Language, social media and migration: a TLANG seminar

University of Birmingham, 2nd February 2018

by Caroline Tagg

Back of room shot_Caroline
Introducing the seminar and the TLANG project

With its focus on the role of digital communication technologies – and particularly mobile phones – in migrants’ everyday lives, this research seminar provided an opportunity for us to explore the social media data collected as part of the TLANG project. After an introduction to the project by Angela Creese, Caroline Tagg (Open University, TLANG) talked about our participants’ resourcefulness in taking up and exploiting mobile phone apps for business purposes, highlighting the way in which mobile interactions tend to be intertwined with ‘offline’ activities, with the result that people move fluidly between online and offline environments in carrying out everyday tasks and negotiations. Maria Sabaté i Dalmau (Universitat de Lleida) then introduced her two-year networked ethnography in and around a migrant-run cybercafé (locutorio) in a peripheral neighbourhood of Barcelona, focusing on the migrants’ mobilisation of linguistic subversion strategies as they use and legitimise ‘multi-lingua francas’ (Makoni and Pennycook 2012) as counter-hegemonic ‘we-codes’. Stefan Vollmer (University of Leeds) then explored the notion of technological capital through discussion of Syrian migrants’ attempts to gain their driver’s licence in the UK with the help of mobile apps and a Facebook group. Last but not least, Kristin Vold Lexander discussed the initial findings of her and Jannis Androutsopoulos’s project Media and linguistic repertoires in multilingual families, focusing on the way in which migrants’ linguistic repertoires are enabled and constrained by the polymedia environment in which they communicate. The seminar ended with small group discussions, in which participants made links with their own research and picked out the main themes.

One emerging theme was that of the continuing importance of social or community space as a ‘third space’ in migrants’ lives, whilst also raising questions about what constitutes ‘space’ in a networked society. Importantly, as Johnny Unger pointed out, social space cannot be seen as a ‘place’ located either ‘offline’ or ‘online’, but rather as a discursive space co-created by interlocutors through their exploitation of various physical locales, mobile technologies and modes of communication. For example, the Polish shop researched by TLANG served as an important community hub for local Poles and East Europeans, access to which could be facilitated by obtaining the shopowner’s mobile phone number, which enabled customers to check stock and to pre-order. In turn, whether customers could access her number depended on the nature of relationships formed through face-to-face interaction in the shop. In Vollmer’s study, obtaining a driver’s licence was facilitated by the social capital that enabled migrants to attend the driving test classes organised through Facebook. Similarly, the locutorio in Sabaté i Dalmau’s research served as a place in which migrants could access online information by exploiting the technological capital of the locutorio employee. In each case, migrants co-construct and exploit a vital community space by drawing on the full range of resources available to them. As Adrian Blackledge noted, this brings us to the importance of repertoire as a way of avoiding traditional dichotomies (such as that between the online and the offline) and focusing instead on how individuals and groups negotiate a communicative encounter. This was illustrated by Vold Lexander’s investigation into the way in which media choices intersect with people’s selection of multilingual linguistic resources in the polymedia environment, with for example Norwegian-Senegalese families using their heritage language Wolof mainly through media that enable speaking.

‘Is it this newspaper?’ – ‘Yes thanks I’ll come and get it tomorrow’: creating a social space through online and offline modalities in the Polish shop

A final theme was that of methodology. Each of the speakers had adopted an ethnographic approach, but key differences in approach shaped the kind of research that could be carried out and the insights gained. The wider framework of the TLANG methodology meant that social media data was collected as part of an otherwise ‘offline’ ethnography, allowing us to explore how mobile communications are embedded in individuals’ social and working lives and their wider communicative repertoires – and hence highlighting our participants’ resourcefulness in using technology to address existing communicative needs. Vold Lexander’s methodology takes as its starting point the family, similarly following the individual family members’ communicative encounters via various digital apps and platforms, informed by ethnographic interviews with visual supports such as language portraits and media maps, media diaries and online observation, as well as the collection of interactional digital data. In contrast to the TLANG project, the focus is on exploring language and media practices, and drawing on other data in order to collect participants’ reflections on them. Vollmer’s ethnography has some parallels with this approach, based around in-depth interview with three participants and collection of their social media interactions. In contrast, Sabaté i Dalmau took the physical space of the locutorio as her unit of analysis, immersing herself in the real-world context and exploring the face-to-face, written and digital interactions that took place amongst people using the cybercafé. Her focus on this migrant-regulated business provided insights into the hidden identity politics, hierarchies and language ideologies of the migrant community. The talks highlight the need for ethnography to adapt to take into account the widening array of communicative resources, modes and channels available in a digitally connected world, and the important steps that have already been taken towards this goal.

Thanks to all our speakers and participants for making this such a thought-provoking and interesting event.

Birmingham statue
En-route to the seminar at the University of Birmingham


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s