CLaRA blog

Elite multilingualism: A critical dialogue from a theoretical and empirical standpoint

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Elisabeth Barakos (Lecturer in Applied Linguistics at Aston University, member of the Language Education subgroup of CLaRA) and Charlotte Selleck (Lecturer of English Language, University of Worcester) co-organised a panel on “Elite Multilingualism” as part of the Sociolinguistics Symposium 2016 in Murcia, Spain. The panel, which brought together international scholars working in the fields of applied and sociolinguistics, specifically focused on the notion of ‘elite’, i.e. the conceptualisation and evaluation of multilingualism as something that adds social (or material) capital, prestige, privilege and access to resources, within the complexities of a globalised economy. Given the current celebratory discourses about linguistic diversity (emanating, for example from organisations such as the EU) and the multilingual turn in education and applied linguistics (McLaughlin 2016, May 2013), it is timely and necessary to critically engage with what multilingualism has come to mean in different social settings and for different social actors.

Traditionally, research has dealt with often minoritised, underprivileged multilingual speakers vs. the dominant, monolingual speaker, ideologies of native speakerness and standardness, the role of global English as well as monolingualism as a language ideology. There is, however, only scarce engagement with multilingualism as an ideology of and for the elite, and its link to the creation of hierarchies and social inequities (De Mejia 2002).

This panel therefore aimed to introduce the concept of ‘elite multilingualism’ to disentangle the paradoxical situation of valuing some types of languages more than others. In a European context, Jaspers (2009: 19), for example, speaks of the ‘prestige’ or ‘pure’ multilingual – referring to the upwardly mobile, highly educated, higher socioeconomic status learners of two or more internationally useful languages. On the other hand, there is ‘plebeian’ or ‘impure’ multilingual – a term referring to the use of various (regional or minority) language varieties by a mostly urban, largely multi-ethnic, very often poorly educated working class across Europe. As Sonntag (2003: 8) argues, elite is not something monolithic or static; rather, she claims that “different elites draw on different capitals to acquire and retain their elite status”.

From a critical sociolinguistic perspective, this panel aimed to de-naturalise mundane understandings of ‘elite’ multilingualism, both from a theoretical and empirical standpoint, through the following set of questions:

Such questions should help understand the mobilisation of multilingualism as sources of investment, means of instrumentalisation for specific social actors and social groups and as an ideology that brings about issues of inequality. The questions also pay attention to multilingualism as some kind of existing language order or language regime that is based on processes of selection, hierarchisation, inclusion and exclusion.

The introduction to this panel, which charts some conceptual premises of eliteness and multilingualism as well as outlines the panel participants’ papers, can be found here (includes audio):

Barakos_Selleck_Elite Multilingualism_Panel_Intro

If you would like to know more about elite multilingualism, Elisabeth can be contacted on e.barakos@aston.ac.uk. See also her Aston staff profile for Elisabeth’s other research interests, talks and publications.

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