Negotiating language in a superdiverse UK city: Young Bengalis’ attitudes and practices

Creese and Blackledge argue that ‘superdiversity’ ought to be embedded in (socio)linguistics as it leads to new forms of language use and negotiations of identity. To this effect, they developed comparative research in complementary schools in England: Gujarati schools in Leicester, Turkish schools in London, Cantonese and Mandarin schools in Manchester, and Bengali schools in Birmingham. Observations were recorded in each school, and interviews conducted with key participant children as well as other stakeholders. The present paper focusses on the two Bengali schools in Birmingham, the second largest city in the UK with the highest proportion of ‘black and ethnic minority’ residents.

Three main findings emerged from the study. Firstly, school administrators, teachers and parents view community languages as a means to transmit heritage and preserve identity. Although they argue that children should learn the heritage language, this is not straightforward as language attitudes and practices are related in complex ways. In practice, teachers use language flexibly when communicating with pupils. Also, some children in the study showed reluctance to learn Bengali, preferring instead to speak English.

Secondly, language repertoires mark differences between speakers. Some language repertoires are considered to represent nation, heritage and culture, with their speakers superior to others. Yet some participants denied such clear differences, even ridiculing the notion that differences were based on social status. For instance, some children saw the use of official Bengali as showing off; they stated a preference for Sylheti, a rural variety of Bengali, despite its lower prestige. Furthermore, those children born in Birmingham made fun of newcomers from Bangladesh for using difficult words in Bengali while not being able to understand English.

Thirdly, the mixing of languages – translanguaging – was observed among parents, peers and teachers, indicating that it facilitates communication at home as well as in complementary schools where multiple languages are spoken.

Young multilinguals in the UK have a wide range of resources when shaping their language practices and attitudes. Creese and Blackledge scrutininse their language choices in context as emerging linguistic repertoires evolve from various sources. In developing a sociolinguistics of superdiversity, they look closely at practices of translanguaging, and consider the histories, geographies, and societies which shape them. They conclude that language choice is implicated in a group process of identity construction, which is both local and translocal.

Simone Plöger, Yi Shen & Anouk Ticheloven

Creese, A., & Blackledge, A. (2010). Towards a sociolinguistics of superdiversity. Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft, 13(4), 549-572.

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