DAY 4 & 5: Ethnography and Multilingualism

Winding down from the residential week. This past week, we learned a lot about the projects underway at the University of Birmingham dealing with multilingualism. Through a series of lectures, each of the members of MOSAIC  presented their previous and current research. We learned of how they use the notions of ethnography and critical discourse analysis, and also of educational policy in the context of EAL (English and an additional language) and complimentary schools in the UK, we were shown what fieldnotes look like and different ways languages can be combined on a website,  and finally presented how literacy practices in Welsh bilingual schools, and CLIL classrooms.

We were looking forward to learning new perspectives and other analytical lenses through which we could see our own data. We were introduced to ethnography as a theory and method for analyzing data. However, judging from the questions that emerged at the final panel, we were not the only participants who did not understand how ethnography can be used as an analytical or methodological tool. There was an overall confusion about whether what was presented was only a theory or also a method of analysis. The questions that came up were not addressed properly by the panel. We were told that these questions were answered during the sessions of the week or that they are not going to give a full course on it in the remaining 15 minutes. Furthermore, while participants came from different theoretical backgrounds (conversational analysis, discourse analysis, triangulation, psycholinguistics, etc.), there was no attempt to define common terms like language, literacy, reading, and multilingualism. For example, when the question came up, Marilyn Martin-Jones defined reading as a “social practice” without further elaboration. Many things other than reading are “social practices” (e.g. eating, speaking), so how does reading differ? From a psycholinguistic perspective, reading involves many types of processing including those of visual perception, gestalt psychology, and phonological, semantic and syntactic processing, amongst many others. While the social aspect of these practices should not be ignored, any literacy class or related language policy should not ignore studies from cognitive disciplines as well. Conversely, it would have been beneficial to get an idea on how other approaches fail and what the ethnographic perspective adds.

Ethnography was presented as “a ‘full’ intellectual program of scientific description and interpretation encompassing technical, methodological and theoretical aspects” (Blommaert, 2006: 7). Also, it was said to “provide “way of seeing” both “the fine-grained details of everyday discursive practices” and their organization within larger cultural and historical frames” (McCarty, 2005: xxii). While these key phrases and words are attractive especially to those faced with complex data, the participants walked away without seeing a concrete application of the tools of analysis the approach claims to harness.

Studying multilingualism is an inherently inter-disciplinary endeavor, consisting of psychological and socio-cultural phenomena. Taking either psycholinguistic or interactional matters into account independently would result in a skewed analysis of what happens in the language and practices of multilingual speakers and the larger community they are part of. In our research group in Luxembourg, our aim is to find and explore areas of overlap between these two general approaches. The residential week was beneficial for us all in that it let us get even more passionate about each of our approaches, and to discuss these in detail amongst ourselves which helped to elucidate clearer paths for future research in the Luxembourg context.

Comments are closed.