How to Study Language and Social Relations in Times of Global Mobility

The Sociolinguistic Economy of Berlin

The Sociolinguistic Economy of Berlin

Imagine you want to study language diversity as a phenomenon of contemporary society. Where do you start? You can, for example, ask teachers to count the number of languages that are spoken by their pupils (as has been done for, e.g., Hamburg, see Fürstenau et al. 2003, and for London, see Baker & Eversley 2000). While this is useful for practical purposes, like designing local school curricula, and for knowing which languages are spoken in which areas, it is less helpful for understanding why some places are more diverse than others – and it is often simply taken for granted that cities are the best places to document and study diversity.

But why actually is it that cities seem to be more diverse than other places? Even more basic, what actually is a city? And what does urban diversity tell us with regards to the links between language, social relations, and transnational social structures? In sociology and cultural anthropology, cities have been described as related to economic practices (Sennett 2005, Urry and Gregory 1985), and it is argued that cities have a central role in the global economy (Sassen 1994). Cities are constitutive of global economic relations and are themselves an effect of economic practices. In simpler terms: people who want to earn money oftentimes go to cities to find jobs and other people decide to locate companies where they hope to find a suitable workforce, favourable economic conditions and enough people to buy what they offer. The whole scenario may, of course, change in the future due to online work and online sale but so far, the places where economic value is produced also affect what is considered as social value – things and practices (including linguistic ones!) associated with New York, for example, are cooler than those from the countryside. At the same time, where wealth is produced, many less well-paid jobs are created to cater for the needs of those who earn a lot – who employ cleaning staff and nannies, eat in restaurants, and go to late night shops (see also Sassen 1994). The more poorly-paid workers tend to reside in places further away from the city centre where rent is cheaper and often come from places in the world where living conditions are even less favourable. To cut a long story short, local and global economic conditions have an effect on socio-spatial relations, in micro and in macro terms, and are therefore relevant for language as a social practice, for linguistic prestige and for language diversity. And, indeed, cities are interesting (even if not the only) social and spatial entities to study this.

To explore these questions around language diversity in the city, Britta Schneider, Theresa Heyd and Ferdinand von Mengden from Freie Universität Berlin, Germany, have organised a symposium that delves into the linguistic situation of one city: Berlin.

The Sociolinguistic Economy of Berlin takes place on 30th September and 1st of October 2016 and we are pleased to invite you to attend. The symposium includes contributions on traditional and recent dialectal diversity, new and old migrant multilingualisms, as well as emerging linguistic élites in the city, a combination that inspires to conceive of and compare languages in their local but transnationally conditioned socio-economic embeddedness. Additionally, we have invited scholars whose theoretical expertise will help to explore the topic on a more abstract level, including Monica Heller and Barbara Johnstone.

Berlin as a city to study language diversity is compelling – its history as a divided place sheds light on the role of the political-economic system in shaping conditions of language diversity. There are still-felt effects of the Berlin Wall, such as local dialectal repertoires in German and specific formations of ethnic patterning, both differing in eastern and western parts of the city. This makes visible that diversity is no ʻnaturalʼ effect of a city, but caused by market conditions and political systems. It furthermore shows that we can observe not only demographic shifts but also the durability of some social discourses. Finally, we can contrast the cosmopolitanism of some social spheres (e.g., Berlin’s Anglophone hipster culture) with anti-cosmopolitan moves of linguistic gatekeeping that erupt in contexts of urban power struggles such as gentrification, the tourism industry, in education and in job market accessibility.

Taken together, the symposium brings insight into language diversity under conditions of globalised economic relations and histories in local places, in exploring diversity beyond methodological nationalism and in understanding the city as one potential lens through which we can understand such phenomena.


Baker, Philip & John Eversley. 2000. Multilingual Capital: The Languages of London’s Schoolchildren and their Relevance to Economic, Social and Educational Policies. London: Battlebridge.

Fürstenau, Sara, Ingrid Gogolin & Kutlay Yagmur. 2003. Mehrsprachigkeit in Hamburg. Münster: Waxmann.

Sassen, Saskia. 1994. Cities in a World Economy. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press.

Sennett, Richard. 2005. Capitalism and the City. Future City, ed. by S. Read, J. Rosemann & J.v. Eldijk, 114-24. London: Spon Press.

Urry, John & Derek Gregory. 1985. Social Relations and Spatial Structures. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Author Britta Schneider

Britta Schneider lives and works in Berlin and has a doctoral degree from Goethe University Frankfurt and a PhD from Macquarie University Sydney.
Her main research interests are language ideologies and transnationalism, multilingualism, language, identity and music, and the discursive construction of languages. For more, see

More posts by Britta Schneider