Multilingualism and education

Contact with Languages – Researchers in Greifswald Discuss the Issues

Dr Srichomthong from Thailand at the conference in Greifswald.  Photo: © Lehrstuhl für Englische SprachwissenschaftDr Srichomthong from Thailand at the conference in Greifswald.  Photo: © Lehrstuhl für Englische SprachwissenschaftWhat role do multilingualism and contact with a language play in face-to-face and electronic communication? At the conference “Language Contact in the Age of Globalization”, these questions were posed and discussed by a pool of roughly 70 specialists.

More and more people are learning foreign languages, and not only because they are necessarily being spoken in their daily lives. Some need them because of business dealings, studies or travel; because they have immigrated and have to learn the new language; or because they are exploring the social networking sites on the Internet. For American linguistics specialist Dennis Preston, these are some of the reasons languages are coming increasingly into contact with one another, despite the fact that such interactions can be seen in any given century. In his plenary speech, Preston gave an introduction on the main subject of the conference, namely, which aspects are significant for linguistics specialists with regard to multilingualism and language contact, and what do the speakers themselves think about such phenomena?

In school and in the media

Keynote speaker Dr Mark Sebba.  Photo: © Lehrstuhl für Englische Sprachwissenschaft“Particularly with the combination German-English there is often a general sense of fear – that English represents a threat to the existence of German,” acknowledges Greifswald English professor Amei Koll-Stobbe, who organized the DFG-sponsored (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) event with her colleague Sebastian Knospe. Research has shown the contrary, however: English poses absolutely no threat to German despite the adoption of countless anglicisms into the mainstream language.” The facets of anglicization in other languages were but one of many topics discussed at the conference. Others included: What mixture of British and American English elements is typical in today’s language courses? What role does multilingualism play in music, the media, in governmental institutions and in public life? What do speakers think of multilingualism? What roles do translated children’s literature and cultural integration play in the lives of immigrants?

On the streets

Organizer Professor Dr Koll-Stobbe.  Photo: © Lehrstuhl für Englische SprachwissenschaftA relatively new method of studying the urban language landscape was also introduced. “By creating so-called linguistic landscapes we can take a lot from the written language seen in the public arena,” explains Koll-Stobbe. “Street signs, graffiti or flyers that you see around town, for example, give us insights. They show which languages appear in which neighborhoods. From that you can make conclusions about the societal makeup and the position of those languages in society.” In Vilnius, according to Koll-Stobbe, there are loads of Russians, for example, but Russian is virtually invisible in the urban landscape. Instead, German has once again become a sort of “lingua franca” in the Baltic region, as it has in Hungary.

Language contact from all over the world

The main bulding of the university in Greifswald.  Photo: © Lehrstuhl für Englische SprachwissenschaftAlthough the conference in Greifswald was organized primarily for the study of the English language, it was in no way limited to English. People from the linguistics field in Europe, Asia, Africa and North America held over 50 speeches about a wide range of languages including New Greek, Ukrainian, Swiss-German and Finnish as well as mixed languages in India and the languages of the Australian Aboriginals. “The University of Greifswald is at the crossroads of old and new Europe, which is a very multilingual region. As a result, we chose to focus on language contact research,” explains Koll-Stobbe as to why she invited dialect specialists, sociolinguists and contact linguists from a variety of fields. Due to the competition for funding at universities, the philologists are being forced to pool their resources and develop joint research and teaching processes.

“The conference produced a number of interesting new ideas,” says Sebastian Knospe, who was also responsible for a section on the creative potential of multilingualism. German specialist Jürgen Spitzmüller from Zurich, on the other hand, did some research on anglicisms in German. He thought it was a positive surprise that the Greifswald event didn’t focus solely on the question of global English. “The conference showed that language contact takes place on many different levels. I liked that.”

Janna Degener
works as a freelance journalist in Cologne.

Translation: Kevin White
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
December 2011

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