Language Communities

As part of Free Word & Cultural Institute at King's 'Multilingual Creativity Series', journalist Anita Sethi will reflect on individual workshops taking place at Free Word and at King’s College London between January and June 2016. Here, Anita shares a blog from the first event in the series - 'Language Communities' - which took place on 25 January 2016 at Free Word Centre.

More than a million children in the UK are classed as using English as an additional language (EAL) and use languages other than English in their daily lives - but artistic, cultural, educational and community organisations could provide a greater understanding of the implications of this and the opportunities it can offer. The Multilingual Creativity Lab, held in November 2015, was the first in the Free Word & Cultural Institute at King’s Multilingual Creativity Series, and follow-up events are now taking place at Free Word and at King’s College London until June 2016.

'Language communities' was the subject of the first Multilingual Creativity Series event. Acknowledging the realities as opposed to the myths of multilingualism is important, emphasised Sam Holmes, lead researcher on the project.

But what do we mean by a language community? Three speakers shared different perspectives in brief but insightful presentations.

“Linguistic labels are widely used. I will demonstrate the insufficiency of such labels”, explained Hulya Baysal of King’s College London in her presentation, ‘The meaning of Turkishness among ‘Turkish’ and ‘Kurdish’ adolescents in London’. She conducted research in Hackney with young people from a range of backgrounds, paying attention to language and linguistic affiliation. The examples used ranged from standard Turkish to Kurdish and explored “the prestige and power of standard Turkish used for control and dominance” and non-standard, less serious, playful dialects. She gave a fascinating example of a single 2 minute conversation overheard in the corridor between two boys; the table below shows the linguistic markers that the participants of Kurdish descent used:


Baysal explained:

“This dialogue shows that hybrid speech practices, as well as the linguistic components of the local multi-ethnic vernacular as indicators of particular ‘Turkish’ and ‘Kurdish’ ethnicities, are relevant to these young people of Kurdish descent in London. Their ambivalent and fluid connections to Kurdishness, Turkishness, and Londonness with social class inflections are indicated in this conversation in which the operation of the local multi-ethnic vernacular brings out diverse ethnic possibilities. In other words, these youngsters’ language behaviour openly challenges any monolithic and homogeneous ethnic labels, for example ‘Turkish-speaking community,’ ascribed to define their ethnic identifications in super-diverse London.”

Some of the questions she raised included: ‘How are ethnicities configured?’ and ‘How are ethnic identities created anew?’ Baysal contests rigid prescriptions to identity, advocating instead the importance of recognising the multifaceted and intricate nature of ethnicity. She explored how umbrella terms such as ‘Turkish-speaking community’ can be “linguistically problematic” since they overlook disparity within communities. Transformation comes with recognising differences and offering alternate approaches. She also provided interesting context – until the 1980s in Turkey, the Kurdish language was not allowed to be used officially; now, it's official but is at the bottom of the linguistic hierarchy.

Strategies Baysal used to overcome communication challenges included taking time to get to know students and gain their trust. Initially the students were suspicious of her, but honesty proved the best policy: “I was very honest and told them about me, my friends, my family and where I come from in Turkey”. The results provided insightful and illuminating research.
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“Slang is language that rolls up its sleeves, spits on its hands and goes to work”, said Carl Sandburg. Translator
Sarah Ardizzone quoted Sandburg while entertainingly exploring her own work in translating slang. We were taken on a “vernacular journey through literary translation” by Ardizzone. She explored the challenges of translating the Algerian author
Faïza Guène’s work, from banlieue French to inner-city English, and discussed how mainstream publishers approach urban youth speak. The author tackles the notorious 93 postcode in Paris and its “migrant community unrest” against the background of the 2005 riots. Guène writes in Arabic-French slang common in the banlieues, the poorest suburbs of Paris, encompassing a “massive demographic melting pot”.
Ardizzone also used examples of slang from her work with LIVE magazine in Brixton. She says her most rewarding work has been done at grassroots level, accessing young people who want a role model like Faïza Guène, and it has been exciting doing work with young refugees via organisations such as English PEN.

In terms of a translator thinking of audience, Ardizzone explained how she considers a diaspora that means something to the US and UK, too. Questions for the translator include: ‘How am I able to create a voice?', ‘Who is the reader?’ and ‘How will readers identify?’

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The Home Language Accreditation Project (HoLA) is a Sheffield-based initiative funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation which works with mainstream and complementary schools and aims to accredit home languages and recognise the language skills of bilingual learners. HoLA has a variety of strategies for schools: strengthening complementary schools as organisations and helping them to improve teaching and learning; educating mainstream schools about home languages and the positive aspect of bilingualism; and bringing the two sectors together to create collaborative advantage.

Speakers Clare Allison and Caroline Norman described how they faced the challenge of working to improve access to Bengali GCSE with few resources. A successful strategy was hiring a Bengali heritage teacher from Bradford. They also decorated a community room with posters and alphabet pictures, receiving heartwarming feedback from the children who say it now feels like a classroom. Flags adorning the room speak of children’s dual heritage, reading: “We are British, we are Bengali”. Another challenge was that several students spoke Sylheti rather than Bengali. Using a peer mentor proved a successful strategy. The speakers also outlined the value of a GCSE and the alternatives to GCSEs, including
the Asdan Languages Short Course. Other successful strategies included the Film Summer School at Sheffield Hallam University, open to all students who speak a language other than English.

Caroline Norman raised the distinction between qualifications and accreditations and identified it as a significant challenge and opportunity, and also touched on some of the issues of hegemony encountered in institutions around this area.

This thought-provoking day at Free Word Centre provided the opportunity to explore the different ways in which language works, as well as the depth of work being done around the rich variety of languages in communities. There were several interesting points to take away; Ardizzone memorably described the “mash-up element in stories”, in which, for example, the story of Goldilocks features couscous instead of porridge. From the translation of such culturally specific references, we see that the translator’s role involves so much more than just translating words on a page. I walk through the streets of London later that day with a greater awareness of the nuances in the many languages I hear teeming around me.