June 27th to 30th saw the University of Auckland hosting the 22nd Sociolinguistic Symposium. This is the first major(read:large) international conference I’ve had the privilege of attending, and coming from a small cozy circle of Australian linguists it was quite an eye opening experience.
Firstly, I’m reminded of how broad a church sociolinguistics actually is. There are researchers from a variety of research methods (critical discourse analysis through to quantitative corpus linguistics), with a variety of concerns (identity, language revitalisation, education policy), and from a variety of regions in the world. One friend imparted some good advice early on, that the symposium is a good opportunity to get a feel for what are cutting edge topics and concerns in the world, and indeed that’s a good way of summarising my overall feeling about the conference.
There were some concepts I’d vaguely heard of in the past that were relatively prevalent: “Translanguaging” and “superdiversity” being the main ones. I came to get a bit more of a feel for the concepts, but anyone who had the misfortune of hearing me rant knows my feelings on the terms. I can appreciate the ideas behind the words, but I think they are truly ugly words. I’m sure there’s an analysis to be made out of that sentiment.
The highlight session (other than our own Variation in the Pacific long colloquia!) was the “Fresh insights on traditional variationist methods in non-English contexts” session organised by Uri Horesh (@urihoresh) and Jonathan Kasstan (@JRKASSTAN). The emphasis was on the notion of “style” which, to be honest, is not something I even remotely consider in my research because we’re not at a stage of description where style is a concern. The panel was overall a good reminder that there are plenty of people innovating with methodology, and tackling and problematising concepts such as style and prestige from their own research contexts. Heads up to Maya Ravrindanath Abtahian working on Garifuna.
Our own panel was a solid show of how variationist and quantitative methods are being applied to investigate phenomena in the Pacific. The Wellsprings Project’s very own Marie-France Duhamel presented on Raga, a Vanuatu language that shows interesting conservative language tendencies in contrast to it’s more diverse neighbouring languages. Anne-Laure Dotte presented on the change happening in the unique and extensive possessive classifier system of Iaai, a language of New Caledonia. Brook Ross presented on a possible emergent Auckland variety of New Zealand English. Isabelle Buchstaller showed how level of education in English in the Marshall Islands conditions h-insertion (a possible import of sociolinguistic evaluation of h-dropping from English?). Wilfred Fimone (@WilfredFim) presented negative results for glottal stop deletion in Rotuman; an interesting reminder that not all variation is given social meaning, or sociolinguistically conditioned. And Miriam Meyerhoff gave a whirlwind talk on how we should choose our variables carefully when investigating the relationship between individual and social group.
One of the things that came out of attending the other variation colloquia and seeing the presenters in our session, was that “small datasets” are not a problem. It’s really the willingness of researchers to give things a red hot go, and for us to amplify the findings from more “exotic” or “minor” contexts. I feel pretty strongly about this, and am uber thankful to Miriam Meyerhoff for giving us this opportunity on an international stage.
…And some personal reflections
I find is slightly ironic that for a conference that talks about the importance of multilingualism, challenges to hegemonic discourses, and questioning the dominance of major cultural groups over others, the vast majority of attendees continue to be presenting on English, and other large population languages. I don’t make this statement as a word-version of an eye-roll, or a statement intending to accuse linguists of being egocentric or eurocentric, or whatever-centric (although when I’m feeling less generous I do feel the rumbles of frustration). I make this observation with a lot of ambivalence. Marginalised groups within English/major language contexts absolutely should be researched. Major languages that are not English should also be researched to contribute their insights towards (socio)linguistic theory. Varieties of Englishes can also contribute to challenging the assumed theories coming out of studies of American Englishes. We contribute to research in ways that we can.
But I also can’t help but feel nervous at the lack of interaction I had with sociolinguists outside of the Pacific context, and Australia. I suspect part of it comes from the lack of knowledge, and not really knowing how to interact with people who work in different contexts (this goes both ways: I’m not placing blame on my potential interactants, this applies equally to myself). Also if you are attending an international conference as an L2 speaker of English, this adds another layer. But if we as researchers are unwilling to take those steps to build bridges to those we are less familiar with, how on earth can we expect our wider communities and societies to build bridges and listen to the marginalised voices that we as researchers supposedly represent? How can we as researchers, who represent marginalised voices through our research, possibly expect to have wider society listen to these voices when we ourselves are so reluctant to build bridges across to different research contexts within our own field?
Again, I’m not putting myself off the hook. Trying to interact with people of different regions and areas is awkward, takes care and energy, and requires patience. And at conferences you may just want to catch up with your immediate colleagues and collaborators with whom you may not regularly interact with as much as you like. Maybe I’m just grumbling about something that comes inherent with the way modern conferences are organised. I’m not pontificating to people that they should pay attention to small languages, or non-Englishes or whatever. I’m merely feeling circumspect about what it means to be part of a broad conference, when all of us participants are trying to deal with jet lag, bleeding out of energy, and trying to put our talks together for an international audience.
(Would “linguist speed dating” be an event that conferences can organise? Sign up, see which linguist you’ll be paired off with, and have dinner with them?)
Anyway, thank you to the wonderful volunteers and unpaid organisers for pulling off a momentous task. Though I would like to suggest to the leaders of the conference, they may wish to reconsider in the future the outsourcing of conference planning to a company that can’t possibly know how best to organise an international conference which requires sensitivity to intercultural communication.