TLANG’s Final Conference: Communication in the Multilingual City

by Caroline Tagg (Open University) and Piotr Wegorowski (Cardiff University)

 

For years you kept your accent

in a box beneath the bed,

the lock rusted shut by elocution …

the teacher’s ruler across your legs

(Liz Berry, ‘Homing’ in Black Country, Chatto and Windus 2014)

 

Our four-year TLANG project culminated on 28th and 29th March 2018 with a two-day international conference held in the new Alan Walters Building on the University of Birmingham campus. Over the course of two days, 150 delegates attended five plenaries, five colloquia and two roundtable discussions, as well as 60 talks, all organised around five themes emerging from our project research: mobility, interpretation, encounters, change and networks. We also enjoyed an evening reception to launch The Routledge Handbook of Language and Superdiversity, edited by Angela Creese and Adrian Blackledge, and a poem by local poet Liz Berry.

The five plenary talks chimed with our findings over the last four years. In the opening plenary, Betsy Rymes highlighted the importance of metacommentary as a way of understanding people’s orientations to language and communication, focusing on the internet as a source of citizen sociolinguists’ discussions around language-related issues, including translanguaging. Her work reveals how ordinary people are experts in their own linguistic games, and that conflict and arise when people assume their rules are universal and impose them on others’ sometimes very different linguistic games. Betsy runs a blog where she documents language use from the perspective of the people who use it.

tlang speakers 2
Betsy Rymes

Annelies Kusters plenary focused on how deaf and hearing people communicate in the markets of Mumbai. Showing rich examples, which can also be found in a fascinating research film, she highlighted the role that a co-operative disposition plays in facilitating translanguaging, suggesting that translanguaging might be seen not so much as a practice but as an ideological orientation. Her focus on gesture, facial expressions and the body also illustrated how the concept of the semiotic repertoire might help bridge the often distinct fields on multilingualism and multimodality.

Tlang speakers 1
Annelies Kusters

Tong King Lee argued for an understanding of translanguaging as – unlike translation – fleeting, dynamic and contingent. Pointing out that translanguaging cannot exist where forms are fossilised, he suggested that translanguaging is located not in practice but in individual subjectivity – the moment in which a person inhabits a translanguaging space, be it socially or cognitively – and therefore any one language form can constitute a normal aspect of one person’s practice and an act of creative translanguaging for another.

tlang speakers 4
Tong King Lee

Ana Deumert asked us to look again at conviviality, and who might experience any one encounter as convivial and the power relations that might determine this. Conviviality, she argued, may only be surface deep in a world still marked by inequality and racism, and may emerge in expert linguistic discourse because of the position of relative privilege that we occupy. Her talk reminded us not to background the conflicts and uncomfortable moments that often occur alongside, or which interrupt, convivial encounters.

tlang speakers 3
Ana Deumert

Although our final speaker, Jan Blommaert, was not able to be with us in person, his paper was relayed by his colleague, Max Spotti. The final plenary focused on internet communication, specifically the case of memic hashtag activism. Jan demonstrated how a political event prompted a humorous series of memes, using a hashtag, to spread online. Meme hashtag activism seems to influence mass media and effectively lead to change, showing the possibilities for networked communities to achieve great effects with small-scale actions.

The keynotes provided a strong reference point for the whole of the conference, with many presenters reflecting on some of the main themes discussed. One invited colloquium, Translanguaging for learning in Higher Education?, organised by Carolyn McKinney and Mbulungeni Madiba and showcasing research which resulted from collaboration between the TLANG project and Universities South Africa, considered practical uses of translanguaging, where students from multilingual backgrounds are able to draw on all their linguistic resources to learn concepts from various disciplines, such as mathematics or economics.

Echoing Li Wei’s short speech at the end of the conference, the TLANG team would like to thank our project PI, Angela Creese, for four years of inspiration, drive and support. Even though this was the project’s final conference, the conversations started and collaborations into which we have entered will continue beyond TLANG. The project findings are available accessible on our project website, including working papers for each of the four stages of the research from the four case studies, and a number of films documenting the project’s activities and event (including one on the conference itself).

 

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