Polylanguaging – the use of features associated with different languages – even when a speaker knows very little of those languages.
Languages do not exist. At least, that’s what Jorgensen et al assert in their article. According to them, languages as we know them are simply bundles of features which we associate as belonging together. In light of the fact that languages are only bundles of features, code-switching does not exist per se; it is simply the use of features which are commonly associated with another ‘language’. However, I will continue to use the common terminology as it is difficult to avoid without over-complicating the discussion.
To collect data, I started with an interview with a colleague, Q, about her language use in the home using the interview template which we had created (see the introductory blog post) as my foundations before expanding on certain points which were particularly pertinent to this topic. I also spent a period of time observing language use in the home of H and collected photos of some items which I found in the home environment.
What I found fascinated me. Although this post is primarily based on code switching and polylanguaging, I have included some points relating to the topics of other weeks which were particularly interesting.
Q is a university student in her early 20s. For her, home is where she lives with her family in North Bondi. According to her self-assessment, she is fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and English. However, she mainly speaks Mandarin at home. The two languages spoken in her home are Mandarin and Cantonese. English is reserved for university and workplace. The reason for this is that Mandarin is the common language of all the members of her family. Her mother does not know English while her sister is not so fluent in Cantonese.
Q stated that she feels uncomfortable speaking in a language which she knows others do not understand. Since everyone speaks Mandarin to a high degree of fluency, there is little need to code-switch in her home. This contrasts with her behaviour outside the home where she will switch languages in order to accommodate the people around her, whether she is addressing them or not. This accords with the idea that there is a norm not to speak in a language which you know others do not know.
An example of code-switching in print material in the home: a recipe written in (traditional) Chinese and English.
Conversely, if Q hears a language being spoken then she feels more comfortable speaking that language. She stated that she would speak Chinese in Hurstville, but the opposite would not be true in her home suburb. When we compare the languages spoken in these two areas, it is apparent that Chinese is much more wide-spread in Hurstville than in North Bondi.
2011 ABS Census data: Chinese is much more commonly spoken in Hurstville than North Bondi.
For Q, language is an integral part of her identity. I found it interesting that although she is an Australian citizen, the fact that she predominantly speaks Chinese meant that she did not identify as Australian. This might be a result of the fact that the de facto language of Australia is English and therefore speaking any other language is perceived as being not Australian.
Polylanguaging in advertising material in the home. English with Japanese (romaji).
H is also in her early 20s and a university student. Home for her is where she lives with her parent in South Sydney. She is fluent in English and spoken Mandarin and has recently begun learning Japanese. When conversing with her parent, it is equally common that she speaks entirely in English as well as entirely in Mandarin or even mixing the two. The choice of language does not seem to follow a pattern but is dictated by both her language skills and convenience.
Developments in communication technology have meant that messaging has gained widespread popularity. Communication can occur between people all over the world without the need to even leave one’s bedroom. Between friends, it is usually a private method of communication and the languages used are decided amongst them. Between strangers, it may be decided by an administrator and may be public.
Some examples of polylanguaging were found in her messages. As previously mentioned, H has just begun learning Japanese. However, even prior to her decision to learn the formal aspects of the grammar and vocabulary, she was already engaging in polylanguaging. As Jorgensen et al note, one does not need to know a language in much depth to be able to engage in polylanguaging. Indeed, it is often something as small as borrowing a common word in another language. Some examples of polylanguaging included the use of kaomoji (顔文字), which are full face emoticons, such as
and slang such as
short for warai （笑い）– to laugh.
Although kaomoji are arguably becoming integrated into English, they have their roots in Japanese culture. Japanese net slang is quite obviously a feature of Japanese. One explanation for the use of features associated with another language, particularly one which one has no claim of fluency, is that it is an expression of interest in a culture. By borrowing these features in everyday speech, H is expressing a connection to the culture through its language.
Another feature of polylanguaging is that it can be used to create novel forms of expression. For example, puns can be created by code switching in the middle of a word:
lit. thanks very much
For those that can understand the expression (an ‘in-group’), it is amusing because it is a novel way to say something that may otherwise be very ordinary.
Summary of Findings
- Language use in the home is highly dependant on the needs and abilities of other people, the same as it is elsewhere
- Norm of not speaking in a language which other people in your group do not understand, regardless of whether you are speaking to them or not
- Language plays a key role in identity
- The use of multiple languages may be a matter of convenience or a means of targeting specific audiences
- Language can be used to express connection with a culture
- Polylanguaging can lead to novel ways of expression
Blommaert, J. & Rampton, B. (2011). Language and Superdiversity, UNESCO.
Jørgensen, J. N., Karrebæk, M. S., Madsen, L. M. & Møller, J. S. (2011). Polylanguaging in Superdiversity, UNESCO.
“If I’m in Australia, having people around me speaking English makes me more comfortable speaking in English as well…when I was growing up hearing my mum speak English to me at home I hated it, because I felt so French. I hated her speaking to me in English.”
I sat down with my flatmate – a 22-year-old bilingual female born in France, raised by a French father and an Australian mother. In 2015 she moved to Sydney indefinitely to study and then work. I wanted to gain more of an understanding of how she felt living in an environment dominated by English speakers when she had spent a good part of her life living in Paris, surrounded by French speakers.
The people that will be mentioned throughout the post and the languages they speak:
- Myself: monolingual (English)
- B (my flatmate/interviewee): bilingual (French/Australian), proficient in Spanish
- B’s mother: first language is English, fluent in French and German
- B’s father: first language is French, limited English
- B’s brother: bilingual (French/Australian)
- C (our previous flatmate): first language is French, second language is English, proficient in Spanish
- D (our current flatmate): monolingual (English)
It was really interesting in interviewing B to notice recurring references to identity and image based on the languages she speaks in different environments. As a bilingual speaker, adapting to an environment dominated by English speakers was a somewhat easier process than it would’ve been for someone like C who only speaks English as a second language. I think the difficulty, however, was in her ability to continue to speak French comfortably in the home environment where not all members of the household knew the language.
Me: How about speaking a language not commonly known by others in the home? How did that feel for you?
B: I felt uncomfortable about it because I felt like it was rude for us to have you in the room and for you to not understand what we were saying. I think it’s better now that I don’t speak French at home anymore because I was scared that you were going to feel excluded in some way because you can’t be part of the conversation.
Me: How would you feel if that was reversed? If other people were speaking a language in the home that you didn’t know?
B: I would hate it. I would constantly be scared that they were talking about me.
It was interesting to learn that even in the home environment, B was uncomfortable speaking in French when I was present and I couldn’t understand the language. Even though she could more naturally communicate with C in French, she felt more comfortable speaking to her in English to ensure that all three of us understood what was being said.
We then went on to discuss what evidence of the French language remains in our household now that C has moved out and D has moved in. It’s a completely different linguistic environment because English is now the only language spoken, apart from when B is speaking to friends and family back home.
“B: I think pretty much everything is in English. Every show that I watch, every movie that I watch is in English. You guys speak English, ads that I see outside are in English. People that I talk to in stores are in English. My computer’s in French but I don’t even think about that anymore. But my phone’s in English.”
Upon hearing this I realised how easy it was for me to notice that B’s computer was in French, and that sometimes she’ll use French subtitles for English shows. This probably comes down to the fact that I only know English, so seeing and hearing words in French seems unnatural to me. For B, however, it’s often just a blur of the two languages. When she speaks to her mum on the phone, she will usually talk to her in French and her mum will respond in English. This is another thing that D and I are very aware of, but seems to go almost unnoticed by B.
To wrap things up, we spoke about her identity in a few different linguistic circumstances.
“B: If I’m in Australia, having people around me speaking English makes me more comfortable speaking English as well. Things have evolved, so when I was growing up hearing my mum speak English to me at home I hated it, because I felt so French and I was like “why do you speak to me in English? I don’t want people to think I’m a tourist, I want people to know that I’m French”. I hated her speaking to me in English. Now that I’m here [in Australia], when I go back [to France] I’m okay with her speaking English to me. But I still hate being in an environment where other people are speaking one language and we’re speaking in a different language. I’d rather speaking French in France, English in Australia.”
However when B’s family came to visit her in Australia late last year, they stayed in their own private house and she had no issues with speaking French every day. This led me to assume that perhaps the identity issue here was not one to do with B’s physical location and what that meant for her linguistic choices, but rather the people that she is interacting with and her desire to fit in with those people, whether it is within the walls of a household or in a public space.
“B: I think I’m just scared of what people think. I don’t want people to think I’m from overseas. I want people to think I belong here.”
In 21st Century Australia, only 150 indigenous languages have survived, and only 10 of which are viable. In NSW alone, only 20 Aboriginal languages are spoken today. Very little evidence has been found to provide decent information on Australian indigenous languages spoken at home or in our chosen domain; family. This is due to the lack of Aboriginals and/or Torres Strait Islanders in most common areas. In order to find more about whether Indigenous languages are still spoken at home, we can take a look at our Australian Census of Population and Housing. Unfortunately, the results of the 2016 Census for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders does not come out until June of this year (2017), I cannot find any information that is very recent. However, we can take a look at the results of the 2011 Census, which is still fairly recent.
Before looking into the results of Indigenous languages, first I’d like to discuss the findings of why there is little evidence to prove a broad presence in our chosen domain. As I previously mentioned, there seems to be a lack of Aboriginals and/or Torres Strait Islanders in most common areas. For example, the 2011 Census displays that only 2.9% of the population in NSW alone are Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander, which is why it was difficult to find evidence in my surroundings. The largest population are found in the Northern Territory at 30%, whilst in all of Australia, including other territories, they only make up 3% of Australian population.
According to the results of the 2011 Census, it indicated that only 11% of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders spoke an Australian Indigenous language at home, which can be expressed as 1 in 10 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. Of these Indigenous languages, the most spoken, at 18%, were in the Arnhem Land and Daly River Region Languages. This census also found that since the last census in 2006, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders who spoke English at home increased by 1% and most likely if we had the 2016 results, we would see another increase, and unfortunately likely a decline or maybe even a stable state of Indigenous languages spoken at home.
Figure 1: Australian Indigenous Language Speakers by Language Group(a), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people(b), taken from the 2011 Census.[1a]
I believe that not only the fact that the Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander population is a minority, but also the lack of education leads to this loss of and “invisible” Indigenous languages. These Indigenous languages are a part of our Australian history and should be taught in order to enhance the use of these languages in the future. A great example of this, is when I was in primary school we would sing one verse of the national anthem in Dharawal, where in my area, the Sutherland Shire is known as Dharawal county.
Figure 2: Dharawal Verse of the Australian National Anthem
Another primary school I went to in year 3, Darlington Public School; located in Chippendale, prided itself in its cultural enrichment, and you could see it. The school was covered with Aboriginal artworks and a lot of students were also Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islanders. We were actually taught an Indigenous language, however, only being at the school for a year most of my memory of it has diminished, which is rather unfortunate.
But if all public schools around Australia were more like this in that they taught more Indigenous languages, Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders would benefit learning their culture, and have the opportunity to speak these at home and create their own sense of belonging in their cultures, but also it would raise awareness to the non-Indigenous, such as myself, about our Australian history and keep the use of these intriguing languages alive.
However, there is also another issue, and this is the issue of language preservation and the role of linguists. After reading Michael Walsh’s article, ‘Will Indigenous Languages Survive?’ I came to agree in that the preservation of these languages should be up to these language speakers and their community rather than linguists decide what’s more important. I do not want to necessarily see a language die, but it isn’t always up to us. These languages could be sacred, they could be a sense of pride, feeling like a belonging to a community, and to have just about anyone knowing it, might make that community feel a little less special in a way. It is up to them if they want their language to be preserved. Some will love the idea that their language will be passed on through the generations, others, however, will like the exclusiveness. But this is not our call to make.
With references to:
[1a]2011 Census of Population and Housing: Characteristics of Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders
3 participants completed a questionnaire about language use in the home, at their current residence, family home or both. All spoke two languages; all spoke English fluently. 1 spoke more than two languages. All respondents’ parents spoke at least 2 languages.
All currently lived in Australia but 2 were born overseas. 2 identified their ancestry as European, 1 as Indian. 1 respondent talked about their family home and another residence, 1 talked about their family home (not current residence), and 1 talked about their family home (current residence).
My respondents were not ‘average’ Australians. In 2011, 0.3% of the population in NSW and nationally spoke French (respondent K), 0.2% spoke Tamil nationally and 0.3% in NSW (respondent J), and less than 0.1% nationally and in NSW spoke either Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish or Danish (respondent I). 15.2% nationally and 18.6% in NSW spoke another language and English well or very well, compared to 76.8% nationally and 72.5% in NSW who spoke only English. 1.4% nationally and in NSW were born in India (respondent J) and less than 0.1% nationally and in NSW were born in Iceland (respondent I) – 24.6% nationally and 25.7% in NSW were born overseas. (Sources: languages spoken other than English, English proficiency, place of birth)
Therefore, bilinguals, those who speak a language other than English at home (especially the languages of my respondents) and those born overseas are not representative of the ‘average’ Australian.
Language Use and Unwritten Rules
Choice of language was based on internal and external factors, including: known languages of the audience (all); efforts to know a language other than English (J); and fear of being judged on competency (K and J).
All were happy with personally speaking multiple languages and others speaking multiple languages in the home. However, all responded they would feel neutral or negatively if others spoke a language they did not know with the purpose of excluding them.
“If I know I am not part of the conversation it is usually fine – and if I have someone else to speak to it is fine, but it can feel uncomfortable if people suddenly speak another language in front of me without including me and/or explaining what they are talking about.” – Participant I
This suggests an unwritten (implicit) rule of communication saying the ‘unmarked’ (normative) decision is to include all participants in conversation, through using a language shared by all participants, by translating for participants, etc. By violating this rule, a ‘marked’ decision is made, which conveys information and socialisation in a way someone cannot participate in.
“I would feel uncomfortable having a conversation in front of someone who does not understand unless I am translating the conversation as well – it would feel awkward if I knew they did not understand and I did not translate.” – Participant I
Ethnic Tongues – Online and Offline
When asked, ‘What is the importance of your language(s) in your home?’, Participant I said “very important”, but J and K did not feel language had much importance. K qualified their statement by saying they felt it had “low explicit importance”, which I think is a very important distinction to make. However, all participants believed language had a strong role in their identity. I and J both felt language was an identifying feature – I said, “I feel that it is one of the things that people identify me from” and J explained,
“In India, language is a way to identify a group of people because we are so divided by numerous state borders and languages. Therefore, it strongly identifies me not only as an Indian, but a Tamil…”
When comparing the effect of language on their identity and the importance of language in the home, it is K’s insightful comment – that language had “low explicit importance” – that explains the tension between these contrasting beliefs.
Notably, participants said they consumed and created a minimum of 80% of their internet content in English, despite all having at least advanced competency in another language. Participant I listed their consumption and creation as 80% English, 15% Norwegian and 5% Icelandic, J as 80% English, 15% Korean and 5% Japanese and K as 97% English and 3% French. A common thread among using languages other than English was ‘keeping in contact with family and friends’, showing participants changed the common language of the conversation depending on the situational context. J did not say they created or consumed any Tamil-language content. The kinds of English content consumed and created were online books, YouTube, Facebook and news articles; J’s Korean and Japanese content was consumption of anime and Asian dramas. J mentioned their parents watch Tamil TV but they themselves had “no interest”.
The internet is a place where bilingualism (and multilingualism) may be the norm – “a space of seemingly endless possibilities for self-expression and community formation” (Varis and Wang, 2011: 70) – but the de facto language for my participants was English. Much content is only accessible if you speak English, leading to the creation and consumption of more English-language content. Some may become (at least) bilingual to give them access to these spaces. Specific hubs exist where my participants consumed languages other than English material, like news sites or anime. However, their main consumption of news and consumption and creation of public social media was in English. Private social media (e.g., Facebook Messenger) was where content was created and consumed in languages other than English. This division of public and private audiences again suggests unwritten rules of making sure conversation is intelligible to all participants. Part of this is how our definition of community or audience is changing with globalisation and technology, and how this is affected by and affects diversity in places online and offline, places “where diversity is constrained by a complex of normative struggles” (Varis and Wang, 2011: 70), and how these struggles inform language and its users’ choices.
Varis and Wang (2011) Superdiversity on the Internet: A case from China. Chapter 5 in Language and Superdiversities by Blommaert, Rampton and Spotty. DIVERSITIES: An online journal published by UNESCO & MPIMMG.
I thought that the concept of language identity connection would be interesting to explore through the eyes of a monolingual living within a multilingual home. My interviewee, T, is a first generation Australian with Chinese parents who immigrated from Malaysia.
English is the primary language spoken in T’s home, however his parents will occasionally use other languages or dialects to convey certain expressions. The following list shows a breakdown of the languages spoken in T’s home, with the proficiency levels of each in brackets:
- T = English (full)
- T’s mother = English (full); Malay (medium); Hokkien (medium); Cantonese (low)
- T’s father = English (full); Malay (medium); Cantonese (medium)
- T’s brother = English (full)
One of the main takeaways of this interview was the extremely positive attitude that he expressed towards multilingualism and linguistic diversity. When asked on his thoughts about others in the home speaking a language he does not know or a language that is not commonly known to others, T responded:
“I can imagine that it would be something that you could be proud of, something that sets you apart.”
This perspective seems to stem from T’s desire, but current inability, to speak his family’s native tongue as a way to connect with his heritage. T expressed how he, at times, felt “jealous” of those who could speak a language that is connected to their ethnic heritage, as he believes it can enhance your relationship with not only your culture, but also your family. Accordingly, T stated that his monolingualism or “the not knowing of Chinese” is a significant aspect of his identity. This monolingual identity becomes particularly salient for T in certain situations, for instance, when he observes his friends’ ability to converse with their families in their mother tongues or when he returns to Malaysia to extended family who prefer to converse in Cantonese.
“As little as I think about, it over the past, I guess four or five years, it’s really become like a significant part of my identity is the not knowing of Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese, but also the fact that I want to learn it – those kind of make up a significant part of my identity because I then shift from an Australian to an Australian Born Chinese to an Australian Chinese who’s trying to rediscover or reclaim his heritage.”
Exemplifying the post-structuralist idea of identity theory, T explained how he is in the process of not only learning Cantonese but, in a way, “reclaiming” his ethnic heritage through language. This post-structuralist idea views identity as “socially organized, reorganized, constructed, co-constructed, and continually reconstructed through language and discourse” (Kouhpaeenejad and Gholaminejad, 2014: 200). In summary, through this perspective, identity is seen as something that can continually shifts in accordance with our different linguistic interactions.
T’s identity is currently dominated by his Australian-ness stemming from factors including growing up in Australia, consuming predominantly Western media, and speaking only English. I believe T is building upon or ‘constructing’ his identity by setting out to learn Chinese. He is actively trying to, from his perspective, ‘enhance’ his identity and create a greater connection with his home and cultural heritage by broadening his linguistic abilities.
Another impetus for T learning Chinese is the alienating effects of not knowing the language amongst extended family who prefer to converse in it within their homes in Malaysia. During the interview, T described how colloquialisms and idioms were often how Chinese and Malay were brought into the home by his parents. Interestingly, T stated that these languages when spoken were never used maliciously or with ill intention. I thought it was strange that he specified this, and upon querying this, he described how Cantonese was the preferred language of his extended family back in Malaysia, and that it was even occasionally used to speak about another family member whose grasp of the language was lower. In this sense, broadening his language skills also prevents T from feeling isolated from his family and culture.
Figure 1: books displaying English – the main language seen, spoken and heard in T’s home
Returning to T’s home in Australia, T explained that English was definitely the main language he saw and heard around his home, and I could observe this for instance in print media such as books, newspapers, and catalogues as shown in Figure 1. Accordingly, T described English as being “huge in [his] identity,” and that there is an association of his monolingualism – specifically, his ability to speak only English – with his “Australian-ness”.
“When I think of myself, who I am, I always think of myself as an Australian first and foremost … I’m a Chinese Australian who was born in Australia who can’t speak any language other than English.”
Although the predominance of English was very clear from my observations, I was also able to see visual representations of the other languages that are spoken in T’s home, Chinese and Malay. Interestingly, while T explained hearing occasional expressions used by his parents or television shows featuring these languages, he did not mention or perhaps even notice the presence of Chinese and Malay in visual forms. I believe an explanation for this lies in the two main forms of visual representations other than English in T’s home, which do not really require a deep engagement with the languages.
Figure 2: Calligraphic artworks displaying Chinese
Figure 3: Gregorian Calendar (with elements of Lunar Calendar e.g. markings on the date for full moon; equivalent dates in the Lunar year) displaying Chinese and English
Firstly, I observed several instances of Chinese characters in artworks or decorative pieces, including ornamental tags, calligraphic panels and a calendar as shown in Figures 2 and 3. While T’s parents can speak, with medium proficiency, the Cantonese and Hokkien dialects of Chinese, they cannot read or write it (written Chinese is known to be notoriously difficult!). Nonetheless, I think artworks and decorations allow a really interesting, arguably “passive” engagement with Chinese in that T and his family can show appreciation of and celebrate their linguistic background in a way other than speaking/listening or reading/writing.
Figure 4: Instant coffee packaging displaying Malay, English and Chinese
Figure 5: Jelly powder packaging displaying Malay and Japanese
The second instance where I observed quite a few visual representations of languages other than English, and interestingly, often combinations of multiple languages, was on food packaging. I think the linguistic diversity that I observed on the food packaging of a predominantly English-speaking home suggests how food is one of the most common ways that migrants, in particular, connect with their culture.
Kouhpaeenejad, Mohammad Hossein and Razieh Gholaminejad. “Identity and Language Learning from Post-structuralist Perspective.” Journal of Language Teaching and Research 5, No. 1 (2014): 199-204.
The domain which we have chosen as the focus of our Linguistic Landscapes project is the “home”. Initially, we had the domain of “family”, but felt that family was too restrictive as it would be inapplicable to people who were out of contact with or lived away from their families, such as in dorms or with friends, a not uncommon situation amongst university students.
Data Collection Strategy
In order to collect data about language in and around the home, we developed a survey to explore questions relating to language, including language use, attitudes to certain languages or dialects and considerations that people make when deciding which languages or dialects to use.
In the survey, we begin by asking participants to self-evaluate the languages which they speak and their level of skill in each language before moving on to questions of language usage in the home, both by the participant and anyone else who they may live with. Finally, we explore their attitudes towards the languages which are used in their home, including their reasons for and against the usage of certain languages or dialects.
The basic survey follows. Group members can build off it to tailor the interview to their weekly topic or any new topics which arise during the interview.
- Age bracket: under 18, 18-25, 26-35, 36-45, 46-55, 56-65, 65+
- Country you currently live in?
- Country you are originally from?
- Ethnic background?
- Do you live with your family, alone, or with others?
For the purposes of this questionnaire, we are looking at how people use language in their home. Home could be where you currently live, where your family lives, or both. Please make clear which you are discussing when you respond.
- What languages do you speak? Please give an indication of competency for each (i.e. basic, beginner, intermediate, advanced, fluent/native).
- What is the main language you speak at home?
- What is/are the language(s) spoken in your home? Are these are spoken by you, others or both?
- What is the importance of your language(s) in your home?
- [If they can speak multiple languages] Are there different times/places where or people with whom you speak your languages? What/who are they?
- [If you can speak multiple languages] Are there times where you make conscious decisions to speak a specific language? What factors are these decisions based on?
- What are some issues you encounter when using your language(s) at home
- How do you (or would you) feel about these situations in the home:
- Personally speaking multiple languages?
- Others speaking multiple languages?
- Speaking a language not commonly known by others?
- Others speaking a language you don’t know?
- How do others in your home feel about the language(s) you speak?
- What is the most common language you hear and see at home? Does this language change depending on who you are with and where you are?
- What things make you feel comfortable speaking your language(s)?
- How do the languages of your home influence your identity? What role does each language play?
Our next steps will be collecting data through observations and interviews, along with photographic data, so that we can explore the use of language in the home through the lens of linguistic theory.