Berlin Lives: Multilingual Metropolis

DSC00043 Patrick Stevenson

We know a great deal about multilingualism – but not as much as we might think. It’s certainly true, for example, that great efforts have been devoted to identifying and counting the world’s languages: global language research organisations tell us that over 700 languages are spoken by indigenous peoples in Indonesia alone. And further research claims to reveal the number of speakers there appear to be for each language and its relative degree of ‘vitality’: how widely is it used in a given location and for what purposes, is its number of speakers growing or declining, is it used as a medium of instruction in schools?

But interesting though these research findings are, they leave many questions unanswered. For example, I’ve been studying language(s) in Germany for over 40 years but what do I know about the number of languages and their speakers in a multi-storey building in a German city? How many languages, and which ones, are spoken by students in Germany’s schools and universities? How many languages, and which ones, must municipal authorities or hospitals be able to cope with if they are to ensure unimpeded communication with their clientele? And naming, counting and mapping languages in particular locations or institutions is only the first step. What do people do with these languages, what role do they play in people’s lives, how – if at all – should they be ‘managed’? These questions are surely not trivial, as they require us to consider what kinds of knowledge about language(s) are important, especially in contemporary urban societies characterised by complex patterns of migration and the concomitant herding together of multiple languages in a confined space.

Turkish verb endings on Kreuzberg façade

Turkish verb endings on Kreuzberg facade

In recent years, research on the increasing complexity of urban societies, in Europe and elsewhere in the world, has highlighted a range of dimensions of diversity in terms of language knowledge and linguistic practices. On the one hand, for example, data on languages at national and regional levels has been complemented by comprehensive ‘home language surveys’ that have revealed the vast range of languages used in European cities such as Göteborg, Hamburg, The Hague, Brussels, Lyon, Madrid and Vienna. And in Language Capital, Eversley et al (2010) map in fascinating detail the 233 languages attested by London schoolchildren to show their spatial distribution. On the other hand, many studies have been devoted to research on hybrid urban vernaculars (or ‘multiethnolects’), blending features of different languages-in-contact in particular urban settings to create new language varieties; innovative styles of language use (‘translanguaging’), spontaneous mixing of different languages to achieve particular communicative effects, both in face-to-face interaction and in mediated forms; and improvised strategies for bridging gaps in shared language knowledge. So we are developing a deeper awareness and understanding of the scope of linguistic diversity in our cities and we have gained many insights into the creative practices which have arisen as a result of intense and sometimes fleeting language contacts. We have a more refined feel for what Ingrid Gogolin and Meinert Meyer call the ‘linguistic texture of migration societies’ (Gogolin and Meyer 2010).

But there’s still something missing. In my current project, Berlin Lives, I set out to add a subjective, biographical dimension to these demographic and interactional studies, taking an approach that I hope is sensitive to individual responses to particular historical conditions and social circumstances and contributes, in a small, experimental way, to our appreciation of the linguistic texture of Berlin. Set in the highly diverse inner city district of Neukölln, my study explores ways in which individuals with family and social histories of migration reflect on how their ‘lived experience of language’ (Busch 2010, 2015) has shaped their transnational life worlds and ways in which they structure their life stories around these experiences, both in the present and in the past.

The question here, then, is not ‘which languages does Ludmila or Ferhat speak?’, but ‘how has language, or how have languages, influenced the trajectory of their lives and their relationships with others in changing social contexts?’ For our linguistic repertoires – the bits and pieces of language that we acquire, accumulate and sometimes relinquish – are an index of the course our lives have taken. They are what Blommaert and Backus (2011) call ‘records of mobility’: ‘Repertoires are biographically organized complexes of resources, and they follow the rhythms of human lives’.

It seemed to me that getting close to individuals’ ‘lived experience of language’ would require a very personal engagement with the people concerned, and so I adopted a method that Jenny Carl and I had used in our study of ethnic Germans in eastern central Europe (Stevenson and Carl 2010). Over the last 15 years or so, scholars have drawn on life history research and narrative analysis to develop techniques of doing biographical work with individual research participants, focusing on their experience with language. Following their example, I have explored the ‘language biographies’ of inhabitants of a single apartment block in Berlin, a building which, in its changing ethnic and linguistic profile, is metaphor for the city. The stories are a kind of chapter in the biography of the house and you can read them in my forthcoming book Migration Biographies in a Multilingual Metropolis.

Blommaert, Jan and Ad Backus (2011) ‘Repertoires revisited: “knowing languages” in superdiversity’, Working Papers in Urban Language & Literacies 67. London.

Busch, Brigitta (2010) ‘Die Macht präbabylonischer Phantasien. Ressourcenorientiertes sprachbiographisches Arbeiten’, in Zeitschift für Literaturwissenschaft und Linguistik 160: 58-82.

Busch, Brigitta (2015) ‚ Linguistic repertoire and Spracherleben, the lived experience of language’, Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies 148. London.

Eversley, John, Dina Mehmedbegović, Antony Sanderson, Teresa Tinsley, Michelle vonAhn and Richard Wiggins (2010) Language Capital: Mapping the languages of London’s schoolchildren (London: CILT).

Gogolin, Ingrid und Meinert A. Meyer (2010) ‚Editorial’, in Zeitschrift für Erziehungswissenschaft 13, 525-528.

Stevenson, Patrick (forthcoming) Migration Biographies in a Multilingual Metropolis: Berlin Lives (Palgrave Macmillan, to appear 2016)

Stevenson, Patrick and Jenny Carl (2010) Language and Social Change in Central Europe: Discourses on policy, identity and the German language (Edinburgh: EUP).

Patrick Stevenson