On being an outsider, or not (by Dr. Mela Sarkar)

The Canadian Anthropology Society / Société canadienne de l’anthropologie (known to its members as CASCA) had its annual conference a few days ago at Université Laval in Quebec City, and although I am not usually a member of CASCA or a presenter at this conference, it happened that this year I got asked to be on not one but two panels, so off I went. My research energy over the past few years has gone into into two main projects, one still funded (on Indigenous language revitalization), the other not any more (on Hip-Hop language in Montreal), and I got to talk about both. In the unfunded category, I was part of a panel on multilingualism as play, which is (as it should be!) such a fun idea. In academic-ese, people say “ludic” instead of “playful”, quite a lot. And sometimes they say “carnavalesque”. But this was a very relaxed panel where people did feel free to say they were being playful.

The idea came across beautifully in the original abstract for submission (the organizers were Christine Jourdan and Kate Riley, both of them dynamic and wonderful, and I hope they will not mind my quoting this lovely bit of text): ” … we hold that some people actually learn languages just for fun and engage in multilingual practices to entertain ourselves and others…. this motivation for multilingual usage has in fact very old roots in the human desire to play with communication.” The panel title as it appeared on the program was “Beyond the binary: New landscapes of multilingualism”. That sounded serious. But the paper titles included phrases like “Are you game?”, “Clins d’œil bilingues”, “Humour urbain”, “The nation that plays together?”, and “Playing with shadow languages”, which pretty much gave away the show. Here’s the program: http://www.casca2015.ant.ulaval.ca/en/program
My paper was called “Perverse jubilations: Mad about multilingual mixing in Montreal rap”, based on work from the project that Bronwen Low, Lise Winer and I worked on together for ten years, about the mixed language of Montreal rap (we started out in 2004 talking about code-switching and wound up last year with a couple of good solid chapters about translanguaging; along the way we did figure out why those are not just old and new labels for the same phenomenon! But that’s another story…). It was and is a great chance to go public with this (very much public domain) image from the front page of Le Devoir, where I do NOT expect to appear again:

LeDevoirFrontPage4Aug2014
I got to talk about what it was like being ripped to shreds by Devoir readers after that article appeared, in my capacity as a (critical) sociolinguist. It was, um, interesting! And the whole experience of being on that panel gave me new insight into what linguistic anthropologists do. Linguistic-anthropological ways of interpreting the world, and the critical sociolinguistic perspective that BILD takes, overlap in many and interesting ways. I don’t feel that I can claim to be an anthropologist because I have no formal training in the theory and methods of anthropology. There are departments of anthropology; one can get graduate degrees and faculty positions in Anthropology-with-a-capital-A. Is that why? Because I do feel I can claim to be a critical sociolinguist, although my training was exclusively Second Language Acquisition/Applied Linguistics. Is it because there aren’t departments and degrees and faculty positions, etc., in Critical Sociolinguistics? (At least not many, or perhaps I have not scouted around enough — someone please enlighten me if there are! BILD needs to know…)
In any case, the linguistic anthropologists on the Playful Multilingualism panel were a wacky and entertaining crowd to have been welcomed into. They did not at all make this outsider feel that linguistic anthropology was an exclusive club.
Neither did the people on the other panel, which was organized by Sarah Shulist and Jenanne Ferguson and was entitled “Changing languages in changing landscapes: Theorizing language revitalization in urban and diasporic contexts”. Sarah, a linguistic anthropologist at MacEwan University in Edmonton, asked me to fill in rather last-minute-ish because someone had to drop out (this happens a lot at conferences!) even though I didn’t really fit into the “urban and diasporic” theme. My connection with the Mi’gmaq language revitalization work going on at Listuguj First Nation is at Listuguj First Nation, therefore neither urban nor diasporic. However, I wrote Sarah something like “If you didn’t mind that I am urban and diasporic, rather than the Listuguj project being, then, sure”. And she kindly said yes. The other papers, all excellent, were much more on target, about being Indigenous in urban settings like Yakutsk (Siberia), São Gabriel (Brazilian Amazon), the United States, and, closer to home, Ottawa.
SkyOverLavalU
So I met lots of interesting people at both panels and elsewhere, as well as getting to be a happy tourist in la vieille ville a time or two (note: as in real estate, LOCATION has a lot to do with the market value and customer satisfaction of conferences!). The sky above Laval was sunny and the old town was picturesque.
TulipsVieilleVille
The Laval university residence I was assigned to was the original residence for women — now mixed, but when it was built in the 1930s, emphatically not. I thought it had a lot in common with a monastery cloister, and enjoyed the Spartan simplicity of the accommodations.

ResidenceCloisterAnd at the end of it all, I felt that, as my friend and colleague Patricia Lamarre said (she was on the playful panel too, and did the Bilingual Winks), I did more or less fit in, which was all the more agreeable since I hadn’t really expected to. Not only that, but I found that trying to understand the anthropological point of view helped me understand my own point of view better — whether on being an outsider or on fitting in. All this has a lot to do with our themes of belonging, identity, language and diversity…about which, more in a few weeks. A couple of fledgling ideas flew into my head during and as a result of CASCA and I am going to try to grow them to the point where they can fly solo, next blog post!

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