What is the “heart language” in multilingual communities?

The implications of multilingualism are large and complex especially in regard to a community’s literacy and education goals.

(August 2017) Imagine growing up in an environment of multiple languages. An increasing number of ethnolinguistic identities are represented in the immediate vicinity as more and more people migrate toward population centers. Parents sometimes decide to speak just in the national language to their children, especially when they come from different language backgrounds themselves. Children learn both in the national language and a separate international language at school, but respond to and make some use of various local languages they hear in the community around them. This kind of situation represents daily reality in much of the world, where multilingualism is the norm and language choices are negotiated according to the context and goals of a communication event.

SIL has traditionally focused on local languages where the local language was seen metaphorically as the “language of the heart.” The “language of the heart” was seen as the most effective language for communicating deeply as well as for learning new concepts. How well does this “language of the heart” metaphor capture reality for people today in an increasingly globalizing, urbanizing, migrating world where life is experienced through a mosaic of different languages?

This was the challenge set before the organizers of the Multilingualism, Urbanization and Scripture Engagement (MUSE) Conference. Representatives from SIL’s work on six continents converged in Bangkok, Thailand earlier this year to begin to explore what it means to engage with truly multilingual contexts.

Some participants hailed from multilingual societies, and were able to provide valuable insight into what multilingual life actually looks like. Dr. John Ommani, from Kenya, shared how in Nairobi he would switch between English, Kiswahili and Sheng. And when with his family, he may also use his mother tongue Luhyia. For example, if he was meeting with a school headmaster, the conversation would need to be in English, even if both parties would have been more comfortable in another language they shared. Using the wrong language can be more than just a social faux pas; speaking Kiswahili in your home village instead of the local language would make you look like an untrustworthy person who is trying to hide who he is and where he is from.

The relevance of the concept of “speech communities” rather than “language communities” was also explored. It is tempting for those focused on languages to look at the world in terms of “language communities” — defined as “all the people who primarily speak or identify with a certain language.” But in today’s world, “all the people associated with language X” covers a great deal of diversity in terms of location alone, quite apart from how well people actually know and use the variety of languages in their repertoire. For practical purposes, it may be more helpful to look at “speech communities”— defined as “networks of people who share a common repertoire of language varieties and norms for their use.” The same realities impact sign language communities, so “signing communities” would be a possible corresponding term for signed languages.

The implications of multilingualism are large and complex with regard to a community’s possible literacy and education goals in general, as well as for their desires to engage with Scripture in particular. People may want to read and write primarily in one of the languages in their repertoire, but prefer listening and speaking in another. They may prefer to learn new things in one language variety, but strengthen social or familial bonds in another. They may prefer to maintain one language for more private settings, but make use of another for more public settings. Particularly in urban environments, they may speak in ways that cross “traditional” language boundaries, in dynamic, quickly-evolving varieties like Sheng (Swahili+English) in Nairobi.

SIL has always recognized that language plays a fundamental role in shaping identity and culture. We are increasingly realizing that in multilingual societies, negotiation of identity can be even more complex. Dealing with complexity is difficult, but — starting with global consultations, research initiatives and conferences like MUSE — SIL is committed to grappling with the challenges.


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