On December 11th, Ingrid Piller (Macquarie University) and Donna Butorac (Curtin University), organised a workshop on Language and Migration for the 2015 Australian Linguistic Society conference at Western Sydney University. The workshop brought together eight separate research presentations across the field of migration studies. The individual papers were divided across two broad sections: Public Discourses and Family Repertoires, and each section included a panel discussion in response to the following three questions:

  • How do public and private discourses of language, identity and belonging intersect?
  • What are the policy challenges raised by the research presented here, particularly with regard to education?
  • What can Applied Linguists do to positively influence media and institutional migration discourses?

The section on Public Discourses included papers by Angus Stirling (La Trobe University), Laura Smith-Khan (Macquarie University), Maria Chisari (UTS), and Alexandra Grey (Macquarie University).

Angus Stirling offered a revealing analysis of the way that asylum seekers and refugee applicants are represented in the Australian print media. His study of coverage from over 40,000 articles across six large circulation dailies over a seven-year period found that far and away the most frequent collocation for the word ‘refugee’ was the modifier ‘genuine’, which was twice as frequent as its second most common collocation, ‘African’ (it’s worth noting that this was at a time when migrants from African countries made up a very small proportion of total migration to Australia). Stirling concluded that such media representation of refugee applicants not only normalises, but also privileges, a questioning of their legitimacy, or right to identify as a refugee.

The theme of legitimacy was picked up by Laura Smith-Khan, who examined the way credibility is constructed through policy and procedural discourses affecting asylum-seeker applicants to Australia. Her analysis of the claims process showed how subjective decision-making (by a ‘tribunal’ of one) is disguised by policy and procedural discourses that legitimate this practice. She also revealed a disjunct between the construction of an asylum claim narrative, which includes communication between multiple, partial voices, and the responsibility for and ownership of the resulting claim, which is seen to be held solely by the asylum seeker.

The question of legitimacy and migrant identity was present in the work of Alexandra Grey and Maria Chisari, too, who both looked at the way that language mediates a sense of being and belonging for migrants. Grey’s research took us to Zhuang (internal) migrants in China, while Chisari examined the experiences of migrants to Australia from a range of originating countries. One of the themes that came out of both is the way that people associate proficiency and use of a particular language with legitimacy and belonging to a specific cultural identity, divided between a languaculture of being (cultural origins) and one that establishes belonging in the place of settlement.

The second section, Family Repertoires, included papers by Shiva Motaghi-Tabari (Macquarie University), Sabina Vakser (Melbourne University), Hanna Torsh (Macquarie University), and Vera Williams Tetteh (Macquarie University). The focus was on the issues that arise when different language ideologies and practices converge in the family domain.

Sabina Vakser examined questions of authenticity and the way that specific language use communicates identity. And Shiva Motaghi-Tabari showed that agency and leadership may be bidirectional across post-migration parent-child interactions in the presence of language change.

Hanna Torsh also presented research from the family domain, but this time focusing on the linguistic repertoires of English-speaking Australians who are married to English-multilingual partners, or the space where “multilingual practices meet monolingual ideologies” (Piller 2013, p. 464). Not surprisingly, her study of such ‘linguistic intermarriage’ found monolingual language ideologies reflected in the participants’ self-reports of low levels of proficiency in languages other than English and little aptitude for new language learning coupled with weak motivation to learn their partner’s pre-migration language.

Concluding the section on Family Repertoires, Vera Williams Tetteh’s presentation picked up on something raised by Angus Stirling; namely, that migrants from Africa are discursively constructed in media and public domains not only as refugees, but also as homogeneous inhabitants of a single cultural space – the African continent. Williams Tetteh’s presentation addressed the need to consider the diversity of cultural, linguistic and educational backgrounds of migrants to Australia from a range of African countries.

We were very fortunate to have Dr Jo Angouri, from the University of Warwick, as discussant for the workshop and she provided stimulating and insightful responses to the four presentations in each section, connecting back to the broader panel discussion questions.

Overall, this was an inspiring meeting on an important aspect of economic globalization – the question of what increasing linguistic diversity means for the development of a socially inclusive society. Taken together, the presentations revealed the ways public and private discourses of marginality and belonging are mediated by conceptions of legitimacy and authenticity, as applied to language use and identity claims in modern multilingual societies. Moving beyond the academy, they also point to a role for Applied Linguists in building and broadly disseminating such research in order to positively influence the framing of public discourses and government policy on migration in countries such as Australia.

Author Donna Butorac

Donna Butorac (PhD 2011, Macquarie University) is Senior Lecturer in Anthropology and Sociology at Curtin University, Perth. Prior to this appointment she worked for a number of years in the field of TESOL, as an English language teacher and researcher, and then as policy advisor for integrating English language development in curriculum and assessment design in the university sector. Her research interests include language learning, language ideology, and migration studies, and she is particularly interested in the way that identity is influenced by new language development in the context of transnational migration.

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