‘Where are you from?’ sociolinguistics essay

There’s been some ‘Where are you from?’ discourse on Twitter the last few days, so I’m posting an essay I wrote on the topic for the sociolinguistics module on an Applied Linguistics course a few years ago for general consumption.

Some sociolinguists (eg Cogo, 2012) argue that the question ‘Where are you from?’ is increasingly of little use in predicting people’s linguistic norms of behaviour. In what ways is this the case and what consequences does it have, particularly in relation to language teaching?

“I find questions like ‘Where you are from?’ really difficult to answer”. That statement comes from an article about the annoying ubiquity of the question ‘Where are you really from?’ in the context of nationality and ethnicity talk (NET) and ‘perpetual foreigner syndrome’ (Hua, 2016).  This is relevant to the issue we are addressing here, in that the question ‘Where are you from?’ similarly attempts to position people within a given frame of reference, to place them on the linguistic map. To use Althusser’s notion of ‘interpellation’, in addition to telling the questioner what linguistic behaviour to expect, it also interpellates the questionee, placing a constraint on the linguistic resources they might draw upon and thus serving to ‘put them in their place’ (Montag, 2003). This essay will look at how Sociolinguistics theory and research have problematised the relationship between people, birthplace and language in the context of changes in patterns of migration and new means of communication.

The relationship between place of birth and language is an inherently complex one, and sociolinguistics has sought to problematise common sense ways of thinking about national and linguistic identity, particularly the ideological notion that monolingualism is the ‘norm’ and the assumption that a nation state is and/or should be linguistically homogeneous. Sociolinguists have long challenged the notion of individual ‘languages’ (see, for example, Haugen (1966)). Horner and Weber (2012) point out that boundaries between them are ‘unclear and fuzzy’ (p29) and call the attempts to define the confines of a single language a ‘vain endeavour’ (p31); Canagarajah (2013) states that mixing of languages is the norm rather than the exception, while Pennycook (2012, p98) argues that ‘None of us speaks a language as if this were an undifferentiated whole’. Following Halliday’s work, linguists increasingly see language as a social practice rather than a definable object, something people do together rather than a series of artefacts to be stored away in a mental library or museum.  

In addition to challenging the notion of language, we might also question the notion of linguistic or speech community inherent in the question ‘Where are you from?’. Pratt (1987) views the notion of a linguistic community as akin to Anderson’s imagined community, characterising the concept as a ‘linguistic utopia’ (p50) which fails to acknowledge ‘the fractured reality of linguistic experience in modern stratified societies’ (Pratt, 1987, p51). Her work by far predated, but pointed the way towards, interest in ‘superdiversity’. Both Cogo (2012) and Blommaert and Backus (2012) specify the same 20-year time frame for the explosive growth in this phenomenon, which was first identified by Vertovec (2007) in relation to the UK. He described it as the ‘diversification of diversity’, huge changes in demographic trends which are related to new patterns of migration connected to globalisation and which mean that ‘it is not enough to see diversity only in terms of ethnicity’. Thus superdiversity has profound consequences for how language is used and how ‘languages’ should be thought of. Blommaert and Backus (2012) write that it ‘forces us to see the new social environments in which we live as characterized by an extremely low degree of presupposability in terms of identities, patterns of social and cultural behavior, social and cultural structure, norms and expectations’. In their essay on Metrolingualism, Pennycook and Otsuji write that people ‘can no longer be straightforwardly associated with particular (national, ethnic, sociocultural) groups and identities’ (2012). Not only have new and increased migration flows taken place and shaken up the map, but new layers of migrants now combine in unpredictable ways with resident and diaspora populations (Blommaert and Backus 2012), meaning that the notion of a monolithic migrant community all speaking the same standard variety of a single national language is no longer valid, if indeed it ever was.  We see this, for example, in the UK, where new waves of Chinese migrants bring with them not just Mandarin but also new combinations of varieties and mix with more settled diaspora populations, for example the generation of migrants from Hong Kong depicted in Timothy Mo’s novel ‘Sour Sweet’ (1982).

Blommaert and Rampton (2010) write that superdiversity has had a significant impact on how sociolinguists conceive of and study language use: whereas previously there was a ‘strong tendency to treat people’s actions as a mere reflection of their belonging to ‘big’ communities that pre-existed them…now there is much more emphasis on the part that here-and-now social action plays in the production of ‘small’ but new communities’, all of which necessitates a focus on what Rampton and Harris (2010) call ‘fleeting contingencies of interaction’. Global migration flows and their specific demographic, social and cultural dynamics have thus changed ‘the ways in which people of different and mixed backgrounds use, play with and negotiate identities through language’ and focussed attention on how language is ‘emergent from contexts of interaction’ rather than how ‘individual languages’ function as discrete systems (2010 p246).

Not just intensified geographic mobility but also mew modes of communication have complicated the picture. Blommaert and Rampton (2011) write that ‘migration movements from the 1990s onwards have coincided with the development of the Internet and mobile phones, and these have affected the cultural life of diaspora communities of all kinds’. Affordances provided by the internet and mobile communication technology involve entirely new channels of communication, generating new linguistic and cultural forms, new ways of forming and maintaining contacts, networks and groups, and new opportunities for identity-making. Varis and Xuan (2011) call the internet a ‘superdiverse space par excellence’, one which makes it possible to transcend one’s immediate social environment, to switch instantaneously (although, as they also point out, not without constraints) between activities on local and global scales, indeed to merge the two. Such ubiquitous multimodal practices inevitably have a translinguistic component and this is an element of communication that is missing from Pennycook and Otsuji’s ‘spatial repertoires’ thesis – a full account of linguistic behaviour in any given setting would be exponentially more complex if we were to include digital interactions.

Diego Marani’s ‘Europanto’ (BBC News, 1998), which declares itself a language but is actually more of a game, is a knowingly ludicrous but still instructive example of how globalisation and online modes of being have influenced language use:

“Que would happen if, wenn Du open your computero, finde eine message in esta lingua?(…) Habe your computero eine virus catched? Habe Du sudden BSE gedeveloped? No, Du esse lezendo la neue europese lingua: de Europanto! Europanto ist uno melangio van de meer importantes Europese linguas mit also eine poquito van andere europese linguas, sommige Latinus, sommige old grec.” (Taalbox, 2015)

The extent to which such representations reflect new forms of communication and how much they represent something that had been previously underacknowledged is unquantifiable. The fact that Marani’s original conception of Europanto coincided with the first widespread use of the internet (MED Magazine 2004) is unlikely to be a coincidence; indeed, it would be practically impossible to ‘speak’ Europanto offline. Of course, Marani’s point is not that it should be spoken, but that it is, making it, I would argue, a phenomenon of superdiversity. It demonstrates that one element which complicates the relationship between country of origin and language in late modernity relates to how people actually use language and ‘languages’. In the context of intensified modes of travel and communication, there is much more widespread use of practices such as ‘languaging’, defined by Gynne (2013), as “the dynamic and social use of different linguistic features for creating and negotiating meanings”, ‘language crossing’ (Rampton, 1997) and (most significantly for our purposes) ‘translanguaging’. Although Garcia’s original notion of translanguaging related to bilingualism (2014), the following definition can be said to apply to all language users on the basis that, in the words of Weber and Horner (2012, p3), ’since we all use different linguistic varieties, registers, styles, genres and accents, we are all to a greater or lesser degree multilingual’:

‘The deployment of a speaker’s full linguistic repertoire without regard for watchful adherence to the socially and politically defined boundaries of named (and usually national and state) languages’ (Otheguy, Garcia and Tried 2015 p281).

Gynne (2013) calls translanguaging “a core concept for understanding how human beings co-construct their social realities and participate in meaning-making”, and it implies an increasing problemization of the notion of ‘a language’ in its traditional sense as something ‘shared, bounded, (and) characterized by deep stable structures’ (Blommaert and Backus, 2013, p14) – shared, that is, by a linguistic community fixed within geographically-defined borders.

All of this makes for a complex relationship between ethnicity, nationality, education, identity and language varieties. Weber and Horner (2012) make the point that neither the concepts of diglossia nor multilingualism provide an adequate framework for the complex ways in which language operates nowadays (p28). Basing their conclusions on case studies from Hong Kong, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Singapore and South Africa, they document a number of contexts in which official policies, whether in the context of de facto or de juro languages, don’t do justice to a complex and shifting reality in which non-standard varieties and underacknowledged minority languages complicate often crudely-drawn official linguistic maps, with particular implications for education policy.

However, Stephen May (2016) raised an important caveat in a presentation given at a conference organised as part of the TLang programme: hasn’t language use always been like this? Linguistic Superdiversity may be a new paradigm, but it may not be an entirely new phenomenon. Silverstein (2015) argues that ‘for many centuries communicative repertoires have been contingent on the mobility and mixing of populations’ (p5). One researcher who has taken on this challenge of using an understanding of Superdiversity to research the past is De Bock (2015), who used a ’superdiversity lens’ to investigate migration to Ghent between 1960 to 1980, while Freitag (2014) looked at the history of linguistic heterogeneity in relation to port cities in the Ottoman Empire. It may also be instructive to use a superdiversity lens to study the role that maritime language varieties played in the development of lingua francas. The superdiversity framework is thus similar to post-colonial or feminist theory, in that its insights both oblige and enable us to revise our prior understandings of the specific relationships between people, places and language varieties.
The superdiversity paradigm is also an instrument for studying the complex realities of language use at different geographic and social scales, including in individual encounters using a microethnographic approach. Blackledge and Creese (2010) write that “a superdiversity orientation pushes understandings of difference to move away from ethnic, racial and national groupism” and to deal with (for example) gatherings of particular individuals with their own specific repertoires. Of course, it is essential that such a shift encompass not just the Western cities in relation to which the notion was originally developed. Linguistic superdiversity may be seen as a relatively recent development in London or Amsterdam, but cities throughout Asia, Africa and India have long been immensely linguistically complex. As Blackledge and Creese (ibid) go on to argue, it is also important that it go beyond a romantic liberal notion of multiculturalism and heed Stuart Hall’s invocation to avoid  ‘over-celebratory accounts of cultural diversity that are inattentive to manifestations of power and racism’ (quoted at Goldsmiths, 2016) and also steer clear of what Emily Johansen called ‘the banal conviviality of neoliberal cosmopolitanism’ (ibid). Blackledge and Creese (2010) endorse a normative aspect to the superdiversity perspective, one that is critical of neoliberalism and inequality. In contrast to the agenda of Richard Florida (2011), which sees diversity as little more than a means of boosting economic growth, they acknowledge that ‘while interactions in public spaces may be pleasant, positive and amiable’, they ‘may also be marked by bigotry, unfairness and hostility’. Such an approach can have a genuinely democratising effect on policy in a range of areas including, most significantly, housing, given that it ‘highlights the need for policymakers and public service practitioners to recognise new conditions created by global migration and population change’ (p6). We can see here in London that the marketing of areas as ‘diverse’ can have the perverse effect of making them less so, in that new private housing developments displace settled populations composed of more established and more variegated migrants. As Doreen Massey detailed in ‘World City’ (2007) and Anna Minton explores in her work (2011, 2017), ‘successful’ (parts of) cities such as London can become ‘socially cleaned’, becoming homogenised and witnessing the disappearance of the kinds of ‘enchanted’ spaces of random encounter that Sophie Watson (2006) so eloquently elegised.

Another potential challenge for superdiversity is the linguistic protectionism we see embodied in the victories of the pro-Brexit campaign and Donald Trump. Nigel Farage’s complaints about hearing other languages on the train (Evening Standard, 2014) and his false claims about streets full of non-English-speaking immigrants in Oldham (Pidd, 2019) is a direct echo of aspects of government policy, as Rampton et al make clear in their brief survey of the recent history of language policy (Rampton, Cooke and Holmes, 2018).  They recall that in the 1990s Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett even spoke of the ‘schizophrenia’ of bilingual families, while David Cameron later talked of ‘discomfort’ caused by those who don’t speak English. Such wilfully misinformed and misinforming discourse shows that language is an always-to-hand weapon which allows its bearer to make impossible demands that migrants learn the language while (in the form of cuts to publicly-funded language-learning provision) simultaneously taking away their means of doing so.

Genuine insights into the reality of how people actually use language carry clear implications for how linguistic diversity can be used to help people improve their lives, overcome obstacles that society places in their path, and realise their individual and collective potential. Standard conceptualisations such as ‘native language’, ‘mother tongue’ or even the more recently coined ‘heritage language’ are, after all, not particularly useful terms in representing the complex and dynamic relationships between people and language. As Rampton (1990) argued, the concept of ‘native speaker’ conflates three separate elements: expertise, affiliation, and inheritance (p101); similarly, a child’s ‘mother tongue’ may not be the same language they use at school, or even their strongest language.

Taking a non-essentialist perspective means revising one’s view of the role of languages in education to take in a far more complex picture than such concepts and categorisations allow for. What the State considers someone’s ‘heritage language’ may even be one that they don’t understand. Weber and Horner (2012) present a case study of the education system in Singapore, where pupils are educated first in English and then in their purported ‘mother tongue’ (Malay, Mandarin or Tamil), ignoring the fact that most Singaporeans’ linguistic repertoires are far more diverse. Weber and Horner make a set of specific recommendations for alternatives to approaches based on the concept of ‘mother tongue’, principally the use of a ‘literacy bridge’, which involves using a variety which is a common denominator between the pupils as the medium of instruction. Taking an example from Luxembourg, they argue that given the variety of students in a particular class includes speakers of Portuguese, Cape Verdian Creole, French, Italian and Spanish, a French-language literacy option rather than just German-medium education would allow the school to build upon rather than ignore the students’ actual linguistic repertoires (p130). 
Such arrangements already operate informally in many work contexts. In many cases, across a range of geographical locations, the ‘literacy bridge’ language will be English rather than a local language variety. For example, for a class of refugees from a variety of language backgrounds living in Finland, or newcomers to Turkey from European backgrounds, the common denominator language may well be English. However, it should not be assumed that English is always the best lingua franca. Cogo’s (2012) case study of how English is used as a lingua franca in a London IT company finds that it is one resource among others in the staff’s multilingual repertoire; however, she also mentions that 90% of the email communication inside the company is in Spanish, which the staff, which includes several non-Spanish-speaking Italian and Portuguese speakers, are able to deal with without major problems. Pennycook & Otsuji (2012), in their ethnographic research into the interplay of a multiplicity of language varieties used in a French restaurant in Tokyo and a Greek-run Italian restaurant in Sydney, provide further convincing evidence that places as well as people have linguistic repertoires, which they call ‘spatial repertoires’, and that the ‘local’, ‘national’ or indeed ‘international’ language may not be the most important element in that mix.
This notion has profound ramifications for how languages should be learnt and taught. Traditional EFL classrooms all too often resemble colonial outposts in which correct forms of the standard language are imprinted onto tabula rasa. An approach informed by the superdiversity paradigm and by recognition of both the value and ubiquity of practices such as translanguaging challenges this ‘tradition of language separation’ (Vogel and Garcia 2017). However, a pedagogy which reflects the insights of Pratt with regard to a linguistics of contact rather than one of fixed speech communities calls for the use of revised practices, resources and models. Scott Thornbury (2013) recommends ‘a kind of creative DIY approach – semiotic bricolage, perhaps – by means of which learners would become resourceful language users, cutting and pasting from the heteroglossic landscape to meet both their short-term and their long-term goals’. In the context of ESOL in the UK, Simpson and Cooke advocate explicitly allowing into the class a full variety of students’ linguistic repertoires: ‘languages, varieties, styles and registers, which are used to support them as they engage with difficult or complex topics and content’ (2008, p7). They see this as a means of ‘opening up’ interaction rather than closing it down…validating [the students’] multilingual identities and increasing their confidence’. Such approaches rightly challenge the supremacy of the UK and US in ELT pedagogy – those who have no language in common with the students other than that being studied are inevitably at a distinct disadvantage if a (now) traditional Communicative Language Teaching method is employed. A more heteroglossic approach also necessitates an explicit focus on how identities are negotiated and an ongoing valorisation of the existent and emergent norms of language use in the classroom. Guy Cook (2010) advocates more use of translation in the language classroom, which validates the students as users of as well as learners of language. Also of relevance here is Garcia’s notion of the classroom as a community of practice (2014), developing its own particular linguistic norms or, as Pennycook and Otsuji (2012) would doubtlessly put it, its own ‘spatial repertoire’.

There are initiatives that have taken up the challenge, for example the Diasporic Adult Language Socialisation (DALS) project, which aimed to develop a pedagogy more relevant to students’ multilingual realities (Cooke, Bryers and Winstanley, 2018).  The notion of ‘Participatory ESOL’ also enables practices which draw on the constructivist approaches advocated by Vygotsky, in which knowledge is co-constructed by the learners (Bryers, 2015). This recalls Rampton’s emphasis on the part that here-and-now social action plays in the production of ‘small’ but new communities; it also calls  attention to what Li Wei (2011) called ‘moments’, ‘spur-of-the-moment actions that are semiotically highly significant to the actors and their subsequent actions’,  a construct which viewed through a pedagogic lens can be seen as teaching and learning affordances.


This essay has looked at a number of ways in which linguistic practices are rarely the best indicator of other aspects of a language user’s identity. It has shown that demographic changes driven by globalisation have combined with changes in technology to oblige sociolinguists to overturn certain ideological assumptions about language, languages and language use and to develop new theoretical understandings. It has also looked at how such paradigmatic shifts enable us to rethink how language(s) can and should be taught. A more detailed study could expand on the work of (for example) Cogo and Dewey (2006, 2012) and look at how (in relation to the teaching and learning of English) these new understandings can develop pedagogical practices in the direction of a post-normative approach which recognises that the so-called ‘native speaker’ should not serve as an authoritative model for language use.

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