Discourses of Integration: Language, Skills, and the Politics of Difference

From inside Jaume Plensa's House of Knowledge, art installation, Bordeaux, France (Photo source: Shirley Yeung)

From inside Jaume Plensa’s House of Knowledge, Bordeaux, France (Photo by Shirley Yeung)

In much of Western and Northern Europe, we find ourselves in the wake of a widespread retreat from—and backlash against—“multiculturalism”, with “Brexit” as one poignant and palpable example of how such backlashes materialize in real politics and in the lives of people. Similar trends are detectable in the Unites States, where imaginaries of walled borders are instrumentalised as promising a renewed sense of security against national “others”.

Instead of the discarded idea of “multiculturalism”, “integration” has emerged as a new and dominant immigration policy paradigm in many of these contexts, dramatically transforming frameworks and practices surrounding the social, legal, and professional inclusion of immigrants in Europe and abroad. A sustained critical and ethnographic engagement with “integration” paradigms and practices will be undertaken in an upcoming special issue of Multilingua; the title of the special issue is “Discourses of Integration: Language, Skills, and the Politics of Difference,” and it will be published in November 2016.

“Integration” needs to be critically examined due to the ubiquity of integration discourses in the migration policies and programs of various states. These discourses demonstrate the flexibility of the integration concept as well as its complexity. This makes the concept highly contested, exceedingly difficult to pin down, and, as such, tremendously productive for arguments across the political spectrum. While in some contexts “integration” invokes the promotion of tolerance, equity, migrant/human rights, and diversity, its proponents more often than not also espouse a rhetoric of activation which strives to cultivate, among immigrants, varied intercultural “capacities”, communication skills, and a sense of personal responsibility for social mobility (often reflecting particularly neoliberal concepts of agency). Furthermore, in the wake of this “integration trend”, the majority of states have placed a policy focus on both promoting and assessing the linguistic competences of migrants in national language(s), commonly arguing that linguistic integration cross-cuts and enables all other forms of inclusion, such as employment-related, educational, and cultural inclusion. In this way, concerns over how to regulate and ensure migrant “integration” both produce and rely on situated ideologies of language, intercultural communication, and mono- and multilingual repertoires (and social orders).

It is not the aim of the special issue to provide an exhaustive panorama of such measures and language policies, but to present succinct and in-depth case studies which address some of the aspects and dilemmas of “integration” across various sites and regional/national contexts: English-speaking Canada, Catalonia, Finland, and French- and German-speaking Switzerland. The contributions by Kori Allan; Maria Sabaté Dalmau; Maiju Strömmer; Shirley Yeung; and Mi-Cha Flubacher, Renata Coray, and Alexandre Duchêne explore and analyze the practices, discourses and dilemmas of “integration” as constituted by, and constitutive of, a (trans)national politics of difference—a politics which incites multiple strategies for managing social diversity across various linguistic and communicative domains. The contributions variously explore logics of integration in relation to agency, citizenship, employment, economic and linguistic investment, language acquisition, multicultural orders, nationhood, skill, and social networks.

In view of their in-depth ethnographic approaches, these contributions provide a close reading and nuanced understanding of the effects and consequences that integration policies and language regimes have on the ground – and for migrants, especially. In this, this special issue aims to offer a complementary reading to purely discourse oriented analyses of language policies, language testing and regimes and, in its totality, presents new dimensions to the study of integration.

The articles previewed here can already now be accessed through the Multilingua “Ahead of print” page. Make sure to watch out for the full special issue when it comes out in November as Multilingua 35(6).

Author Mi-Cha Flubacher and Shirley Yeung

Mi-Cha Flubacher is a post doc assistant in Applied Linguistics at the Department of Linguistics, University of Vienna, Austria. In her doctorate thesis in sociolinguistics (University of Bern, Switzerland), she analyzed discourses on integration and their focus on language in Switzerland from a critical Foucauldian perspective. Post-PhD, she was a researcher at the Institute for Multilingualism, University of Fribourg, in projects on questions of multilingual practices and their consequences, particularly in the context of the workplace and in unemployment. Her research interests include ethnographic approaches to the economic commodification of language and multilingualism, to language as a site of the reproduction of social inequality, and to questions of language, gender, and race/ethnicity.

Shirley Yeung is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. She has an enduring interest in looking at how language mediates processes of cross-border mobility. She has conducted collaborative research on Philippine migration and life history narratives in Toronto, Canada, and her current project ethnographically examines how policies and practices of cultural-linguistic integration are mediated on the terrain of migrant education in Geneva, Switzerland. Areas of related research interest include concepts and practices of cross-cultural communication in therapy; the ethical entailments of language; undocumented mobilities; and the semiotic construction of diversity and difference in relation to border-making, political economy, ideologies of language and culture.

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