – it did so almost entirely in the six domains sketched earlier – but it combined this Vlaams Blok agenda with an outspoken and radical neoliberal economic platform. Thus, the Vlaams Blok program has now acquired executive power. N-VA has cleverly exploited the huge discursive shift mentioned earlier, moving as closely as possible to the positions held by Vlaams Blok, and just adding a “moderate” (essentially a more “rational”) stylistic inflection. And it drew most of its voters in the 2014 ballot from the existing Vlaams Blok electorate.

Copying and imitation does pay. But only after a period in which the discursive shift performed by “illegitimate” political actors has been normalized.

Thus, copying and imitation does appear to pay. But only after a period in which the discursive shift – the expansion of what is politically thinkable and publicly sayable, performed by “illegitimate” political actors such as Vlaams Blok – has been normalized. N-VA needed the overtly extremist (and legally racist) Vlaams Blok in order to create a “normal” political place for itself. Likewise, Boris Johnson can only be explained by Nigel Farage and the English Defence League; and Donald Trump capitalizes on the efforts of an extremely radical neoconservative movement that started under Clinton and took the shape of the Tea Party under Obama. Thus, the new, radical right-wing politicians we now have emerge in a new, reshaped discursive field in which much of what was seen as shocking and politically transgressive two decades ago can be presented now as just a statement of fact, the performance of which is a matter of freedom of speech, and, ultimately, a vital sign of of a true and vibrant democracy.

“We are saying what you are thinking” has become the single most powerful political motif in recent years. In Belgium, it has profoundly transformed the political arena for 25 years, and it has been consistently successful. Witnessing the more recent re-enactments of this process of transformation elsewhere in the world is, therefore, a highly frustrating experience – the same patterns evolved, the same errors were made, and the same outcomes define a present which, looking back, was in fact highly predictable.

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Why use new words?

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Jan Blommaert 

I sometimes get asked why I insist on using new and arcane terms such as “superdiversity” and “chronotope” in fields for which we (appear to) have an established and consensual vocabulary. My answer is usually: sometimes we need new words for no other reason than to examine the validity of the old ones. A form of quality control of analytical vocabulary, if you wish.

The history of science is replete with reformulations of the same, or very similar, realities, and authors such as Michel Foucault were extraordinarily productive in the creation of an entirely new terminology to describe processes already described in, e.g., Weber and Marx. The quest was, almost invariably, a quest for enhanced precision and accuracy – rendering visible and analytically identifiable (often small but relevant) distinctions that had been left aside as relatively insignificant details, side-effects or mere aspects of another phenomenon; or to identify a phenomenon previously treated only in part or in a much to generalizing way. Think of Foucault’s use of “biopower” or “governmentality” as instances, Scott’s “hidden transcripts” or Bourdieu’s “habitus”. Such terms do not replace an earlier vocabulary, they complement it with tools that allow and enable a different approach to the same field or object, focusing on different aspects and characteristics of it.

In that sense, they are no one’s enemy. The more since, as C. Wright Mills reminded us, the debate should not be about the words, but about the ideas they capture and for which the words are merely facilitators.

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“Us versus them” argumentation: a simple example

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Jan Blommaert 

What follows is a sketchy analysis – do try this at home – of a genre that has become extraordinarily widespread in social media debates: antagonistic argumentation revolving around a simple us-versus-them scheme. The example I shall use is that of a Facebook update posted on 15 August 2016. The update was part of a social media storm, erupted after an incident on the beach in Nice, France, where a Muslim woman wearing a so-called “burkini” (in fact, a hijab) was forced by four police men to take her tunic off, and fined 38€ for violation of decency regulations.

This incident triggered massive public and political debate in Belgium, and for days it was the topic on Facebook, both in the narrow sense (“away with the burkini!!”) and in the usual ripple-effect in which any theme related to Islam could lead to statements on every other Islam-related theme. Belgian politicians spoke out on the topic, and the Belgian-Flemish social democrats took a rather repressive position in the discussion. Evidently, this sent a (or better: one more) shock wave through Facebook, and social-democrats were quickly and generously showered by allegations of right-wing anti-immigrant politicking.

On 15 August, a sympathizer of the social-democratis posted this relatively long (and not always quite coherent) update. The original was in Dutch, I translated it.

Suddenly, some think that identifying radicalization is a right-wing thing. Hello! Moment please! Being social doesn’t mean being naïve. One can also naively walk into the lion’s den and believe the animal can be stroked like a pussycat. There is effectively a problem with some [Muslims] in Belgium and their interpretation of Islam. They not just put (soft or hard) pressure on their wives, family, friends; they effectively dictate rules that cannot be reconciled with our laws and human rights, such as fraternity, freedom and equality. Protecting these right is ALSO being social. No matter how sensitive the topic. And the discrimination that unfortunately occurs, the call for respect for Muslims, is no license to dictate the norms and values of Islam, or more precisely, their interpretation thereof. Let alone that non-Muslims would be prohibited from calling into question certain practices, like some in that same community that oppresses women and the social pressure not to just have contact or to marry a Muslim, to make her subordinate, to refuse her to seek a job or to force her to wear a veil. All of this cannot be reconciled with our society, which has known the Enlightenment, something the Middle East urgently needs to understand that a secular state isn’t such a bad idea given the diversity of views, also within one faith, and the negative consequences. It is not because exclamation marks and question marks are put around radicalization and the intolerant attitudes of a group of Muslims in Belgium, that this become a right-wing policy by definition. I have been able to experience myself over the past month how I was prevented by a second-generation Muslim of Belgian nationality, who clearly displayed radicalized traits, from having a conversation with a woman wearing a veil, while the latter had initiated the conversation with me! Such people do not respect our freedoms and democracy, and one must be able to say this and take action regarding this. This has nothing to do with left or right wing, but [a lot] with education and human rights. Being oversensitive now because one points to a problem, and claim that this would be a right-wing reaction, is too crazy for words. It’s not because one is socialist that one has to accept that our norms and values would suddenly be dictated from another corner, and that we once again experience religion like in the 1920, this time not from the Catholic church but by the few who have a very narrow view of Islam. The Muslim community has got a lot of work to do in the way of social control, and the Imam, in particular, should point towards the fact that Islam, too, teaches reconciliation, respect for the fellow human being. That there is no place in the real Islam for violence (including domestic violence), oppression and denying the respect for other people by a lack of respect for their human rights. And most certainly [there is no place for that] in the heart of God and his people.

The general direction of the text is apologetic, of course: the author’s main argument is that there is nothing “right-wing” to being critical of aspects of Islam which he deems in violation of fundamental “norms and values” regulating “our” societies. While developing his apology, however, a consistent us-them scheme is developed. We can, in fact, rewrite the entire text in two colums, one specifying characteristics and actions of “they”, the Muslims, another describing those of “we”, social-democratic Flemish Belgians. Consider the result:

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I have done this simple two-column excercise for many years with beginning discourse analysis students, and one can see how productive it is. In the “us” column, we can see

  • Expressions of epistemic authority: meta-qualifications expressing a superior, rational and delicate understanding of things (including, at the end, “true” Islam), and references to personal experience.
  • A reiteration of “our norms and values“, of which the reality in everyday and institutional life is presented as unquestionable: fraternity, freedom, equality, our laws, human rights, education, the secular state
  • A reference to “our” history, which has known “Enlightenment”, a thing badly needed and long overdue in the Middle East.
  • Depoliticizations: outspoken in this example but quite consistent, “stating problems” is not seen as a political-ideological action, it is mere realism and rationality.

The left-hand column, by contrast, contains

  • Generalizations: statements about a “minority” whose interpretation of Islam is wrong; the responsibility for this group, however, rests with the entire Muslim community – especially “the Imam” has some serious work to do.
  • Exaggerations: this minority of “radicalized” Muslims “effectively dictate rules” that clash with our laws, norms and values; they also prohibit “us” from pointing towards their shortcomings and from taking action in their regard. To whom such rules are effectively dictated, and who would effectively be prohibited from stating such problems is puzzling given the many thousands of posts in which such problems are stated with extreme clarity and without any shade of inhibition.
  • Scale jumps: anecdotal and exceptional incidents are lifted instantly to levels where absolute principles are at stake – rejections of “our freedoms and democracy”. Racist discrimination, in contrast, is usually presented as anecdotal (and not as a denial of these fundamental principles).
  • Absence of depoliticization: their behavior has extreme political significance; our resistance against it is, as we have seen, not political but a matter of common sense.

Note some terms around which I put scare quotes here: terms such as “our” (as in “our society”, “our norms and values” etc.) and “radicalized”. The first one is, technically speaking, a shifter, something the actual meaning of which shifts according to context; the second is a degree term expressing a particular level of intensity (compare: “my painting is innovative” – “my painting is very innovative” – “my painting is radically innovative”). None of the terms, thus, are neutral descriptors, if you wish – and thus they are begging the evident question what exactly do you mean by this? The broad lines of a more indepth analysis are now in place.

And so we see an argument which many (certainly its authors) would perceive as making sense, even “correct”, but which is in actual fact quite easy to dislodge. It is a kind of “rationality” that deserves to, and must, be critically addressed at all times. So do try this at home.

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Commentary: Mobility, contexts, and the chronotope

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Jan Blommaert

(Commentary to a special issue of Language in Society on “Metapragmatics of Mobility”, eds. Adrienne Lo & Joseph Park)

I must emphatically thank Adrienne Lo and Joseph Park for inviting me to comment on the exceptionally insightful collection of essays presented in this volume. The essays, I believe, mark and instantiate the increasing maturity of what has become a sociolinguistics of globalization in which the various, highly complex challenges caused by mobility are being productively addressed.

Of these challenges, perhaps that to our established notions of “context” might be one of the most pressing ones. Rigorous and disciplined attention to context is what separates social and cultural approaches to language from formal linguistics; it is the thing that defines disciplines such as sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, pragmatics and discourse analysis. And an increasing awareness of mobility as a crucial ontological feature of “language” – or more broadly, meaning making – in today’s world goes hand in hand with an awareness that something is wrong with our well-weathered mainstream conceptualizations of “context”: they are too simple and fail to do justice to the complexities we observe. All papers in this volume can be read as illustrations and expressions of that unease. I propose to explore Bakhtin’s concept of “chronotope” as a possibly fertile and certainly more precise tool for addressing these challenges (cf. Blommaert 2015a).

Let me first define the scope of the issue; two preliminary remarks may be useful for what follows.

  • One: in a sociolinguistic approach to meaning making, context cannot ontologically be separated from language (or other semiotic modalities), for it is a fundamental part of the meanings constructed in language; context is what turns language in a “social fact” (to quote Durkheim).
  • Two: notions of context are built on, and invoke, imaginations of the social world and of the place of social actors and activities therein. So context is always more than just an operational-analytical category: it involves an ideological a priori (which, as we shall see, is always a moral a priori).

From that perspective, two things can be observed – and I regret that space restrictions prevent me from entering into detail here. One, context remains quite poorly integrated in several branches of the social and cultural study of language (Silverstein 1992; see for a review Blommaert 2005, chapter 3). And two, the social imagination underlying many forms of usage of context appears to be “sedentary”: context is local, stable, static and given. Obviously, a notion of context adjusted to mobility needs to transcend this and stress its continuously evolving, multiscalar and dynamic aspects, as well as the intrinsic unity of context and action.

There are several available building blocks. John Gumperz (1982) never stopped reminding us that context is always contextualization, and Aaron Cicourel (1967; 1992) insisted that context was always multifiliar, overlapping and scaled. In addition, the union between context and action,we now realize, is metapragmatics: language-ideologically ordered indexicals are at the core of the dialectics of contextualized meaning making (Silverstein 2003; Agha 2007; also Blommaert 2005). The papers in this volume have all drawn extensively on these sources. The complication offered by mobility as a given has been well phrased by Lo and Park in their introduction (this volume): in an era of physical and technological mobility, people need to navigate multiple worlds. They cannot any longer be viewed as sedentary members of a (single) closed, integrated and stable Parsonian community and are subject to the normative judgments in vigor in very different places among very different people – simultaneously.

This is where the chronotope might come in handy. Recall that Bakhtin (1981) defined the chronotope as a timespace configuration – an “objective” bit of context, one could say – which was characterized, and joined, by ideological, “subjective” features. Specific times and places placed conditions on who could act, how such actions would be normatively structured, and how they would be normatively perceived by others. A knight in a medieval legend, for example, is expected to be chivalric and inspired by the noblest of motives, and his concrete actions would be expected to emanate such characteristics; if not, he’s not a “real” knight. Bakhtin, thus, offered us a heuristic unit in which timespace configurations are simultaneously orders of indexicalities, and in which the multiplicity of such units is a given of the dialogical and heteroglossic reality of social life. Chronotope, thus, is a “mobile” context enabling not just precise ethnographic description but explanatory potential as well.

We begin to see, for instance, how physical and social mobility operate synergetically – moving across timespace configurations involves a reshuffling of the social and cultural capital required for identity construction, prestige and power, through what Hymes called “functional relativity” (1996: 44-45). It explains, thus, why forms of speech indexically anchored in one timespace configuration – that of the colonial past, for instance – can be re-entextualized into another, in ways that involve entirely different indexical valuations. We can observe this in the essays by Vigouroux and Collins, where the indexical valuations of the speech forms deemed emblematic of the colonial (racialized) past dance up and down once they are moved into different timespace configurations. A descriptive stance – observing a particular accent in students’ speech (Collins), or a grammatical pattern perceived as “substandard” (Vigouroux) – is turned into a racialized-historical stereotype in ways described by Agha (2007) whenever such an accent is produced “elsewhere”. Mobility, we can see, involves indexical re-ordering, or to be more precise, indexical restratification.

Observe that such restratifications have an outspokenly moral character. The ideological load attributed to specific forms of social action turns them into moralized behavioral scripts normatively attached to specific timespace configurations. The essays in this volume are replete with examples in which judgments of speech are formulated in terms of locally articulated claims to legitimacy, i.e. in terms of a projection of behavioral features onto “the right to do X, Y or Z here and now”. Chun’s analysis of perceived mispronunciations of Korean names by “foreign” fans illustrates this: such fans are “not from here”, and their actions are therefore subject to normative judgments “from here”. Being “(not) from here” becomes an absolute normative benchmark: a non-negotiable one that offers no bail. Ideologies of correctness and standardization, we can see, are chronotopically organized (cf. Silverstein 1996). They require a distinction between “from here” and “not from here” that can be activated as a chronotope of normalcy: here-and-now, “normal” behavior is X, Y and Z, and this is an absolute, “ideal” benchmark. And Park’s excellent essay shows how people who are by definition “not from here” – expatriate executives – negotiate and renegotiate the issues caused by mobility itself, shaping a separate chronotope of normalcy among themselves (transnational business, after all, is a distinct “world” in Lo and Park’s terms).

Obviously, such distinctions are identity distinctions – indexical order is always a template for identity, and identities are chronotopically grounded, by extension (Blommaert & De Fina 2016). Park’s managers construct themselves in their elaborate metapragmatic discourses of mobility; Chun’s Korean fans ascribe identities to the mispronouncing transnational ones; Collins’ teachers construct their pupils in similar ways, and the discursive pathways analyzed by Vigouroux lead to a projected stereotypical identity of Sub-Saharan Africans drawn across timespace from the colonial imagination. Note that in each of these cases, moral judgments constitute the moment of identity-shaping. The “corrections” offered by Chun’s Korean fans come, as said earlier, with judgments of legitimacy, and legitimacy extends from minute features of language into categorical identity diacritics. Moralized behavioral scripts are the on-the-ground realities of indexicality, and thus of identity-making. Typically, those who are “not from here”can achieve “approximations” of the normative “standard” order (Vigouroux); they can therefore also only approximate the “standard”identities. “Standard” and “correctness” are inevitably evaluative judgments, and they fit into a package of profoundly moral-evaluative notions such as “true”, “authentic”, “real” and so forth. Language-ideological literature is replete with such terms, and in public debates on such topics one continually trips over collocations between terms such as “correct” and “true”, and “(not) from here”. Collins’ delicate analysis of racialized enregisterment in South-African schools can serve as a textbook example of this.

Lo and Choi’s case study of an internet debate on the “truth” in the story of the Korean rapper Tablo brings together several of the points mentioned here, and lends profile to another one. The critics who doubt rapper Tablo’s educational credentials (using, unsurprisingly, details of his English “accent” as evidence) draw on a chronotope of normalcy: normally, one can’t finish degree work at a US institution at the rhythm claimed by Tablo; normally, his English should be immaculate of he’s taken a degree in the US, normally he shouldn’t sound like “us” after his US-based education, and so forth. They base themselves on a “normal” behavioral script, adherence and deviance of which are profoundly moralized. The data are bursting with moral-evaluative statements that are simultaneously statements of identity ascription, and driven by the “from here-not from here” diacritic that defines globalized mobility.

But there is more, and Lo & Choi’s paper shows it in full glory. The general chronotope of normalcy, we observe, can be broken down into an infinite number of micro-chronotopes specifying the indexical order of specific bits of behavior (Tablo’s performance in a talkshow, his translation of a poetry book, and so forth). So we see a fractal connection across differently scaled chronotopes, in which the order of indexicality from the highest scale (the chronotope of normalcy) is carried over into microscopic and infinitely detailed lower-scale ones. We see, if you wish, chronotopes nested within chronotopes, with specific points and general ones interacting nonstop. Goffman’s “frames within frames” (1974) are never far away here, of course, but it is good to remind ourselves that “frames” are, in themselves, chronotopically organized.

All the essays in this volume thematize such cross-scalar connections, and call them, for instance, “discursive pathways” (Vigouroux), “re-entextualizations” (Lo & Choi), or “interdiscursivity” (Park). Such terms remain useful, and understanding them as descriptors of cross-chronotope processes of uneven (scaled) quality can deepen their analytical force and make them far more precise than the “cross-contextual” label we now stick onto them. Such connections – the “polycentricity” of communicative environments, in short (Blommaert, Collins & Slembrouck 2005) – are inevitable in the sociolinguistics of mobility, and we have to be able to get a more precise grasp of them. This leads me to a final, brief, remark.

In the essays by Chun and by Lo & Choi, the internet, or (to use an epic misnomer) the “virtual world” is the context of the data offered. The analyses are outstanding; but we should not overlook the fact that the online context is the least well understood one in our fields of study, and that a careful investigation of how this context shapes and determines online social action remains to be undertaken. We know that it has exceptional scalar qualities (think of virality), and that, as a chronotope, it stands in complex polycentric relationships to “offline” ones (see Blommaert 2015b; Varis & Blommaert 2015). But the exact characteristics of these phenomena await profound focused study. Note that all the subjects discussed in the essays in this volume live in the internet age, and that, consequently, we can assume that all have been influenced by the circulation of cultural material enabled by such technologies. Precise how this influence plays out in their actual day-to-day discourses, how it modifies them and grants them yet another dimension of metapragmatic mobility, raising new issues of polycentric normativity, looks like a worthwhile topic for a follow-up volume. It is to the credit of the present volume that such fundamental questions emerge, and I repeat my sincere thanks to the editors for affording me the chance to engage with them.

References

Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981) The Dialogical Imagination. Austin TX: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2015a) Chronotopes, scales and complexity in the study of language and society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 105-116.

Blommaert, Jan (2015b) Meaning as a nolinear effect: The birth of cool. AILA Review 28: 7-27.

Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2016) Chronotopic identities: On the timespace organization of who we are. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 153. Tilburg: Babylon.

Blommaert, Jan, Jim Collins & Stef Slembrouck (2005) Polycentricity and interactional regimes in ‘global neighborhoods’. Ethnography 6/2: 205-235.

Cicourel, Aaron (1967) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: Wiley.

Cicourel, Aaron (1992) The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin (eds.) Rethinking Context: 291-310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, Erving (10974) Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New Tork: Harper & Row.

Gumperz, John (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hylmes, Dell (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor & Francis.

Silverstein, Michael (1992) The indeterminacy of contextualization: when is enough enough? in Peter Auer & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Silverstein, Michael (1996) Monoglot “standard” in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In Donald Brenneis & Ronald Macaulay (eds.) The Matrix of Language: 284-306. Boulder Co: Westview Press.

Silverstein, Michael (2003) Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23: 193-229.

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2015) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Multilingual Margins 2/1: 31-45.

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Interview: Jan Blommaert on English, multiligualism and the EU

There is no language without an ‘accent’, because what we call ‘accent-free’ is generally in fact the most prestigious accent.

Published on: http://termcoord.eu/2016/02/interview-with-jan-blommaert/

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Jan Blommaert (Dendermonde, Belgium, 1961) is known as one of the world’s most important sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists. He is a professor of Language, Culture and Globalisation, as well as the director of the Babylon Center at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. He has significantly contributed to the sociolinguistic globalisation theory, focusing his work on historical and contemporary patterns of the spread of languages and forms of literacy, and on lasting and new forms of inequality emerging from globalisation processes.

1. Let us start with a general question: having studied African history and philology, how did you end up in the more general branch of sociolinguistics?

Africa is an absolute paradise for sociolinguists. In Europe we have all grown up in a monolingual context: ‘normal’ people have just one ‘mother tongue’, which they may possibly supplement with ‘second’, ‘third’ and further languages after they have acquired that first language. Simultaneous multilingualism is regarded as a deviation from the norm, an abnormality, and Belgium is a classic example of this – a multilingual country where simultaneous multilingualism is seen as politically, socially and culturally exceptional and is actively discouraged as being undesirable. Well, if you go to Africa with that kind of ideology of language, you will not understand a thing that is going on around you, because simultaneous multilingualism is the norm there. People have several ‘mother tongues’, so they do not distinguish between languages A and B, although they do distinguish between social contexts A and B. So in fact I had to become a sociolinguist in order to understand language and society there, and my first fieldwork in Tanzania was simply a crash course in advanced sociolinguistics.

2. You clearly seem to be in the Eurosceptic camp. To give an example, let me cite one of your articles: “(…) the levels of language skills laid down by the EU (A1, A2 etc.) are abstractions which have nothing to do with the reality of communication[1]”. Why do you regard them as abstractions which have nothing to do with reality?

I am Eurocritical, but not a Eurosceptic, and I adopt that position on the basis of a strong belief in the potential of Europe. I want it to work and keep its promises, and, as a concerned European citizen, I am critical when it fails to do so. The example of the levels of language skills is typical: a bureaucratic and standardised solution is chosen for something which essentially is amenable only to ‘made to measure’ approaches and flexibility. There are various reasons why I say this. Firstly, there can be no conceivable language test that will unequivocally measure the practical language skills of the language user in real situations. A person who scores 100% in English at school will not necessarily – and not on that account – understand English as it is spoken in Leeds or Belfast, or the texts of rappers such as Snoop Dogg. That is a general fact: what language tests may perhaps indicate is competence at language learning; but they do not test the reality of communication. Secondly, and this is something which is already implicit in the first point: as a rule, people are tested for competence in using a standard variant of a language, and as we know, a standard variant is one that no one genuinely uses. There is no language without an ‘accent’, because what we call ‘accent-free’ is generally in fact the most prestigious accent. In that respect, the learned standard variant, paradoxically, is often extremely marginal in society, and it is necessary to learn the local accents and variants in order to be ‘integrated’.

Take Leeds or Belfast again, in the case of English. When you learn to communicate, after all, you do so in a real social environment, and during the learning process it is vital to absorb the ‘local colour’ as well, the language variants which really make us part of a particular social complex. Why? That is the third point: because language is the major, unmistakable social filter which serves as a basis for all manner of categorisations – both positive and negative. A ‘Moroccan’ accent which a person speaking Dutch has failed to overcome at level A1 will not be eliminated by passing the C1 test, and in that respect too, the European levels of language skills are an abstraction which has nothing to do with the reality of communication. If one has the impression that a newcomer speaks Dutch inadequately when he has passed level A2, the impression will not change when they pass level B2. In reality, language use has an emblematic impact: certain features, no matter how minimal, result in acceptance or exclusion – think of the spelling mistakes that people make in Dutch when writing the identical-sounding endings -d and -t, which, if they are applying for a job, are quite likely to result in their being rejected out of hand. To the extent that levels of language skills are associated in people’s minds with expectations of actual social and cultural ‘integration’, they are a fiction.

3. How then could one – ideally – assess a person’s language prowess in a meaningful way?

It is not really clear to me why one should even want to assess levels of language skills. What level should be taken as the yardstick, anyway? What one needs at the hairdresser’s or the baker’s? At work (and in that case, which work)? At a parents’ evening at school in order to speak to the maths teacher? There is no such thing as ‘a’ (single and unequivocal) level of language skill. Each of us combines in himself a whole range of different levels of language skills at any given moment in our lives. I am highly articulate when discussing language matters with a fellow researcher, yet struggle to converse with an insurance agent, a car dealer, a software developer or a neurologist. So how would you define my level, and how can we assess it?

4. In the past, the EU Institutions imposed jargon and terminology on the Member States, the ‘prescriptive’ approach. Nowadays, the situation has been reversed, and specific terms are supplied to the terminology databases of the EU Institutions from the Member States – the ‘descriptive’ approach. Do you favour the prescriptive or the descriptive approach?

When it comes down to it, this is a practical question: what works best? The EU has always adopted a very inflexible (and therefore unrealistic) attitude towards language and languages, due to the sensitivities of a number of Member States. For a time therefore, imitating scientists, and in order to be ‘objective’, it was thought that a completely standardised jargon would ensure the greatest clarity, but then it came to be realised that the resultant texts alienated local target groups emotionally, and that it was therefore necessary to permit greater diversity. Languages are not interchangeable on a one-to-one basis, social and cultural systems even less so, and with the increase in the number of Member States, the volume of potential differences in meaning and misunderstandings increases objectively. Only a relaxed and realistic attitude towards language issues can provide a solution here: we need to accept that the language situation is a complex of elements which is always in flux and that the response constantly needs to be changed and adapted to new circumstances, and with one practical question in mind: what works best?

5. English is a lingua franca at the EU Institutions, for example. What do you think that this victory of English means for all the other languages in the EU?

That is only partially true: the ‘lingua franca’ is not a single language but a stratified and functionally structured multilingualism. In the jargon we call this ‘languaging’: doing language, language as a verb. People use one language or another, or mixtures of them, as dictated by the situation, the interlocutors or the subject, and they immediately switch to a different code if these factors change. The use of certain forms of English has not eliminated the other languages, nor will it in future: English has taken up a position alongside the other languages as a practical instrument for certain forms of interaction in certain settings, with certain interlocutors and on certain subjects. But a conversation in English with a counterpart from another Member State is interrupted by excursions into one’s own language with colleagues or other people from one’s own country, in between times we greet other colleagues in yet other languages, and the memoranda and minutes on discussions which were conducted in English circulate in various languages and are discussed in just as many. It would be mistaken to think that the ‘official’ language is also a language which eliminates every other. In reality, it is merely the language of the official part of the communication, the part which assumes an urbi et orbi role. But that is in reality only a small fragment of the world of communication in which we live and move and have our being. Here too, as far as I am concerned there is only one guiding principle: what works best? And a relaxed attitude is the best compass for navigating in an extremely complex multilingual environment.

6. And what does the status of English as a world lingua franca mean for the development of the English language itself?

The answer is the same as that to the previous question: English – in a wide range of forms – is becoming part of the multilingual repertoires and the ‘languaging’ practices of more and more people, and in such contexts it is used for certain forms of communication, while other languages continue to be used for others. For example, English has become the worldwide language of academic publishing. But there are two observations to be made about this. Firstly, the English in question is of a highly specific kind – academic English – and that is not the kind of English you can use if you need to explain a problem with the outflow pipe from your bath to a plumber in Chicago. Secondly, it is the language of academic writing, but not of academic speech. We still mainly teach in local or national languages, while nowadays writing in English. Our academic work has therefore, strictly speaking, not been ‘anglicised’, but it has become multilingual. That is the stratified and functionally structured multilingualism that I mentioned earlier, and in that sense we have all become English-‘languagers’.

What consequences does this then have for English itself? There is a sociolinguistic rule which states that a language which grows very large disintegrates into innumerable new variants, and that is precisely what we are witnessing in the case of English around the world. ‘English’ now stands for an extremely motley and rapidly changing continuum of variants, ranging from varieties which merely resemble English to others which actually are English, and in the latter category we observe an enormous innovatory dynamic which to a large extent is operating within a new globalised popular culture and through social media. This is incidentally the first time that a great deal of change in language usage has started to originate not in the spoken variants but in the written forms. Consider, for example, the new ways of writing that we use in text messages and chats, such as “CU” “w8” or “thx”.

7. Many cities in Europe are increasingly becoming places of superdiversity, such as Brussels, London, Luxembourg, etc. Is language a divisive element or is it on the contrary what binds people together in cities with superdiversity?

Not surprisingly, that is a complex issue, because there are various levels to be examined here, and we must be sure to bear in mind the previous observations. Firstly, there is a political and ideological level, and at that level, superdiversity is regarded as a problem and an obstacle. An emphasis on uniformity and homogeneity is the classic response of modernity to growing diversity. Secondly, there is an objective potential for growing communication problems which are simply due to demolinguistic change in our society, where a hundred or more languages are sometimes represented within a very small area. That is not only a source of potential, it is also an operational problem which expresses itself in so-called ‘frontline sectors’: education, the police and judicial system, health care and officialdom. There we encounter an escalating translation problem which is virtually insoluble. Let us take a simple example: refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are nearly all classified as ‘Arabic’-speakers. However, official court interpreters – many of whom come from Moroccan backgrounds – often have great difficulty in understanding their varieties of Arabic, which creates both practical and political/legal problems.

But there is, thirdly, the factor which we discussed previously: ‘languaging’. In superdiverse environments, it is rare to find a confusion of tongues such as we associate with the Tower of Babel: rather, what one finds is an extremely flexible and tolerant attitude towards multilingualism, in which seriously deficient forms of Dutch often form the backbone. So people find their own way in the situation of extreme multilingualism which we can observe emerging in practically every city, and in that sense we see, contrary to the first two points, that it is in fact perfectly possible to have social cohesion, social interaction and a sense of community in superdiverse environments. The language problems that occur need not be underestimated, but we should not overestimate them either. We certainly need a more effective multilingual infrastructure in our cities, that much is clear – even if politicians do not agree. But we should also be aware that our society will not collapse if it becomes superdiverse. Indeed: in the past 15 to 20 years, our society has in fact become superdiverse in a way which has hardly been noticed. In lectures on the subject, we present statistics on the increase in the foreign nationalities represented in Ostend in the past 20 years. That increase is quite remarkable, and people tend to be very surprised when their attention is drawn to it, because it has never actually struck them before. That seems to me to be good news.

[1] https://jmeblommaert.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/voor-de-onderzoeker-hoe-vlaanderen-in-2013-argumenteert/

About the interviewer

CorineKlipCorine Klip, study visitor at TermCoord. Born in the Netherlands in 1973 (Amsterdam), she moved to Luxembourg in 1984 and attended the European School as a child of a EU-official. After graduating from the European School, she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Sciences in Ghent and worked for nearly 18 years in the financial industry in Luxembourg. Being always fascinated by language and multilingualism in all its forms, she decided to take a double sabbatical break from the financial industry in order to continue studying multilingualism and multiculturalism. She is currently doing a Master Degree in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg.

Sociolinguistic superdiversity under construction: A response to Stephen May.

ScreenHunter_736 Feb. 10 12.00

Jan Blommaert

I have read with great interest the summary of a talk given by Stephen May at the MOSAIC Centre in Birmingham, entitled “Linguistic Superdiversity as a ‘new’ theoretical framework in applied linguistics: Panacea or Nostrum?”

https://tlangblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/05/linguistic-superdiversity-panacea-or-nostrum/

Stephen is critical of sociolinguistic superdiversity work because it overlooks several issues, many of which revolve around the position of indigenous (and endangered) languages, neglected, it seems, by an overly urban and metropolitan (ethnocentric) set of preferences in research – “metronormativity”.

I would say the following in response to this summary (not having access to Stephen’s own words).

  1. There appears to be some stereotyping here of the “superdiversity tradition”, which is seriously premature, in my view, since no bibles of it have been published and the field is moving continually and very rapidly; and which consequently also misses some crucial recent work. I’m thinking in particular of the special issue of Language and Communication (2015), which, to some extent, represents the “American” take on superdiversity; and of the recently published volume “Language and Superdiversity” (Arnaut et al, 2016). See http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/02715309/44 and https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138844582
  2. In both sources, an earlier made point (but often overlooked in commentaries) is given even more weight: the fact that, for us working on sociolinguistic superdiversity, the internet is a key to understanding the paradigmatic ramifications of superdiversity. See for instance, in the L&C issue, the paper by Paja Faudree in which Mexican traditions are given a new lease of life, in a constantly transforming shape, in the diaspora through online re-modulation; and several papers in the Arnaut et al volume. For concise statements on this issue, see also https://www.academia.edu/10371446/Commentary_Superdiversity_old_and_new and https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/ba515695-257b-4dd0-b030-b52a158c7a42_TPCS_160_Blommaert.pdf
  3. Note that this particular emphasis on “virtual” space represents an important departure from most of traditional sociological and anthropological thought, but also from the phenomenology used in what could be called the “Vertovec tradition” of superdiversity research, which concentrates on migration flows in “offline” space. This fundamental difference is usually and remarkably overlooked, and work such as that of Rampton, Blackledge/Creese and myself is wrongly placed in a direct lineage with Vertovec’s classic definitions of superdiversity. The introduction of the Arnaut et al volume is nonetheless clear in this respect:  https://www.academia.edu/11260611/Superdiversity_and_Sociolinguistics  and this alternative emphasis has been there right from the very first formulations of our approach. See for the earliest formulation  http://www.mmg.mpg.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Subsites/Diversities/Journals_2011/2011_13-02_art1.pdf
  4. The focus on the online space is of tremendous theoretical and methodological relevance; the frequency with which it is overlooked as a crucial feature of our approach is amazing, especially since it is exactly this online-offline nexus which is entirely new (no such thing existed in sociocultural, political and historical phenomenology until the final decades of the 20th century – this, I hope, shall not be disputed) and offers a formidable potential for empirical and theoretical reformulation. It questions and at least qualifies, for instance, widely used conceptualizations of social space, including, prominently, traditional distinctions between “centers” and “peripheries” (and thus also ideas of “metropolitan” versus “indigenous” languages, and between “urban” and “rural”). See for a statement on the increasingly problematic notion of the “urban”,  https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2015/05/20/marxism-and-urban-culture-a-review/
  5. It also qualifies and amends widespread notions of “culture”, “identity” and “social groups”. Ben Rampton’s work, as well as that of Blackledge & Creese and others, has been influential in this. For my own views on this, see the following papers: https://www.academia.edu/10789675/Commentary_Culture_in_superdiversity and https://www.academia.edu/15620712/Conviviality_and_collectives_on_social_media_Virality_memes_and_new_social_structures and the collection of essays in https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/5c7b6e63-e661-4147-a1e9-ca881ca41664_TPCS_139_Blommaert-Varis.pdf
  6. As for the fact that the “margins” are no longer immune to “metropolitan” developments, again there are emphatically clear statements on this. See for instance, https://www.academia.edu/6772025/Globalization_in_the_margins_Toward_a_re-evaluation_of_language_and_mobility._Wang_et_al._2014_
  7. In view of the ways in which this paradigm dislodges the established spatial imagination in social research, pace the previous points, I wonder what the claim of “metronormativity” would be about. I’m afraid it can only be held by those who stick to pre-virtual spatial ontologies and conveniently choose to overlook what the presence of the e-space (the largest social space on earth) has done to contemporary societies: “Eurocentrism” is no longer a stable term in the era of Facebook and Google. In case the response would be that precisely the focus on the internet constitutes metronormativity, I’d like to remind those who take this view of something established by Braudel and Wallerstein in consecutive versions of World-Systems Analysis: that the presence of a new infrastructure in parts of the world system affects the entire system: those who lack access to it are pushed deeper into the periphery, for instance. The Wang et al paper mentioned in point 6 above develops this point at length.
  8. Observe also (and this is now widely acknowledged) that the paradigmatic potential of sociolinguistic superdiversity compels us to focus on registers rather than languages. We arrive at a far more specific and nuanced view of the objects of sociolinguistic processes – their ontology – and this shift does not in any way preclude work on “marginal” languages, sites or communities. A prime example of this is Fie Velghe’s dissertation on mobile phone texting as a tool for literacy instruction in a marginalized township near Cape Town. See, for a sample, https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/cdcdd501-1a7b-4af2-803d-dd51dd6623cd_tpcs%20paper6.pdf
  9. There is, then, the issue of “dehistorization”. This critique, I believe, is justified when applied to some of the “Vertovecian” work, in which we do see snapshot ethnography coupled with a kind of ”diversity euphoria” which I shall comment on below. It is also justified when applied to some superficial Linguistic Landscape Studies. Our own work, however, has been absolutely clear and explicit on the fact that superdiversity, precisely, forces us towards historicizing ethnographic work on the present. See, for instance, http://www.multilingual-matters.com/display.asp?K=9781783090402 and https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2016/01/05/the-conservative-turn-in-linguistic-landscape-studies/
  10. Finally, there is the often heard allegation that sociolinguistic superdiversity would turn a blind eye to issues of power and inequality, contemporary as well as historical – the “diversity euphoria” mentioned above. Again, the introductory chapter of Arnaut et al. can serve as a reminder that it is precisely the institutional response to superdiversity – increasing surveillance, negation and erasure of difference – that should occupy researchers presently. In the Arnaut et al. volume, the entire final section is devoted to “policing complexity”. In the L&C volume, one can turn to the contributions of Marco Jacquemet (on asylum applications) and Rob Moore (on EU language policy) for illustrations. The fate of “minority” languages is elaborately addressed there. See also Rampton’s pretty outspoken position on issues of power and inequality in sociolinguistic superdiversity: https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs/item-paper-117-tpcs.htm
  11. Just as an illustration of the analytical potential of inquiry informed by this perspective, the following example. Few would consider Mandarin Chinese a “minority” language, let alone an “endangered” one. In a diaspora situation, however, it may become a minority language both in official-administrative status (nonexistent) and in sociolinguistic position within the space of the nation-state (marginal). We know that globalization, in that sense, creates and reshuffles language hierarchies. And this means that there is nothing static or absolute to the status of a language as “minority” language – any language can be “minorized” by being moved from point A to point B. But that is not the end of it. In a diasporic situation – take The Netherlands as an example – Mandarin Chinese can be a minority language but simultaneously (here comes the scalar fractality which is so often central to our analysis) a majority language vis-à-vis the Cantonese of the previously dominant “Chinese” diaspora community, who see themselves forced to learn and use Mandarin in the “offline” public space, while (here comes a third scalar-fractal level) maintaining it in online spaces. Similar processes affect other migrant “minorities” whose (very large) heritage language is subject to similar patterns of fractal restratification – think, e.g., of the Gujarati and Bengali communities investigated by Creese and Blackledge. Such complex processes of scalar-fractal restratifications illuminate the predicament of “minorities” in important (if not always welcome) ways and teach us that functional stratification across different scale levels may be the direction to look at in studies on language endangerment. See for examples  https://www.academia.edu/8482298/Dutch-Chinese_repertoires_and_language_ausbau_in_superdiversity_A_view_from_digital_media._Juffermans_Blommaert_Kroon_and_Li_2014_ and  https://www.academia.edu/18066964/Towards_a_sociolinguistics_of_superdiversity

I do fully understand the concerns voiced by Stephen May and others, but I also insist on a fair and informed reading of the work they propose to put under critical scrutiny. Because, often, I encounter “absences” that are in actual fact richly developed presences, and “blind spots” that are in actual fact explicitly stated foci of attention – an attack on work that one would wish to see lacking of these foci, it thus appears. We are quite impatient with those (not including Stephen, though) who, on the basis of such incomplete readings, consider our views refuted and recommend staying within the safe perimeter of a Durkheimian-Parsonian (methodologically nationalist and empirically anachronistic) sociolinguistics in which nothing needs to be changed.

I do not wish to argue here that sociolinguistic superdiversity work, in its present state, has provided all the answers to all the questions. Far from that. Sociolinguistic superdiversity, in my view, is neither a panacea nor a nostrum. It’s just a potentially fertile idea which people such as I have chosen to explore and develop, if for nothing else just to see what its limits are. It’s very much under construction, and I often have to react to criticism premised on an imagined “codex” of work which upon closer inspection is all but absent. There is a growing body of explorative, inquisitive and bold research which has yielded several results that have acquired a degree of currency – think of translanguaging, the focus on registers rather than languages, and the redefinition of “speakers” of languages. Furthermore, the impact of such work on higher-level theorizing about language and society is becoming clear as well and awaits a first synthesis. Some of the references given above could serve as pointers towards such a synthesis. For it would be wrong to qualify the work on sociolinguistic superdiversity as “micro” in nature: it is a nano-science of very big things.

Thus the fact that not everything has been done does not mean that nothing has been done. I take Stephen May’s critical comments therefore as an exhortation to do more and better, and to take on topics until now rarely addressed from the paradigmatic angle of sociolinguistic superdiversity.

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New forms of diaspora, new forms of integration

Migrants smartphones

Jan Blommaert 

“Integration” continues to be used as a keyword to describe the processes by means of which outsiders – immigrants, to be more precise – need to “become part” of their “host culture”. I have put quotation marks around three crucial terms here, and the reasons why will become clear shortly. “Integration” in this specific sense, of course, has been a central sociological concept in the Durkheim-Parsons tradition. A “society” is a conglomerate of “social groups” held together by “integration”: the sharing of (a single set of) central values which define the character, the identity (singular) of that particular society (singular). And it is this specific sense of the term that motivates complaints – a long tradition of them – in which immigrants are blamed for not being “fully integrated”, or more specifically, “remaining stuck in their own culture” and “refusing” to integrate in their host society.

Half a century ago, in a trenchant critique of Parsons, C. Wright Mills (1959: 47) observed that historical changes in societies must inevitably involve shifts in the modes of integration. Several scholars documented such fundamental shifts – think of Bauman, Castells, Beck and Lash – but mainstream discourses, academic and lay, still continue to follow the monolithic and static Parsonian imagination. I what follows I want to make an empirical point in this regard, observing that new modes of diaspora result in new modes of integration.

In a splendid MA dissertation, Jelke Brandehof (2014) investigated the ways in which a group of Cameroonese doctoral students at Ghent University (Belgium) used communication technologies in their interactions with others. She investigated the technologies proper – mobile phone and online applications – as well as the language resources used in specific patterns of communication with specific people. Here is a graphic representation of the results for one male respondent (Brandehof 2014: 38).

ScreenHunter_732 Feb. 03 11.42

This figure, I would argue, represents the empirical side of “integration” – real forms of integration in contemporary diaspora situations. Let me elaborate this.

The figure, no doubt, looks extraordinarily complex; yet there is a tremendous amount of order and nonrandomness to it. We see that the Cameroonian man deploys a wide range of technologies and platforms for communication: his mobile phone provider (with heavily discounted rates for overseas calls) for calls and text messages, skype, Facebook, Beep, Yahoo Messenger, different VOIP systems, Whatsapp and so forth. He also uses several different languages: Standard English, Cameroonian Pidgin, local languages (called “dialects” in the figure), and Fulbe (other respondents also reported Dutch as one of their languages). And he maintains contacts in at least three different sites: his own physical and social environment in Ghent, his “home environment” in Cameroon, and the virtual environment of the “labor market” in Cameroon. In terms of activities, he maintains contacts revolving around his studies, maintaining a social and professional network in Ghent, job hunting on the internet, and an intricate set of family and business activities back in Cameroon. Each of these activities – here is the order and nonrandomness – involves a conscious choice of medium, language variety and addressee. Interaction with his brother in Cameroon is done through smartphone applications and in a local language, while interactions with other people in the same location, on religious topics, are done in Fulbe, a language marked as a medium among Muslims.

Our subject is “integrated”, through the organized use of these communication instruments, in several “cultures” if you wish. He is integrated in his professional and social environment in Ghent, in the local labor market, in the Cameroonian labor market, and in his home community. Note that I use a positive term here: he is “integrated” in all of these “zones” that make up his life – he is not “not integrated”, I insist – because his life develops in real synchronized time in these different zones, and all of these zones play a vital part in this subject’s life. He remains integrated as a family member, a friend, a Muslim and a business partner in Cameroon, while he also remains integrated in his more directly tangible environment in Ghent – socially, professionally and economically. This level of simultaneous integration across “cultures” (if you wish) is necessary: our subject intends to complete his doctoral degree work in Ghent and return as a highly qualified knowledge worker to Cameroon. Rupturing the Cameroonese networks might jeopardize his chances of reinsertion in a lucrative labor market (and business ventures) upon his return there. While he is in Ghent, part of his life is spent there while another part continues to be spent in Cameroon, for very good reasons.

I emphasized that our subject has to remain integrated across these different zones. And the technologies for cheap and intensive long-distance communication enable him to do so. This might be the fundamental shift in “modes of integration” we see since the turn of the century: “diaspora” no longer entails a total rupture with the places and communities of “origin”; neither, logically, does it entail a “complete integration” in the host community, because there are instruments that enable one to lead a far more gratifying life, parts of which are spent in the host society while other parts are spent elsewhere. Castells” “network society” (1996), in short. We see that diasporic subjects keep one foot in the “thick” community of family, neighborhood and local friends, while they keep another foot – on more instrumental terms – in the host society and yet another one in “light” communities such as internet-based groups and the labor market. Together, they make up a late-modern “diasporic life”.

There is nothing exceptional or surprising to this: the jet-setting European professional business class does precisely the same when they go on business trips: smartphones and the internet enable them to make calls home and to chat with their daughters before bedtime, and to inform their social network of their whereabouts by means of social media updates. In that sense, the distance between Bauman’s famous “traveler and vagabond” is narrowing: various types of migrants are presently using technologies previously reserved for elite travelers. And just as the affordances of these technologies are seen as an improvement of an itinerant lifestyle by elite travelers, it is seen as a positive thing by these other migrants, facilitating a more rewarding and harmonious lifestyle that does not involve painful ruptures of existing social bonds, social roles, activity patterns and identities.

What looks like a problem from within a Parsonian theory of “complete integration”, therefore, is in actual fact a solution for the people performing the “problematic” behavior. The problem is theoretical, and rests upon the kind of monolithic and static sociological imagination criticized by C. Wright Mills and others, and the distance between this theory and the empirical facts of contemporary diasporic life. Demands for “complete integration” (and complaints about the failure to do so) can best be seen as nostalgic and, when uttered in political debates, as ideological false consciousness. Or more bluntly, as surrealism.

References

Brandehof, Jelke (2014) Superdiversity in a Cameroonian Diaspora Community in Ghent: The Social Structure of Superdiverse Networks. MA dissertation, Tilburg University (unpublished).

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. London: Blackwell.

Mills, C. Wright (1959 [1967]) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Teaching the language that makes one happy

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Jan Blommaert 

During my time at the London Institute of Education (2005-7), I was deployed in the TESOL section and worked with an outspokenly international group of students. These students were recruited after a rigorous selection in which superior IELTS scores were mandatory. All were, consequently, “fluent” in “English” when they arrived in London. The scare quotes around both terms above will become clear as we go on. For the thing is: all of these young people were highly skilled globalized junior academics, but many of them were unhappy in London.

I talked to a great many of them and started making observation notes on their English conversational proficiency. I also asked them how they felt about their English proficiency, and when one of them replied “I can’t understand their [i.e. UK English] jokes and that frustrates me”, my curiosity was triggered. I started talking to them on the specific bit of English they felt they lacked in London. The answers were highly diverse, but some stood out. One recurrent answer was: I don’t have the English that can help me find a boyfriend/girlfriend – the English one needs to flirt and enter into a love relationship with someone. Another was: I don’t have the English I need to understand entertainment shows on British TV. And yet another: when I go out for drinks with British friends, I just can’t understand a lot of what they’re saying in the pub. Many articulated frustrations about the fact that their limited English proficiency made it very difficult for them to come across as an interesting, witty, creative and nice person. Many felt socially awkward and lonely, and had the impression that making real friends was terribly hard, given the constraints they experienced in informal social interaction with others.

Their responses reminded me of my own experience teaching and living in Chicago in the Winter of 2003. From 9 to 5, I would be talking shop there, and interlocutors would have perceived me as highly articulate and confident, perhaps even eloquent in English. As soon as I left the UofC campus and went shopping, however, I felt I was lacking almost all of the English I needed to identify the right meat cuts, vegetables or cleaning products. And one of my most catastrophic communicative experiences was when I had to call a plumber about a drainage problem in my bathroom: I lacked literally every bit of English required to adequately explain the problem and was reduced to begging the plumber to come over and see for himself. On campus, I was a “near-native” user of English, while in the supermarket or with the plumber I must have sounded like just another immigrant struggling with basic English vocabulary.

Such anecdotes are relevant for at least three reasons.

  1. They show us that “language learning” is effectively register learning. My students and myself had acquired the academic register characterizing contemporary globalized academic practices and culture; we had not, au contraire, acquired the registers that controlled specific informal social and cultural communication modes, and could consequently not perform the roles we were supposed to play in and through them.
  2. In the case of my students, they also show that “language” testing is in actual fact register testing: high IELTS scores indicate a high level of active and passive proficiency in a limited set of registers and genres qualified with a  (rather unhelpful) umbrella term as Academic English. They do not indicate a general socioculturally adequate competence in English, and do not as such announce a generative or cumulative competence. That is: having achieved high levels of academic register-genre proficiency does not automatically generate (or even facilitate) competences outside the domains covered by such registers and genres; such specific register-genre competences must be learned separately.
  3. And most importantly, they show us a thing or two about integration. Let me elaborate that latter point.

There is, in the context of migration and superdiversity, a policy response which is widespread across Europe (and further afield) in which language learning is proposed as the key to “integration”. The latter is a word in search of a clear definition (and has been for decades), but in actual practice, it is usually paraphrased as “participation in social life”, with some emphasis on facilitating entrance into the labor market. Observe that “integration” is usually presented as one single process in which someone presently “not part of society” will become part of that society by a unilateral effort of adaptation, in which language learning is crucial since – one frequently reads – one cannot participate in the life of a community without communicating with other members.

What we now know is that

  • Integration is not a single process but a multiple one, in which several very different forms of “integration” need to be achieved, into numerous specific social milieux and niches, each organized and characterized by their own sociocultural normative codes, in order to be, let us say, happy as a social and cultural being.
  • Integration into the “most important” social milieu – academic work in the case of my students, the labor market in the eyes of many policy makers – does not guarantee integration into the different milieux and niches that make up social life outside the “most important” segment of it. As my own experience showed, one can be highly integrated in the segment of labor and the sociocultural milieu that sustains it, and poorly integrated (even highly marginal) in several other social milieux. In fact, this assemblage of different degrees of “integration” in which one is simultaneously very well integrated in some segments of sociocultural life, less integrated in some others and not integrated at all in another set of them – is perhaps the default mode of “integration” any person would have in social life in general, at any point of time.
  • Consequently, teaching competences and skills deemed useful for “integration” would seem to require a very precise diagnostic stage in which the specific register-genre needs valid for targeted social milieux (and thus defining a range of very different integration processescan be identified and followed up by more precise and specific knowledge transfer.

Being “fully integrated” as a person, when one investigates it in some detail, actually refers to a set of experiences of satisfaction – happiness, let us say – derived from a perceived smoothness in social contact beyond the borders of narrowly conceived and functionally defined social milieux such as that of labor. It actually means that one is integrated into the full set of social milieux experienced as crucial for a satisfying social life. When we teach people the language they need for this purpose, we have to teach them the specific bits of language that make them happy. The term “happy” sounds funny, perhaps, and there is no tradition in language teaching where it has ever been central. I suggest we take it very seriously.

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