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‘The Processes of Urbanisation and Its Impact on People’s Language Practices Are of Major Scientific Interest’

‘The Processes of Urbanisation and Its Impact on People’s Language Practices Are of Major Scientific Interest’

Kandinsky 2.1 by Sber AI

On April 6–8, 2023, HSE University-Moscow hosted the Fifth International Conference Multilingual Urban Space: Policy, Identity, Education. Every year, researchers from around the world attend the conference to share their research and exchange ideas on multilingualism in urban settings.

To learn more, the HSE News Service spoke to Programme Committee Chair Denis Zubalov, who presented two papers with students, and Dr Lenore Grenoble, Distinguished Professor at the University of Chicago, who presented the paper ‘Language in the City: Urbanization, Metrolingualism, and Indigenous Language.’

Denis Zubalov, Assistant Professor at the School of Philological Studies at the HSE University Faculty of Humanities

— Congratulations on the five-year anniversary of the conference. What significant research results emerged from previous conferences? Which presentations have resonated most in the scientific community and why?

Everything began with a curiosity: how many languages are really spoken in Moscow? How do these languages function in urban settings? How do they come into contact and interact with each other? This led a group of sociolinguists from the Institute of Linguistics (Russian Academy of Sciences) and HSE to launch a three-year project called ‘Languages of Moscow’. In 2018, we organised the 1st International Conference on Urban Linguistic Diversity, which marked the end of the ‘Languages of Moscow’ project and brought international scholars to Moscow to discuss issues related to urban linguistics.

It was decided to continue research on aspects of urban linguistic diversity, but within HSE’s walls, while the conference was renamed ‘Multilingual Urban Space: Policy, Education, Identity’ (MUS).

We decided to broaden our scope in order to bring scholars from around the globe together to exchange ideas on their research in the field of multilingualism in urban settings

It was likewise decided to hold the conference on an annual basis.

Over the years, we’ve had the chance to listen to great talks by invited key-note speakers such as Yaron Matras, Dick Smackman, Lenore Grenoble, and Li Wei, among others. We have also heard fascinating talks by numerous conference participants on various areas of urban multilingualism in different parts of the world. 

— What issues related to the urban space does this year’s conference examine?

The MUS conference does not have a specific thematic focus each year. Instead, we decided to bring into discussion three major areas related to urban multilingualism: policy, education and identity.

We’re interested in receiving abstracts on original research covering one or more of these areas, which can be further subdivided into:

  • Language policy and planning
  • Linguistic landscape
  • Multilingual education
  • Language maintenance and language shift
  • Minority language (in)visibility
  • Identity negotiation/construction
  • Language ideologies

— What topics did the speakers give talks on?

This year’s MUS23 conference covered a number of topics, ranging from the linguistic landscapes of different cities and minority language maintenance to issues of translanguaging, metrolingualism, bilingual education and more. For example, Li Wei (University College London, UK), one of our key-note speakers, talked about the idea of translanguaging and its implications for researching bilingualism. Lenore Grenoble (University of Chicago, USA) focused on language in the city, highlighting how urbanisation and metrolingualism affect indigenous languages. The third key-note speaker, Oleg Alimuradov (Pyatigorsk State University, Russia) talked about the linguasemiotic interpretation of graffiti. More information on this year’s talks can be found in the conference programme.

— What kind of research and papers did students present?

We take pride in the fact that students from our Master’s in Language Policy in the Context of Ethnocultural Diversity actively participate in the MUS conference each year and present their own original research

When we first designed the MUS conference at HSE back in 2019, we hoped that HSE students who wish to pursue an academic career would have an acknowledged, international academic platform where they could present the results of their research. This allows them to not only gain valuable experience of conference presentation, but also to get constructive feedback from established scholars in the field of urban linguistics. Today, we’re glad that MUS has absolutely lived up to our expectations.

This year, HSE students presented their research on various topics of multilingual urban spaces, such as the linguistic landscape of Moscow and Ufa; the regional variety of English in Alaska; Arabic and Persian loanwords in Turkish; minority languages of Russia on the internet; conflict communication in online language activism; teaching strategies of Kildin Sami in Russia; and the use of Anglicisms in the speech of Russian YouTube bloggers.

— Why is the MUS conference a significant event in this field?

One of the great things about MUS is that it has given us a unique opportunity to bring scholars from all over the world to Moscow for a fruitful exchange of ideas. In times when more than half of the world’s population lives in cities, the processes of urbanisation and its impact on people’s language practices in urban centres are of major scientific interest.

MUS is an opportunity to meet interesting scholars and establish important academic contacts across the globe.

One of the consequences of such contacts is our collaboration with Yaron Matras, a renowned scholar in the field of language policy, bilingualism and language contact, with whom we are currently working on a joint research project within the framework of HSE Big Project ‘Language Practices in Russian Society’.

We hope that MUS will continue to offer scholars from Russia and abroad an international academic platform for the fruitful exchange of ideas, a place where people can establish contacts and get inspired for new joint research projects that will benefit the multilingual society of the 21st century. 

Dr Lenore Grenoble, University of Chicago

Right now I am focusing my research on questions of contact-induced change, language shift, and the sustainable development of Arctic Indigenous languages. My group is researching both sociolinguistic factors involved in language maintenance and shift and the linguistic changes in the structure of languages in contact. We focus on Arctic languages in contact with Russian.

I am here at the invitation of Mira Bergelson, whom I have known for many years. We have a number of shared research interests and have developed a good working relationship and friendship over the years.

My talk at the conference focuses on theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of multilingualism in urban settings. Given global rates of urbanisation, it is important to understand the use of languages in different areas

I identified a set of spheres of existing research and also named areas where there are gaps. More specifically, there is considerable research on language and education, language policy and linguistic landscapes. This is all important research producing empirical findings and advancing theory. However, we do not know very much about actual multilingual practices, how people use their languages in the home and at the workplace. I also identify entry points for new languages; our current research shows that the internet, and in particular YouTube, provide entryways for new languages. Parents and teachers in a variety of settings note that children are learning some languages (Russian, English) through YouTube, and even that the children are adapting grammatical structures and communicative norms from YouTube. That is, Russian-speaking children appear to be adapting to YouTube styles of speaking Russian. This suggests an urgent need to investigate this phenomenon. Research is needed to understand the effects and to determine how to respond. 

I plan to focus my upcoming research specifically on the questions that I raised in my talk, investigating multilingualism in different urban language ecologies, to understand differing linguistic practices and how we might best support the speakers of these languages.