Languages in the city

Language is a potent marker of cultural and ethnic belonging. The link that we perceive between language and identity is so strong that we conceptualize it in terms of family (lingua madreMuttersprache and so on) and of possession (‘they don’t speak our language’ is a phrase often used to cast someone out). As almost every separatist political movement has demonstrated, languages play a crucial role in defining differences between communities. The fault lines of nations, at least since the Early Modern age, are defined by language. And yet, the marvelous thing about language is that for all its geographical and ethnic ties, it travels better and more freely than almost anything else.

Language has traveled on paper (by printed and handwritten word), by radio and TV, by Facebook message and Skype call. While we will consider these means of communication in the project, our main interest is in how language travels when people move: the everyday dimension of the modern city, where people from different backgrounds do their best to make themselves understood and understand each other. This is at the center of “My Story – My Words”, and since we will make use of the recently coined term metrolingualism to describe it, I thought of writing a brief note to explain what this word means, and what we will do with it.

Since the 1980s, following unprecedented migration and the rise of the great interpreters of the post-colonial world (Said, Anderson, Bhabha, Hall…), cultural studies have begun to focus on the conflicting and creative space resulting from many cultures coming together in the same setting. Language has more or less always been involved in these reflections, in different ways. In translation studies – a relatively ‘new’ discipline in itself – this meant a renewed interest and celebration of translators as agents of change the contact zones between cultures. In later years, the attention in translation studies has expanded to include the translation that happens in cities, and that is often at the very heart of the existence of the city. Mediators of various kind inhabit the city, negotiating its linguistic habits and norms, building common repertoires, inscribing and decoding its spaces with many languages.

All of this debate happened contemporaneously with developments in linguistics, where bilingualism was increasingly no longer considered as an exception but a fact of the linguistic life and history of societies; and the bilingual person considered not just as the imperfect union of two monolinguals. Bilinguals are individuals who generally make the best out of the linguistic resources available to them, and who exist in a specific society, with specific needs. However, this does not automatically lead to a celebration of linguistic multiplicity per se – too easy a move, and it does not take into account the many difficulties and risks of existing in the multilingual arena. The urban, metropolitan and multicultural space is a fertile one, but also a contested one. It has many dangers and risks – incomprehension, miscommunication, intolerance, invisibility – to which people have to adapt. Adaptation is the key to existence for the migrant, and that very much involves linguistic practices. As I remarked at the beginning, we all may have a tendency to perceive language and ethnicity as strongly linked: like a familial bond, or personal property. But what we do with these supposedly fixed identities when we come together in the same setting is creative, inventive, potentially disruptive:

Metrolingualism describes the ways in which people of different and mixed
backgrounds use, play with and negotiate identities through language; it does not
assume connections between language, culture, ethnicity, nationality or geography,
but rather seeks to explore how such relations are produced, resisted, defied or
rearranged; its focus is not on language systems but on languages as emergent from
contexts of interaction. (Otsuji and Pennycook, 2010)

Whenever we say “metrolingualism” we talk about interactions that go from the most mundane exchanges to fine arts, and that make the flow of languages in an urban space. The identities that we refer to when we say “Irish” “English” “Russian” “Chinese” and so on may be perceived as fixed, conceptualized as fixed, but in practice they are elements of a more complex game, where they are challenged and transformed. In practice, we make ourselves understood with the linguistic resources that we have and that we think most appropriate.

This understanding of language applies to sites of historical and sanctioned bilingualism (and an Irish city is always already a bilingual Irish-English city, with the relative historical issues and potentialities). But its most evident dimension is often the diaspora. Migration creates communities that are still bound to some extent to the idea of a home, but whose everyday communication involves many different languages to speak and to understand. One good definition (among many others) of a migrant is someone who cannot take language for granted:

Since people with a common heritage may still shuttle between diverse localities and communities in their everyday lives, diaspora identity is one among many layered identities they enjoy. As people shuttle between communities, they hold in tension their diaspora identities with other locally relevant identities. How these are strategically negotiated also puts the focus on language. (Canagarajah and Silberstein, 2012)

When we talk about metrolingual practice, we are talking about language that may originate from a fixed national identity, that we think about in terms of belonging, but at the same time exists in correlation with several others in its everyday dimension. Our goals include both the recognition of this reality in the Irish society – and the cultural practices that derive from it. What happens to art, writing, and theatre when it exists in-between languages, when the artist or writer need to come out of that safe zone to express themselves, and incorporate elements of the language he/she confronts daily? the artists, writers and playwright with whom we are in touch are giving us very interesting answers to that question. Stay in touch!








A little context: 612,018 stories

Some weeks ago, as we were preparing to launch “My Story – My Words”, I was reviewing the 2011 Irish census, looking at the statistics on language use in Ireland. The 2011 cenus was the first one in which questions were asked about foreign languages* spoken in Irish homes. It confirmed the common sense assumption that Polish was the most common foreign language in Ireland, followed by French, Lithuanian, German, Spanish, Russian…

Then, in those same days, the results of the 2016 census came out, and for the first time we had the possibility to compare the linguistic habits of Irish residents over the years. Foreign language speakers rose by 19 per cent from 2011, reaching the number of 612,018.** That is a very remarkable number for a country of just over four and a half million people. Table after table, the census shows us patterns and trends of identity and mobility – Romanian taking Lithuanian’s place as the third most spoken foreign language in Ireland, the appearance of Portuguese in the top ten. The data is very interesting, showing that all languages apart from French (which went from 56,430 speakers to 54,948 over the last five years) have grown their numbers. It is also very interesting to note that being a foreign language speaker means less and less being born outside of Ireland: for example, while the number of Polish speakers has not risen significantly, the number of Polish speakers who were born in Ireland has almost tripled from 2011 to 2016 (10,573 vs. 27,197).

My background, as well as the background of other researchers involved in the project, is in literature. What are we doing then here, looking at numbers and percentages? The numbers inform us about a country in continuous evolution, dealing with its increasing diversity and multilingualism. Our intention is that of looking at the level of cultural and social awareness that surrounds those numbers, and the potential for cultural production that is inherent in this evolution. 612,018 people who speak different languages at home means 612,018 people who had to learn a different language at some point of their lives, who study and talk and write and, in some cases, sing and act in more than one language. No matter how different their backgrounds, bilingual speakers have one thing in common: they all have a story on how they learned to use their languages to face the world around them. By interviewing migrants and collecting individual narratives, we hope to grow stories from numbers.

It is interesting to read, for example, that each of the 612,018 foreign language speakers have a different relationship with the English language:

Of the 612,018 people who spoke another language at home 508,016 (83%) indicated they could speak English ‘well’ or ‘very well’, while 86,608 people (14.2%) indicated ‘not well’ or ‘not at all’.

The stories that are hidden in this data speak of displacement and of an everyday struggle, but also of the potential for a gap to be bridged. Every story that cannot be communicated in the language of the mainstream is potentially invisible, and yet those 86,608 story exist: in another language, in another form, potentially obscure if we take English as prerequisite for being noticed and understood. We are looking for some of those stories, and for the people who work every day to bridge gaps between communities, and work against invisibility. The story of how linguistic and communicative difficulties are overcome is a story about gaining agency, and expanding one’s voice.

Right below the surface, the Census tables also show that the complexity of the linguistic landscape in Ireland often reflects complex flows, issues and phenomena that do not originate in the island; simple indication like “French”, “Russian”, “Chinese” are hardly indicators of homogeneous groups. When it comes to French, for example, we learn that

Of those who spoke French at home 75.1 per cent were Irish nationals, only 16.2 per cent were French nationals while 3.7 per cent were of African nationality.

Any guess that we can make about these percentages involve the impact of colonialism in what is now Francophone Africa, freedom of movement in Europe and the status of French as a language of culture. Just like any guess we can make about Russian (which is being spoken daily by Irish nationals, Russian nationals, Latvian nationals, Lithuanian nationals, Estonian nationals and Ukrainian nationals) is a snapshot of the history of shifting national borders in Eastern Europe. All of these phenomena are physically translated on Irish soil, adding another layer of complexity. We believe that looking at individual stories beyond the data, we can deal with the complexity and unveil its creative potential. Complexity thinking is starting to be used as a new framework model for the study of translation and intercultural contact (a conference on the theme takes place as I write this); at the same time, super-diversity has gained importance in social sciences as a concept to describe cultural diversity that cannot simply be described under the ‘old’ notion of multiculturalism.

With this in mind, we will interview NGO workers and migrants, playwrights and artists, with the idea that one way of understanding the super-diverse is looking at individual, autobiographical narratives – how people came to speak more than one language, and what difficulties they encountered, and what they like about it. From the everyday of the streets and social media to the cultural productions of theatre and music, there are several ways to tell those stories. We cannot listen to all 612,018 stories, but each one that we collect will bring us closer to understanding multilingual Ireland.



*That is to say, languages other than English and Irish: it is always important to remember Ireland’s bilingualism, its relevance to the country’s history and to its current socio-cultural debate. Our research questionnaires include questions on how the debate on the Irish language interacts with migration and other languages, and we will write about this more in detail.

** That refers to Irish residents who stated that they speak a foreign language at home. For tables and other data: