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50th Conference: Translanguaging Business

PhD Student Chieri Noda has written a blog about the 50th Anniversary conference talk: Translanguaging Business

Prof Zhu Hua, Prof Li Wei and Dr Agnieszka Lyons

Written by PhD Student Chieri Noda

Translanguaging in a family-run Polish shop in London

Through a multi-layered examination of the language, business and cultural practices in a small Polish shop run by a multilingual migrant family in Newham, London, Prof Zhu Hua, Prof Li Wei, and Dr Agnieszka Lyons gave life to the definition of translanguaging.

The dynamic process whereby multilingual language users mediate complex social and cognitive activities through strategic employment of multiple semiotic resources to act, to know and to be. (Garcia and Li Wei, 2014)

"The project aims to shed light on the multilingual and multicultural practices in business, community sports, arts and heritage, and socio-legal practices in these cities."

The linguistic ethnographic investigation of the shop was part of the first phase of a £2 million 4-year (2014–2018) AHRC-funded project on translation and translanguaging in superdiverse wards in four UK cities, Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds, and London (http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/generic/tlang/index.aspx). The project aims to shed light on the multilingual and multicultural practices in business, community sports, arts and heritage, and socio-legal practices in these cities. This is clearly a huge undertaking not only in terms of money but also in terms of time and manpower, requiring a tight collaboration between academic researchers, non-academic partners, and community stakeholders.

The wider research context: Prof Li Wei emphasised the wider research context where attention had shifted from perceiving migration and mobility in negative terms (victimisation, uprooting, loss) to appreciating it in a more positive light (construction of new spaces and connectivities). He also pointed out that instead of focusing on the maintenance of identity and language, the current trend in multilingualism was to focus on dynamic relationships and the creation of new translingual spaces. He explained that the project explored whether languages can be or should be regarded as discrete systems and added that their take on this was that languages were ‘historically rooted and ideologically laden semiotic resources, or repertoires—they are just one of the many semiotic resources that people can use for their everyday communication.’

Linguistic ethnography: Prof Zhu Hua continued with a commentary on the methodology, linguistic ethnography. Data is collected through close-up, on-the-ground observations to capture the participants’ social meanings and activities in real time as they go about their daily lives. The extensive data collected over four months included field notes, interviews, audio and video data and text from social media. All modes of communication were being examined and the results of the different data sets synthesised to render a thorough analysis.

"There was no need for product descriptions or labelling on the shelves."

The shop exterior: Showing a photograph of the exterior of the shop, Prof Zhu Hua provided a detailed account of the juxtaposition of English and Polish, the story behind the naming of the shop, and the shop owners’ awareness that there was a misspelt word on the signage. While the Polish name was most prominently displayed, multiple Lycamobile adverts decorated the shop window blending this Polish shop with other shops on the street.

The shop as corner shop and community centre: Prof Zhu Hua also touched upon the personal and linguistic histories of the two key participants of the study who owned the shop. She described how the space served as a corner shop and a community centre where Polish products provided a nostalgic connection to Poland and people would stop by just to have a chat. There was no need for product descriptions or labelling on the shelves. Boundaries between family and work were blurred both in the face-to-face communication and the electronic messages exchanged on personal mobile phones between the shop owners and the customers.

Inside the shop: Blending and marking boundaries: Dr Lyons gave a comprehensive commentary on the semiotic resources that were put into action over time and space as people and goods came and went through the Polish shop. She noted that multiple languages were used and blended but boundaries were clearly marked. Captured in the observations were details such as the ephemeral nature of a Polish memo attached to a batch of dry goods which was destined to disappear as soon as the goods were shelved. Backstage communication, i.e. exchanges with Polish suppliers and drivers, was almost exclusively in Polish. The audio recordings showed, however, that in front stage communication where the key participants themselves were the service providers, they adjusted their languages and register according to the customers’ language and cultural links. Dr Lyons concluded, ‘Polish was the desired language, but the key participants showed creativity and resourcefulness in the use of different semiotic resources, language, and beyond.’

"Throughout the presentation I was thinking of how relevant this was to my own experience in London."

Living in superdiverse London: Throughout the presentation I was thinking of how relevant this was to my own experience in London. Edgware Road, flanked by Middle Eastern restaurants, shisha cafes, and food stores with curly calligraphy, is where I do my grocery shopping. Back in Japan where I come from, the UK is still associated with ‘the authentic English experience.’ So when I’m back home and people ask me, ‘London must be a great place?’, I hesitate. I hesitate because I suspect their image of London is quite different from the dynamic mixing of languages, attitudes and physicality that I encounter here day to day. I look forward to hearing more about translanguaging in Britain, so that I might be able to better understand and explain my experience in superdiverse London.

García, O., & Wei, L. (2014). Translanguaging: Language, bilingualism and education. Palgrave Macmillan.

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