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:
- What counts as ‘elite multilingualism’? How is multilingualism as a kind of power regime taken up in these different spaces? Which type of multilingualism counts?
- Are certain languages favoured by ‘elite’ learners? How are other, less frequently learnt languages and their speakers positioned?
- Does multilingualism bring about new forms of inequalities, hierarchies and stratification? Who benefits from multilingualism and who is marginalised by it?
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):
If you would like to know more about elite multilingualism, Elisabeth can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org. See also her Aston staff profile for Elisabeth’s other research interests, talks and publications.