In June this year, I was fortunate to attend the 11th International Symposium of Bilingualism (ISB) at the University of Limerick, Ireland (11-15 June). Since its initiation in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1997, ISB has been held bi-annually in eight different nations and become the premier conference for scholarly debate on multilingualism. This year marked ISB’s 20th anniversary, attracting over 950 delegates from 65 countries to give papers, posters and colloquia on topics devoted to the overarching theme ‘Bilingualism, Multilingualism and the New Speaker’. The ‘new speaker’ paradigm primarily evolved from studies on language revitalisation, yet it has also come to refer to migrant and transnational language learners. This extension of the paradigm is intended to call the binary categorisation of native versus non-native language users into question (Smith-Christmas et al., 2018).
The conference theme invited scholarly debates on bi- and multilingual speakers’ language learning trajectories and experiences, and how these are shaped by individuals’ beliefs towards their new speech communities.
Abstracts of the presentations can be found in the conference brochure.
I attended ISB11 on an invitation to present my on-going PhD research on the language learning, leisure and work experiences of German backpackers in Australia as part of a panel on ‘Entrepreneurial visions of the self: language teaching and learning under neoliberal conditions’. This panel was chaired by Martina Zimmermann (University of Teacher Education Lucerne) and Sebastian Muth (University of Fribourg), with Cécile Vigouroux (Simon Fraser University) as discussant.
The panel comprised of three papers.
Firstly, Sebastian Muth spoke about the language learning trajectories of students in the Department of Slavonic Languages of a public university in India. As India’s medical tourism industry seeks to accommodate patients from the former Soviet Union, there is a growing demand for Russian-speaking interpreters and so-called medical facilitators. This ethnographic study explored how the demand for language work is reinforcing social inequalities in India. Unlike more prestigious Western European language subjects, Russian Studies has no entry requirements, therefore attracting students from lower middle-class backgrounds. Muth concluded that there are growing tensions between language learners’ desires to capitalise on their language skills, and the realities of finding work in the neoliberal service economy.
Secondly, Martina Zimmermann described her multi-sited ethnography exploring how mobile students, who cross Switzerland’s language borders to attend university, envisage their multilingual repertoires as future assets. These beliefs are reinforced by the Swiss higher education system who market “multilingualism” in their promotional materials. Zimmermann compared these individual and institutional discourses, arguing that these multilingual assets form a shared, yet unchallenged vision of a future in which these repertoires may no longer translate into the imagined outcomes.
Lastly, my paper asked how German backpackers in Australia negotiate language learning opportunities whilst working and travelling. The working holiday has become increasingly commercialised as a meaningful gap year opportunity that facilitates language learning and enhances a CV. An investigation of bottom-up discourses suggests that young Germans’ desires to capitalise on their English language skills in the future clashes with the experiences of their current selves on the road. When engaging in leisure travel, they mainly encounter other German speakers rather than “more desirable” interlocutors. Work is therefore seen as an opportunity for more sustained naturalistic exposure to English. However, backpackers are often faced with communication barriers associated with Australian English. How they speak about navigating these dilemmas can be considered a key site where they construct neoliberal personhood.
The research that was assembled in the panel highlights how language is envisioned as a future asset and career-shaping skill across various contexts: from interpreters in India’s growing medical tourism industry, via Swiss university students, to working holidaymakers in Australia. Across these contexts, individuals share a sense of responsibility for their own social and economic future successes through the acquisition of particular forms of bi- and multilingualism. Whilst some language learners must engage in these forms of bi- and multilingualism through necessity, others may take a more laissez-faire approach to acquiring language competencies for their envisioned futures.
As the year draws to a close, and we are all reflecting on our achievements, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Martina and Sebastian for inviting me to participate on this inspiring panel. As my first international conference, ISB11 marks a significant milestone in my PhD journey.
The 12th International Symposium of Bilingualism will be held 24 – 28 June 2019 at the University of Alberta, Canada.
Smith-Christmas, C., Ó Murchadha, N. P., Horsby, M., & Moriarty, M. (2018) (Eds.). New speakers of minority languages: Linguistic ideologies and practices. London: Palgrave Macmillan.