Mother Tongue: On the Language of Migration
“Let’s drop this idea that French has to be the variety spoken in Paris and the Eiffel Tower. French is also the language of Senegal.” Professor Francesco Goglia is a softly-spoken Italian academic, an Associate Professor of Migration and Multilingualism at the University of Exeter. But right now his voice is raised, animated by the possibilities of words without borders. We are discussing his work in patterns of language migration. I am hoping to discover how lines drawn on a map can impact global literature, language, and even the identity of a speaker.
Languages are more permeable than a native English speaker may expect, their borders porous, words interchangeable, as with German and Polish, for example, or Arabic dialects. Goglia starts our conversation by telling me that “languages are not discrete”, asking “what is really the border between a language and another language?” Goglia observed this during a four-year collaboration with Rokeby School, a “super diverse” (a term in sociology that means the amount of ethnic or cultural diversity within one population is really extreme) independent school in Newham, East London. For a sociolinguist, Goglia explains, Rokeby is “a treasure”, as more than three out of four of the pupils do not have English as their first language. But most understand – and speak – many more.
“What is really the border between a language and another language?"
Some of the participants in his study, for example if they are from Afghanistan, will mention the main language of Pashto or Dahri. Goglia says that they will “never” mention that they can speak more languages, because “they know that people in Europe do not even know how many languages are spoken [within Afghanistan].”
Goglia’s main area of research is language shifts in onward migration: that is, migrants originally from outside of Europe who after leaving their country of origin have lived in a country (often in southern Europe, usually Spain or Italy) before arriving in the UK. A key reason for that second move? The Queen’s English. Goglia explains that migrants, “whether they are of Bangladeshi origin, Nigerian, Ghanian… they all mention that the reason for wanting to leave Italy is the English language”
Another pull factor is that many migrants will also happen to have relatives in English-speaking countries, but Goglia’s research with onward migration has shown that the English language is seen as opening doors for the second generation – the children born in Italy or Spain, which he says is “perceived as linguistic capital, as social capital.”
“Everything is done for the future generation.”
It can be viewed as an investment on the parents’ part, who are often not fluent in English, who have to give up a job in Italy or in Spain, and have to accept lower paid jobs, often, as Goglia says, “because they are not fluent in English. Everything is done for the future generation.”
Open doors and open books
But does this investment pay off? Recent research has shown that multilingual students, regardless of their ability, score higher in GCSE results. But Goglia sees the effects of this language blending as more holistic, for both the speaker and the listener: “when you have someone from a different cultural background you have someone who can see things in a different way.” He talks of a pupil of Afghan background he met who could speak five languages: “I guess that with five languages you also have five cultures, and maybe literature too. Every language is an open door to a culture.”
“Every language is an open door to a culture.”
Goglia observed this open culture at Rokeby, whose teachers were “allowing” pupils to use heritage languages at school. As he puts it; “showing interest in their stories”. Of course, the quiet implication in his statement is that other schools are not allowing it. And according to Goglia, this can extend beyond the classroom. “Sometimes you have teachers who tell parents ‘please don’t speak your heritage language at home, it confuses children’. No, it does not confuse children.”
Some of the pupils of Tunisian descent at Rokeby will have been born in Italy, brought up in Italy, speak Italian, but also speak Arabic at home, and English at school. A case of multiple, rather than mistaken, identity. Goglia explains: “In Italy, even if you were born in the country, you can only get your citizenship when you are 18…their existence is looked down upon. [When I interview them] the answers are pretty much always: ‘my identity is complex.’ In Italian-Bengali onward migrants, Bengali may be spoken by parents among themselves, whereas children are not always fluent in the language.
In Goglia’s view, how language affects identity is largely down to perceptions in the host country, as we all have an idea of “how we should speak English, how our native speakers should sound. Accents are linked to class, they reveal things, so who wants to reveal what society doesn’t like? Whether immigrants or children of immigrants, this is the challenge, they want to be integrated. Society does not really embrace diversity.”
Akvile Peckyte writes about accent’s role in social capital with barely repressed rage in The Tilt; “Over the years, I stripped myself of all the markers of my otherness; I practised my British accent into late hours of the night after seeing people’s faces furrow at the way I stumbled over my words.”
Walls of words
It’s not just the spoken word that builds borders. Goglia’s work shows that literature has a role to play in the rigidity of culture. He explains; “in any kind of literature, whether it’s popular literature or a very important masterpiece, there are hierarchies, just like with language.”
In the UK for example, Macbeth is still the most popular play to teach in secondary schools (despite global moves to remove it from English Literature classes), and with its fussy, archaic language, not the easiest text for a non-native speaker, putting a second-generation migrant at a disadvantage academically.
For Goglia however, the problem is that the emphasis on the written word reduces the validity of a non-standardised language. Many languages in the world do not have a formal, written version. He explains: “I was interested in decolonising the discussion on language because languages must be standardised, written. If they are not written, they are perceived as not ‘worthy’.”
For example at Rokeby, some of the students know that they should not mention Yoruba (a language of Nigeria), because, as Goglia says, “the reaction of Europeans will be like ‘What is that?’ It’s not really something you can put on your CV. This country, like many European countries, is multicultural (shrugs), but not really.” In their view, the English language and its country of origin offers a safe route to employment, a throwback from colonial heritage. As Goglia says; “people that have a commonwealth countries background, English is part of their linguistic repertoire, so they have this connection.”
"We learn and grow up thinking that language is literature - a written literature.”
So is there a danger of ancient tribal languages like Yoruba being lost? Goglia’s answer is a resounding yes. For some languages. In a field of research called language maintenance and language shift he has seen that “In the case of people who are migrating from Italy with a Bangladeshi background, language maintenance has competitors. Are families trying to maintain Bengali, the language of their parents? Or Italian, the first language of the second generation? There is a kind of an overload of heritage languages to maintain. It is often the case that after the third generation, some heritage languages are lost.”
But there are reasons why a community may maintain their language. Sometimes it’s because you don’t have the choice to go back to your country of origin, due to persecution, war, local regime forces – the reasons you probably left in the first place – as with Syria. And then, as Goglia says; “maintaining your culture and language, it becomes like a human right.”
In the UK there are supplementary ‘after hours’ schools, often organised by the community, which play a role in maintaining heritage language. These schools are not tied to the curriculum, so can teach in non-traditional ways. Their methods show that languages can be maintained by oral storytelling and cultural tradition. Goglia cites an Albanian supplementary school in Newham, which “also recognises folkloric dances, storytelling and literature.”
“Maintaining your culture and language, it becomes like a human right.”
To look more closely at the invisible power of oral tradition in maintaining a language, we need to take another look at lines drawn on historical maps.
Look at the thin lines between Bulgaria, Romania, Greece and Turkey. Once a mass of countries called the Thrace region, they were separated by the establishment of nation states, and wars. The separation caused upheaval in tribes across Europe. The Vlachs are one of those tribes, an indigenous minority hailing from the mountains between Romania, Albania and north-western Greece.
A nomadic group, their official history is relatively unknown, other than raising and herding sheep was key to their existence.
To Alexandros Plasatis, founder of the beautiful literary journal The Other Side of Hope, the Vlachs are a memory of ancestry, of songs sung in a familiar tongue when he was a child. He gives me a potted history: “My grandparents on my father’s side were Vlachs. Before the Second World War the Greek government forbade them from speaking Vlach, which was only oral. They were forced to learn Greek. If they were heard speaking Vlach, they were beaten up. This language has now almost disappeared.”
He talks of being a child, and the “fairytale” of hearing people speaking Vlach in the village. “My grandparents, because they wouldn’t write, they would talk. And when they talked they would sometimes speak in Vlach. My grandmother would sing to us in Vlach.”
As a writer did he find those experiences helpful? Well, his novel Made by Sea and Wood, In Darkness was shortlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. The novel, composed of short stories, is a collage of the lives of Egyptian fishermen, who have come to Greece to fish. There is a “triple translation going on”, according to Plasatis. “I write what they’ve said, and how they’ve said it. I found this easy, in a way, as I was used to [oral] storytelling. I used the words they were using: some Greek words, but also some Arabic words because they didn’t have the [Greek] words. I wanted the book to be a mirror of what happened there, how things were told. The sweetness of the book is that you have to crack a bit.”
“I wanted the book to be a mirror of what happened there. And how things were told. The sweetness of the book is that you have to crack a bit.”
Keeping language alive is in part what Plasatis does in The Other Side of Hope, which he hopes will become a “home” for literature written by immigrants, migrants and refugees. The writers submit in English, but according to Plasatis, for these writers reconnecting with literature is a way for them to “connect with the language of the past.”
It’s easy to assume that refugees will be writing about war, trauma, isolation – the experience that we so often see depicted. And yes, there is some of that loss. But equally, the writing reflects the same kaleidoscope that we’d expect from any community; nostalgia, criticism, pride, humour. The humour is something that Plasatis set out to achieve; “I put that they could write about anything, because I wanted to see also the funny side of being a refugee, of being an immigrant.” He continues with a rallying cry: “I don’t want locals to feel pity for us. I want them to be jealous of us, of our journeys, of our migration experience. The good kind of jealousy, the jealousy that is kind of inspiration. And then not only they will understand us better, but they might start thinking about their own migratory experience. Local British people who move from one city to another, because of a job, because they fell in love with someone who lives in another town, because of whatever, then they will realise that this is also migration.”
We talk about one of the poems, Mothertongue, a beautifully expressed poem about the loss of a bond between mother and child when their shared language is lost. This poem was written as a group with a creative writing tutor, something that Plasatis has done himself before with refugees, citing it as a positive community experience, not just a literary one. He explains, “when they talk, especially if they are from different cultures, this is where they learn from each other, this is where I learn from them.”
“If we show them lives of refugees, this is how we break this culture of xenophobia.”
Going back to Goglia’s work at Rokeby, that cultural exchange is both important for maintaining a language (as then one is not seen as ‘greater’ than another), as well as breaking down barriers. Plasatis explains that his target audience is “those who are considered to be racist”, because “if we show them the lives of refugees, we break this culture of xenophobia.”
Reading fiction can help us to shift perspectives, practice empathy and even increase compassion; one of the reasons why literature is so valuable to society. Together, Plasatis and Goglia show how language and literature working together could help dissolve the cultural lines that increasingly divide society.
I started off this journey by asking the question ‘how do the lines of language change as they move across the map?’, but, given the value of multilingualism in society, identity and literature, perhaps the question should be, ‘how do we maintain those languages that are so important to understanding each other, but also ourselves?’
At the end of our conversation, Plasatis reads one of his favourite quotes from Junot Diaz, the Dominican-American Pulitzer Prize-winning author, about the use of multiple languages in his writing. He prefaces the quote with the comment “because you asked me about language and migration…”
“Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over.”
Find Francesco Goglia on Twitter here, and read more about the findings of his project with Rokeby School on the Education Incubator blog.
Find Issue One of The Other Side of Hope here, and on Twitter. Issue 2 will be coming soon.
Hazel Beevers is Director of Creative and Community at The Lit Platform. She is also a freelance photographer, creative producer, editor and writer. Her short story Terra Incognita won Spread the Word’s ‘Home’ competition in 2022.