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Language, Families, and Society

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - LaFS (Language, Families, and Society)

Reporting period: 2019-08-01 to 2021-07-31

Situated within thet sociolinguistic subfield known as ‘Family Language Policy’ (‘FLP’), ‘Languages, Families and Society’ (LaFS) investigates how linguistic (in)equality is perpetuated or arrested along linguistic lines. In order to shed light on the complex relationship between the family and society, LaFS took a case study approach to examining the experiences of six families which embody different contexts for multilingualism in the family: an autochthonous minority language (in this case, families in which Irish was used as a home language); transnationalism (in this case, Polish-speaking families); and forced displacement (in this case, Syrian families who spoke Kurdish as a home language). LaFS augmented these case studies by research with various social actors who contributed to the families’ experiences of language in their everyday lives. In taking this approach, LaFS met its three key objectives: 1) to understand how families experience language policy in their daily lives and how this in turn impacts their family-internal linguistic practices 2) is to gain a better understanding of policymakers’ (government officials, support agencies, teachers, etc.) role in designing and implementing policy that affects linguistic minority families 3) to understand the gaps and mismatches between families’ experiences and policymakers’ perceptions and initiatives.

As LaFS is innovative in its approach to different contexts for multilingualism in the family, it is important for society because it highlights key ways in which meso- and macro-level policy can better support minority language-speaking families. Some of the key policy and practice implications which arose from LaFS were: 1) the need to question children with migrant backgrounds' exclusion from Irish language learning due to their age of arrival in Ireland 2) the need to offer support to parents of migrant backgrounds so they can acquire Irish language skills 3) the need for a more comprehensive English language support system and 4) the need for policy and discourse to valorise multilingualism instead of treating it as a burden. Although the LaFS was centred in an Irish context, these policy and practice implications resonate with other European nations, especially ones in which a minority language exists alongside of a majority language.

The main conclusions of the action were:
1)Despite the singular nature of each family’s experience with language, wider society plays a formative role in caregivers’ ability to maintain a particular minority language with their children. The clearest illustration of this emerged from comparing the families with migrant backgrounds: it emerged that the families who spoke Polish as a home language had much more success in transmitting the language to their children than the families who spoke Kurdish as a home language. This is explained by several key factors: a) The availability of Polish complementary schools in comparison to the lack of Kurdish complementary schools b) Perceived general societal acceptance of Polish, as Poles were among the first groups of immigrants to establish themselves in Ireland following the 2004 EU expansion c) The high availability of Polish language materials in supporting children’s literacy d) Prior to COVID-19, the relative ease of the Polish families to have extended visits in Poland.
2)Language is one key means by which inequality is perpetuated in society; however, as LaFS showed, language is often overlooked when it comes to issues of social justice, especially in comparison to more ‘visible’ markers of difference.
3)The families’ valuing of multilingualism, and especially treating all additional languages (including Irish) as an asset, is in opposition to wider discourses and policies which treat additional languages as a burden.
The workplan followed four main phases. Phase 1 was dedicated to preparing for the ethnographic fieldwork. This involved the researcher Dr. Cassie Smith-Christmas (CSC) obtaining ethical approval from the National University of Ireland, Galway's Research Ethics Committee and the recruitment of six families who fit the profile. The fieldwork phase involved working with each family over the period of several months in order to gain a composite picture of their language practices and beliefs. Each family participated in a minimum of three research visits, which averaged 1.5 hours per visit. Participants also kept language diaries as part of the project. Overall, over 30 hours of data were collected during this phase of the project. The audio and video-recorded material collected as part of this phase then had to be transcribed so that it could be later analysed. This fieldwork phase also involved ethnographic fieldwork with social actors involved with language policy at mesolevel. The analysis phase of LaFS involved uploading the multimodal data set into NVivo and analysing it for key emergent themes. The analysis carried out in this phase of the project led to the dissemination and engagement phase of the project. Thus far, this has involved CSC writing two peer-reviewed journal articles (published) and two peer-reviewed chapters for books on language policy (under review). She also successfully held a Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) workshop and written a synthesis of the key policy points that arose in the workshop.
LaFS has expanded the state of the art, as it is innovative in that it has compared the experiences of families who speak an autochthonous minority language; transnational families; and forcibly displaced families. Another key contribution of LaFS beyond the state of the art has been contributing to pioneering work in digital data collection methods with families and young children. Further, as families who have undergone forcible migration are a relatively overlooked cohort within FLP research, inclusion of this cohort expands FLP’s vantage point.

One impact of LaFS so far is that it has advanced a dialogue on the need to shift the wider discourse from framing multilingualism as a burden to one that frames multilingualism as an asset. This was the main outcome of the PLA workshop held as part of the project, which helped forge new ties and strengthen existing ones between academics, language practitioners, and policymakers. One key suggestion made at the PLA workshop was the need to offer students of migrant backgrounds (some of whom are denied Irish language learning due to the age of their arrival in Ireland) ‘Irish as an additional language’ classes instead of positioning English as the sole language children of migrant backgrounds need to acquire. Devising a template for these classes would be a very valuable impact of the project. Another potential impact of the project would be to contribute to spearheading changes in the policy which denies some students of migrant backgrounds access to the Irish language. Finally, through its research design in including both autochthonous and immigrant languages, the communication of the project’s main insights has helped to break down discourses which put support for autochthonous minority languages in opposition to support for immigrant languages.
Photo of Dr. Smith-Christmas presenting on LaFS data at the Multilingual Cymru Conference