Linguistic superdiversity: panacea or nostrum?

By Caroline Tagg, Open University 

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Clearly jet-lagged and yet still impressively articulate, Professor Stephen May of the University of Auckland, New Zealand, delivered a thought-provoking talk on on 3rd February 2016 at the University of Birmingham. The talk was organised by University’s MOSAIC Centre for Research on Multilingualism, and was titled: ‘Linguistic superdiversity as a “new” theoretical framework in applied linguistics: panacea or nostrum?’ It was a useful reminder not to stop critically reflecting on the paradigms and theoretical concepts with which we align ourselves.

Stephen was keen to stress his support for a superdiversity lens and for reconceptualisations of language that are now often associated with superdiversity: translanguaging, flexible bilingualism, metrolingualism, and so on. However, he raised questions about the role that a superdiversity approach could play when it came to language rights and revitalisation, and minority language education. These questions were underpinned by oft-cited criticisms of superdiversity: namely, its western ethnocentrism and its lack of historical depth. In other words (mine not his), European scholars have only recently looked up from their desks to notice a situation which has been evident to a lot of other people in other places for a long time. A sense of historicity and scale is necessary in understanding the wider social structures and discourses within which people operate. The disjoin between superdiversity and indigenous language maintenance is also a symptom of the tendency for superdiversity research to focus on urban spaces which, Stephen argued, is fascinating and productive but which reinforces ‘metronormativity’ and downplays the dynamic nature of indigenous languages in relatively isolated rural settlements, for example as they encounter colonialism, globalisation, and revitalisation. From an educational perspective, children learn best if they can do so in a ‘proximal’ language – a language they know well and speak outside the school – which in many cases requires explicit language policy-making and, by extension, an approach which recognises and enforces the very ‘boundedness’ of languages that scholars of superdiversity and language seek to challenge. By privileging ‘individual linguistic agency’ over wider ‘linguistic hierarchies of prestige’, Stephen argued, superdiversity could do little to challenge social or linguistic inequality, or to uphold the language rights of disempowered groups.

Stephen’s intention was not to dismiss superdiversity but rather to keep the debate alive – to avoid ‘paradigmatic closure’ – and, as he put it, to avoid any possibility that an old orthodoxy was simply being replaced by a new one. It was interesting to learn about the potential clash of language ideologies, both driven by the desire to improve people’s lives: the one that focuses on and seeks to make visible the fluidity and messiness of everyday languaging; and the other that prioritises the way people affiliate to individuals languages and their right to do so free of inequality and discrimination. As MOSAIC director and TLANG project team member Adrian Blackledge pointed out, for many people the two ideologies are not irreconcilable but a normal fact of life; as researchers, we need to encompass both.

For more on Stephen May’s work: https://unidirectory.auckland.ac.nz/profile/s-may

 

Professor Jan Blommaert published his response to Stephen May on his blog here.

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