Department of English Language and Applied Linguistics, University of Birmingham
The first week of March saw us spending our afternoons sitting at our stall in the foyer of the new Library of Birmingham. We were ‘Messaging in the Midlands’, a research project funded by the Institute of Research into Superdiversity (IRiS) to explore the diversity of identities performed through online messages and the ways in which people pick up and exploit a variety of locally-available resources to do this. Our aim was to attract people to our stall, get them to fill in a short questionnaire on their background (where they were from and where they had lived), the languages they spoke and the online platforms they used, and then ask them to contribute examples of their online messages.
I, Caroline, am a researcher on both this project and the TLANG project where I am responsible for overseeing the collection and analysis of social media data. As in the TLANG project, our interest with Messaging in the Midlands is in how people actually use language in their daily lives, as well as how they make sense of their linguistic choices. The project was a pilot, designed to test our research methods and instruments – which it certainly did.
The space in the Library is amazing and photos such as the ones here cannot do it justice. It is big and grand and oddly quiet for such a busy place. We put up our banners in the Library’s ‘Spotlight’ area, where two tables and a metal poster stand had been laid out for us. At the time of fieldwork uncertainty hung over the financial future of the Library and staff cuts were being considered. Nevertheless we were welcomed warmly and staff took interest in our project. We arranged books along the tables, together with 2 A1 posters we had had made which explained our project in simple terms. Nonetheless, a couple of people assumed we were giving classes in ‘how to write text messages’ and went away disappointed (something to address in our main project).
We were looking for diversity and we found it in the Library foyer. Or rather, it found us. Around 3 people per hour participated in our study, they tended to come over alone rather than in pairs (which we had hoped for) and they did so for a variety of reasons: to kill time before an appointment; to help us as researchers; out of curiosity. A total of 41 people participated. Between them, they claimed to speak 30 languages:
English, Punjabi, Urdu, Mirpuri, Arabic, Farsi, Polish, Somali, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Irish Gaelic, Welsh, Hindi, Italian, Swedish, Patwa, Tigre, Mandarin, Kurdish, Hebrew, Japanese, British Sign Language, Kikongo, Sylheti, Bengali, Swahili, Luganda, and Cantonese.
Our participants were overwhelmingly born in the UK, with 15 claiming to be born in Birmingham (and others coming from Wolverhampton, Somerset, Manchester, Milton Keynes, London, Leicester, Oxford and Stourbridge. Nine participants had been born abroad, in Sweden, China (3 people), Congo (Brazzaville), Uganda, Syria, Eritrea and Vietnam. They ranged in age from around 21 to 60 and included men (22) and women (19).
Meanwhile, many others came over to us simply to chat. One man tried to convert us to Christianity; another came to us looking for motivation to write again; another wished us to intervene in the problems he was having with the Library’s IT department and, it turned out, his employers and the government more generally. One woman from the French Congo sat with us for a while, heartily and rightly criticising our questionnaire (we didn’t include French or other European languages in the list of languages spoken in Birmingham; we should include age categories rather than asking for year of birth; and where was Snapchat and Skype in our list of possible platforms?). One pair of young men sat and texted a conversation in front of us – we were delighted at their clever awareness but unsure as to its status as data:
Everyone had their own take on digital communications and technology: some were sceptical or scared of security problems; some impressed on us that they wrote their messages carefully in a formal style; many people thought the way they wrote was normal or boring. One of the most striking things about our time in the Library was our realisation of its multifaceted role in society – as a place to hang out, kill time, look for work, use the computers, find someone to talk to – and in this role it attracted people of diverse ages and backgrounds.
The next step is to carry out some discourse analysis on the online messages submitted in order to start building up an overall picture of the potential diversity of linguistic resources drawn on in online messages sent from within and around Birmingham.
Meanwhile, the Library of Birmingham is currently being used as a fieldwork site in the second phase of the TLANG project which focuses on heritage. Adrian Blackledge and Rachel Hu are currently researching the linguistic repertoire of a Chinese key participant who works in the Customer Experience department. They will observe her at work over the next few months.