Languages, generations (by Dr. Mela Sarkar)

This is my first blog post of any kind, ever. It’s also the very first blog post on our new BILD/LIDA site, which feels like a big responsibility. This is a kind of public writing on language that, for me, feels very new. BILD/LIDA as a social-cum-academic group in fact feels quite familiar (I have been part of something similar connected to second language acquisition research that operates out of Concordia for about twenty years now, since I was a new PhD student there). There ought to be more groups like this – regular gatherings of academics at all career levels who care passionately about a research area and the issues involved. Even if there’s no research funding, or specific projects that would need funding launched yet. In this group, BILD/LIDA, everybody’s thesis work has been launched, and sometimes completed, but thesis work tends to happen in a person’s individual corner. We need reasons to come out of our corners and talk to each other, reasons that are not corporate-driven. Universities are corporations; research, at least the post-thesis, published kind, is now mostly about dollars, and it is difficult even to think about in non-monetary terms. Scholars — I use the word advisedly, and with affection; for me it means something different from “academics” — have been gathering in this spontaneous and unfunded way for centuries, perhaps millennia. Famous for it! But only now are they able to write, inter alia, blog posts about their consuming and mutual passions that will be read immediately, as fast as light can take the words to other screens, not only by their fellow gatherers but also, potentially, by anybody with internet access. And that is new. Terrifying, liberating, and new.

Which brings me to the following sentence, from our mission statement I think: “Many of us have done or are doing research that directly relates to Montréal’s complex sociolinguistic dynamic.” It made me ask myself: Do I? I have done, over the years. The research in question got off the ground in about 2003 and wound down ten or so years later. It was all about the language of Montreal Hip-Hop, which is linguistically more mixed and more exciting than any of us could have imagined when we started. Mind you, the rappers knew. But they mostly don’t hang out at academic conferences or in university departments, much less put together sociolinguistic research projects. They are artists; they create. Language is their plaything and their medium. They are wordsmiths in as many languages as they know. Their secondary school teachers did not and do not approve of this rampant language mixing, this miscegenation, this lack of respect for approved and authorized boundaries. The rappers, the teachers and the researchers all came to a bit of an impasse eventually. Then the funding ran out.

So now what? The Montreal Hip-Hop project had its beginning in a conversation I had with my then-fourteen-year-old son in 2002 or thereabouts. He is 27 now, and his sister is 28. Both have married and live in Montreal. These are two young people who, with a Torontonian mother and a Montréalais Québécois de souche father, grew up with “bilingualism as a first language.” My former advisor at OISE/UT, Merrill Swain, coined that wonderful phrase as the title of her doctoral dissertation in 1972! As I write this blog post, my daughter is waiting rather impatiently for her second baby to be born (any day now) and my son’s partner is expecting her first to arrive a couple of months later. Both my children chose life partners who grew up in other languages besides English and French. My two-year-old granddaughter therefore understands, and is starting to speak, French, English and Spanish all at the same time. In the other grandfamily, Hindi and Punjabi will, I hope, be languages the children have the opportunity to mix with their English and French from a young age, as their mother did. If it turns out that the children play and learn and talk, sing, shout out and create in English, French, Spanish, Hindi and Punjabi, not to mention other languages they may happen across, separately or, which is more likely, all together, how dare we stop them? I fully expect them to be wordsmiths in as many languages as they know. Plurilingual wordsmithing is what plurilingual children do. What will happen, what is happening, when this way of using language collides head-on with the approved and authorized boundaries schools are mandated to enforce?

In the Montreal schools that these children I care so much about will attend, there are teachers, now, who need to change the way they think about children, language and what is allowed. What’s the best way to help that change happen?

Is it possible that asking that question is a form of research?


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