Comfortably multilingual

How can we thrive linguistically in our welfare society? Researchers are looking for tips from around the world.

Axel Fleisch

Axel Fleisch, Professor of African Languages and Cultures.

What does it feel like to move as a young adult to a country that speaks a strange, foreign language?

Axel Fleisch, Professor of African Languages and Cultures, and Sarri Vuorisalo-Tiitinen, researcher in area and cultural studies, have joined forces to launch a research project on the language learning of African and South American immigrants who moved to Finland as young adults. How do they cope with linguistic obstacles in everyday life, and how does spontaneous language learning take place?

Some seem to acquire languages effortlessly, while others struggle fruitlessly for years. Nevertheless, learning the language – or languages – of one’s new home country is important to the immigrants’ wellbeing and integration.

Learning from the Cape Town metropolis

Fleisch and Vuorisalo-Tiitinen are looking for solutions and explanations by documenting and analysing the linguistic biographies of immigrants. Each of us has such a biography that explains “how I became the linguistic me”.

The two researchers are now considering ways to compile linguistic biographies relevant to their research. What do they need to know, and how should they formulate their questions to obtain interesting answers?

In this respect, Fleisch and Vuorisalo-Tiitinen have received support from their colleagues in South Africa, where similar work is under way among immigrants in the Cape Town metropolis. The languages spoken by the immigrants include Somali, Mozambican Portuguese and Bantu languages, such as the Congolese Lingala, Angolan Umbundu and Zimbabwean Shona. When the immigrants make Cape Town their new home town, they must learn English, Xhosa or Afrikaans, depending on the district in which they settle.

The immigrants move from one multilingual environment to another. You would expect this to confuse things further, but in fact, most immigrants have been found to cope well.

Based on the accounts of his South African colleagues, Fleisch believes that the explanation may lie in linguistic wellbeing.

“Learning a language in a familiar and comfortable environment develops a sense of confidence and strength, which contributes to learning,” Fleisch explains.

Cape Town immigrants appear to learn languages spontaneously in everyday situations: at work and school and in the neighbourhood.

A common agenda

The project to be launched by Fleisch and Vuorisalo-Tiitinen is a prime example of how important international networks and collaboration between researchers are for the study of multilingualism.

The Helsinki Area & Language Studies (HALS) research community, which aims to promote cooperation between research fields, was recently established within the Faculty of Arts. Its researchers are linked by linguistic diversity, language contacts, multilingualism and minority languages.

Members of the HALS network are currently attending a workshop at the University of Helsinki. During the three-day workshop, researchers will be talking about their latest work, and participants will discuss the network’s future opportunities. Documentaries about the work of linguists will also be screened. The event will also be attended by specialists in linguistic diversity from all around the world.

The sessions are open to the public.

Further information:
Helsinki Area & Language Studies initiative »»

Researchers at the Research Database Tuhat:
Axel Fleisch »»
Sarri Vuorisalo-Tiitinen »»

Text: Suvi Uotinen
Photo: Sonja Bosch
Translation: Language Services/Language Centre (University of Helsinki)
University of Helsinki, digital communications

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