March was a great month in terms of academic events. Just after a little longer than a week after the TTB conference at Warwick, I was honoured to be one of the three conference assistants helping out with the logistics of the Language, Mobility and Belonging Conference at the University of Oxford. The three-day conference started off beautifully on 23 March in a sun-drenched Somerville College with a warm welcome from the four organisers – Kinga Kozminska, Leonie Schulte, Nancy Hawker and Rosemary Hall – immediately followed by the opening remarks held by Lesley Milroy – yes, that Lesley Milroy – whose name is an institution proper in sociolinguistics, and whose name incidentally features on the book cover I included in my previous post whilst discussing about language and authority.
From my point of view, this conference was very well-timed for a number of reasons – both personal and, most importantly, “global”. Linguistics-based debates have been laying the groundwork of mobility discourses for quite a while now, to such an extent that concepts like ‘movement’, ‘migration’, ‘geographical dislocation of speech communities’ should now be considered as established concepts, ready to be further challenged and problematised. Nevertheless, contemporary public discourses and practices concerning the movement of people and goods continue to fail at grasping basic phenomena that the language sciences have been outlining for a few decades. This “post-mobile age” (as one of the delegates worded it) remains imbued with legends and myths that perpetuate fully conventional, utterly unnatural social practices. For this reason it is compelling to address questions of language and its role and shape in society.
The act of disengagement of language from geopolitical conventions is at the core of any sociolinguistic discourse, it emerges in the introduction of a very large collection of articles and essays on the subject. And notwithstanding all the efforts, we keep finding the need to underline it: there is no such thing as a ‘national language’ – intra– and inter-variations are natural processes. Besides, at the end of the day, people do not really need linguists to figure it out. As I mentioned elsewhere, human beings are exceptionally good at spotting linguistic variation (and thereby at socially categorising individuals) – language variation plays a significant role in our perceptive experience. If that is the case, then, why does our society seem to forget it all whilst tackling immigration? Why do national policies treat language testing as a one-size-fits-all solution? Why do asylum seekers’ screening tests involve a language analysis for the determination of origin that blanks out the fact that people move about, travel, are in contact with different people, speak different languages, are subjected to language contact?
These are among the many pressing questions that LMB2017 sought not necessarily to answer, but at least to make reverberate in public discourse. At present, we seem to be experiencing a subtle backfiring of globalisation: there is a rising of introspective ideologies that claim to hinge on ‘the values of the past’, by pulling out of the hat old myths and beliefs that describe a reality that has never been really there and yet individuals’ actions (e.g. votes in elections) ascribe to them en masse. The papers presented at the conference provided a diversified perspective on how the ‘diversity on the move’ unfolds, showing how unfathomable and multi-faceted sociolinguistic phenomena come about, develop and settle. This display of sociolinguistic cases challenges compartmentalisation in multiple linguistic discourses and rejects this fixity of diversity that often emerges first and foremost in academia, thus undermining the whole discussion around the individual’s actions and the individual’s motives that rightly problematise but also explicate the role of sociolinguistic research. This point in particular was particularly striking to me as it made me reflect upon my previous work on Homi Bhabha’s third space and it made me notice the shortcomings in my undergraduate dissertation, which revolved around the quest after the understanding of this still compartmentalising ‘third space’.
A further point I would like to mention concerns the role that technology plays in all of this mess. Because, when we discuss about diversity of variation, or variation networks, technology plays a great, invisible role. For a large (although far from totally inclusive) part of the world population, technology has become a major channel of linguistic practice. A great deal of language use types are applied in satellite communication, thus annihilating the geographical constraints at the base of traditional understandings of contact. These observations feed into the discussion above in a rather concerning, change-demanding way. If transidiomatic practices (Jacquemet 2005) are to be considered as the most fitting parameters, well, policy-makers should goddamn know about them.