Michael Rosen: The Languages of Migration

Written by Jessica Bradley

‘The languages of migration cross many borders’

(Michael Rosen 26.11.14)

My role on the TLang project is as a Doctoral Researcher based at the University of Leeds and my research focuses on translation and translanguaging within multilingual arts settings in and around the Harehills area. I am particularly interested in projects that link grassroots activities with partnerships with museums and galleries and the ways in which participants use language and the arts to communicate both within the arts groups themselves and to wider audiences. My work so far on the project has been concentrated in the third sector within charities and social enterprises who work with diverse groups of people, including asylum seekers and refugees, who are navigating their lives in new surroundings and I will be focusing my research in the coming months on arts groups aimed at and organized by people from within these communities.

Last week I was fortunate enough to travel to London to hear children’s author and Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, Michael Rosen, discuss the languages of migration at the Migration Museum public lecture at LSE. I was particularly interested in hearing Michael speak about this topic given the nature of my area of study and the people with whom I will be working over the course of the next few years. The title of the talk was fairly broad and I had wondered which languages would be the focus of the lecture. Would it be the languages of the most recent migrants to the UK? Or, would it be the languages from Michael’s own background? In fact, the main focus of the lecture was the English language itself and the way in which words can be used to create an image or put across a particular opinion, something that interests me greatly as a linguist. There were, pleasingly, a number of indirect references to translanguaging within Michael’s family experience, or as he put it, the way that people ‘mingle words and expressions across at least two languages’, and he gave some rich examples of his own memories of this.

I should issue the following disclaimer: I am, and in fact, we are, in our household, big, big fans of Michael Rosen’s books. It is rare that a week goes by without us reading ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’, a book that will always provide fond memories for me of my children’s early years. I follow his commentary on education through the various channels, including his blog, and his enthusiasm for all things literary for children and young people is inspirational. Indeed his books, in particular those illustrated by Quentin Blake, also remind me of my own childhood and the ways in which my ideas about the world were shaped by the poems and stories that were read to me as an infant and which I later read myself. The opportunity, therefore, to hear Michael speak about a topic related to my own research was too good to miss!

The Migration Museum Project aims to establish a museum dedicated to migration, telling the stories of who we are in Britain today. Currently, the museum organizes a series of exhibitions that tour the country and a programme of education engagement. The long-term plan is for the museum to have a site in London. Barbara Roche, the project’s chair, opened the lecture by expressing her desire for a sober and well-informed debate on migration and the start of what she referred to as ‘grown up conversations’ about the topic. Robert Winder, author of ‘Bloody Foreigners’, who chaired the lecture, described the ‘shrill cry’ about migration in the press and on the political stage in recent years.

Michael first encouraged the audience to participate in a short survey of ‘migration’, asking us about our roots, our families and indeed whether we still lived in the home we grew up in as children (another word for migration, he said, is just ‘moving’). He then went on to read three different speeches or conversations in order to illustrate the current conversations, both national and international, around migration and migrants. First he gave the example of Barack Obama’s speech about undocumented migrants in the USA in which Obama discusses the case of Astrid Silva, a hardworking and academically bright migrant who came to the USA as a child. Obama talks about sacrifice, hard work, and equality and states that these shared principles are more important than ‘illegality’. He then read two accounts from politicians in the UK around the same subject but with markedly different language. The first of these was a discussion of low wages and migration and the second was an interview from earlier this year related to hearing foreign languages on public transport and the effect of this on that particular politician. Michael also invited us to consider the ways in which often, when discussing controversial subjects, words can be omitted, in a way that leads the listener to infer meaning and therefore take responsibility for the views being put across by the speaker, albeit in a more passive fashion. Migration as a highly-charged political football.

There were a number of references to translanguaging from Michael’s own family experience: his extended family comes from Poland, Russia and Romania via the USA and his parents sometimes spoke Yiddish. Michael talked about the ways in which Yiddish words were used in conversation, especially when his father would talk in a nostalgic way about his own father’s stories about Poland, which he would call ‘der Heim’, Yiddish for ‘home’ or ‘the homeland’, and we heard extracts from his father’s letters about his childhood:

‘Part of the language of migrants is that they often talk in many tongues like this’.

Michael described his father’s ‘translanguaging’ as being a way of communicating the image of ‘der Heim’ that he carried with him:

‘an image of another place, a mythic place of origin, which he shared with me and my brother through language’. Migration as rich linguistic heritage.    

The focus of the talk then moved from talking about sentiment and nostalgia to that of the darker side of migration: war, suffering, persecution and the splitting up of families. A series of German-language letters from Michael’s extended family had been sent during the Second World War from France and Poland and documented a tragic and moving story of migration in desperate circumstances. Migration as life-saving.

After the lecture, Michael answered a range of questions from members of the audience on issues as diverse as flags (the talk took place shortly after the Rochester bi-election), the languages of statistics with reference to migration and the ways in which groups change their use of language to adapt to their circumstances, for example in the case of the RAF during the Second World War. Thus ended an inspiring and thought-provoking evening.

This lecture marked the launch of the Migration Museum’s public lectures and I look forward to being able to attend future lectures and events and to seeing how the project evolves over the next few years.

A transcript of the lecture is available here on Michael Rosen’s blog: http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.uk/

You can listen to the talk in full on LSE’s website here: http://www.lse.ac.uk/newsAndMedia/videoAndAudio/channels/publicLecturesAndEvents/player.aspx?id=2732

More information about the Migration Museum Project is available here:



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