The communicative practices in the social life of skilled migrants show a different orientation to languages and competence. I label the orientation emerging from their practice translingual, to contrast with the dominant monolingual orientation of the neoliberal ideology see (Canagarajah 2013 for a detailed discussion of these labels). According to the translingual orientation to competence, languages are always in contact, mutually influence each other, and generate new meanings and forms for communication. In this perspective, it is possible for speakers to engage in a speech event with Englishes of diverse varieties or even with diverse languages. Each communicative event can involve more than a single language or dialect, unlike the monolingual orientation which requires a shared code for communicative success. It is this unusual assumption that explains why ET in Bradford says that he adopts his own variety of English with British clients and expects to be understood by them. MN says he and his international colleagues use their own varieties of English, and they can still have a conversation successfully. Their narratives suggest that they are able to achieve intelligibility despite the inherent diversity in communication. MN’s testimony suggests that even native speakers (“Britons” as he refers to them) are able to engage with them effectively in appropriate contexts where they are motivated to adopt such a translingual communicative practice.
How is such translingual communication possible? A communicative practice that assumes diversity is based on different practices from those assumed in the monolingual orientation. Consider the clues DB provides:
DB (Zimbabwe, female, researcher in Penn State): We speak that language and may be may be somebody walks in and speaks Afrikaans you start speaking Afrikaans and a conversation can continue in three different languages, somebody speaks Afrikaans and I respond in Zulu and she responds in Tswana and continue talking, nothing unusual there. I understand what he says, she he understands what I ‘m saying, I understand what she say and he understands, so we all are engaged in a conversation. And there is nothing abnormal for us.
DB illustrates the linguistic fluidity in the interaction by referring to how “a conversation can continue in three different languages.” The fact that such practices are part of her everyday practice is suggested by her repeated mention that it is “nothing unusual” and “nothing abnormal.” What makes this conversation in three languages possible is mutual receptive competence. It is possible for each interlocutor to speak in their own language because they all understand each other’s languages. Such “receptive multilingualism” is a widespread phenomenon in the context of transnational life see (Braunmüller 2006). This capacity enables what some scholars label a “polyglot dialog” (Posner 1991), where a conversation can take place in multiple languages, with each interlocutor using his/her own language.
Receptive competence in itself is not sufficient to facilitate translingual communication. This form of communication is a collaborative achievement. Both parties in the communication have to achieve intersubjective understanding. In a context where participants assume the existence of diverse and relative language norms, they need the capacity to negotiate norm differences by adopting suitable negotiation strategies. In their narratives, the subjects gave clues as to the strategies they adopt to achieve such intelligibility. To begin with, the subjects expect mutual collaboration. Consider the views of the following two subjects:
GHM (Uganda, female, school administrator in Bristol): I don’t feel any tension about my ability to communicate in English and I think that it is sloppy when people say that they do not understand a person due to accent et cetera, as I speak a little of many different languages and try my best to communicate with everybody and expect all to do likewise.
MA (Nigeria, male, university administrator at Penn State): Probably by paying more attention, just like they have to pay more attention to me as well, it is a two-way street, because of my the combination of Nigerian and British accent and all sorts of things. People had to listen to me more closely to understand what I said OK? With the same token, I had to listen more carefully to them in order to understand them, [. . . ] It was both ways, so I will, just by paying more attention.
GHM expects her interlocutors to do as she does—i.e., put forward one’s best effort to communicate despite differences in languages and proficiencies. It is not the extent of proficiency that matters, but what the interlocutors can do to work with the proficiencies people bring to the interaction. GHM takes language diversity as the norm and expects people to work collaboratively for understanding, regardless of the codes they bring to the interaction. The next subject, MA, labels communication a “two-way street” and thus provides a telling metaphor for translingual practice. If both parties make an effort to understand each other, through such strategies as “paying more attention” and “listen(ing) more carefully,” they can succeed in communication despite differences. What our subjects take as necessary for intelligibility are not shared norms but reciprocal pragmatic strategies.
Other subjects shared other strategies they use to achieve intelligibility. TW, a juvenile prison officer in Sheffield from Zimbabwe, said that he succeeds in communication with fellow multilinguals who bring different varieties of English because they adopt mutual attentiveness: “Most people listen intently when they are speaking to each other because they know that this is not our country and we are bound to make mistakes in the way we say some words.” Perhaps his fellow multilinguals adopt this attitude because they come with the healthy attitude that they are all using a language that is not “native” to them. They adopt the humility to accept “mistakes” as normal. Therefore, they are not judgemental. WA, an Ethiopian nurse in Seattle, said that she speaks slowly to facilitate intelligibility: “I try to improve and make myself clear what I am saying or I will try to say it slowly and clearly. So that way we can have common understanding.” Similarly, WT, an Ethiopian health professional in Seattle, said that he uses “patience and tact” to resolve differences in English varieties in a given interaction. It emerged that rather than relying on homogeneous norms as ensuring success in communication, the subjects focused on pragmatic strategies that would enable them to negotiate the differences in norms.
How did the subjects develop such a competence for translingual communication? To begin with, many subjects mentioned that formal schooling or instruction in language did not help develop such competence. YC, a Ghanaian researcher in Leeds, mentioned how he had been sent to an institution to remedy his English by his British employer after an interview. He goes on to recount the meaninglessness of the experience. As he finished his initial diagnostic assessment sooner than expected, even his examiner pointed out to him that he didn’t need that course. It appears that his interviewers had focused on his different accent and assumed that he was unproficient in English. The instruction he was sent to focused on grammatical control, which was not relevant to YC as he was quite proficient grammatically. Another subject, WB (Ethiopian engineer in Seattle), recounted how his communicative needs went beyond grammar and involved higher level professional discourses. The courses he was prescribed by his employer were not useful as they focused on grammatical instruction.
Since formal instruction for these subjects turned out to be useless, they adopted the practice of learning by themselves through everyday interactions. Such learning through unorthodox methods in uncharted contexts (known also as “learning in the wild”) is beginning to be valued in diverse fields beyond applied linguistics. Recently, natural scientists have turned their attention to the ways people are learning scientific knowledge through their own initiatives (Learning in the wild 2010). The narratives in the data make evident the resources that enable such learning. Many subjects recounted that their multilingual socialization in their home countries had developed in them the dispositions to learn through their own initiative in everyday encounters and social practice. OI from Sierra Leon mentioned:
One thing I have realized personally for a while is that I always loved, may be because I grew up in a multilingual society where you always knew there are other languages all around you, and so you had to way of opening up of other things. I have a feeling that we, it is easier for us to translate and become something else and understand. But Americans tend to be so unique, language, so just like one language and sound one way.
It is interesting that OI considers her openness and her ability to “translate” as deriving from her upbringing in her multilingual upbringing. She compares her disposition with that of “Americans”—i.e., presumably native speakers who are also monolingual—and their lack of tolerance. Similarly, AZ from Zambia narrated the rich linguistic ecology she benefited from:
My father is British, so I have to remember that I grew up communicating in English in the house I didn’t really need any other language really and then I grew ( ) and Nyanja because of friends and school I grew up and it’s like in class I didn’t need another language to communicate with formal school work. But it was in informal play and communication that English wasn’t enough that’s when I learnt Nyanja not because it was one of the subjects at school but because everybody else included both English and Nyanja and Bemba, Tonga and Lozi and what not.
Though AZ learned English in school, which was enough for her educational needs, she had to learn other languages for social interactions. She learned about four other languages by herself in informal contexts of play.
These testimonies unveil the dispositions that facilitated the “learning in the wild” for the subjects. I define these dispositions in terms of Bourdieu (1977) notion of habitus. The social institutions and structures that contextualize their interactions also shape the structures of feelings and dispositions that enable the subjects to engage creatively with multilingual contexts. These dispositions do not foreclose possibilities of further learning and expansion. The dispositions in fact facilitate further learning. My coding of the data generated the following sets of dispositions:
language norms as open to negotiation
languages as mobile semiotic resources
a functional orientation to communication and meaning
openness to diversity
a sense of voice and locus of enunciation
strong ethic of collaboration
learning from practice
use of scaffolding.
Many of these dispositions are illustrated by the narratives quoted above. To begin with, the subjects bring a specific orientation to language. For example, those like GHM insist on the relativity of norms. She expresses that language norms have to be always negotiated for meaning and not taken for granted as shared or homogeneous. The subjects also take languages as mobile resources that are appropriated by people for their own uses in different contexts, leading to the emergence of new norms. They express the right to appropriate English and use it for their own purposes in their own ways. Consider how MN considers it acceptable that his colleagues in his workplace bring their own varieties of English, and he considers it acceptable for them to negotiate their differences without resorting to native speaker norms. They do not consider English as belonging only to one specific community but open to being adopted by others for their purposes. For this reason, they don’t focus on normative correctness but the functional ability to “deliver,” as the physician from Bradford (ET) put it. The focus on functions motivates them to negotiate language diversity for intelligibility.
These language attitudes are supported by certain social values that prepare the subjects for conducive interpersonal and intercommunity relationships. They are open to diversity. They think of interactions involving diverse language norms, for example, as the norm. It is this value that enables DB to assume that a conversation involving three languages is “nothing abnormal.” However, they bring a strong sense of voice, as we see in ET’s insistence that he will expect his clients to negotiate his identity and difference with him when they come for service. The subjects thus start from their own locus of enunciation in any communicative interaction. Their language norms and values are treated as resourceful in communication and not dispensable. It is to be expected that they will grant the very same sense of rootedness and voice to their interlocutors. Their interlocutors too would be expected to draw from their locus of enunciation in communicative interactions. What helps them succeed despite their own voices is the third social value our subjects bring: a strong ethic of collaboration. This ethic explains the attitude to communication as a “two-way street,” as articulated above by MA. Our subjects are prepared to collaborate with interlocutors in co-constructing intersubjective norms and meanings to achieve communicative success.
The third set of dispositions relates to learning strategies. It is this disposition that makes skilled migrants lifelong learners who are always expanding their repertoires. The subjects bring the disposition of learning from practice. They have the ability to intuit the rules of languages in and through communication. As we saw above, AZ mentioned above how she learnt many languages while playing with her friends. PZ, a Zimbabwean Priest in Leeds, also said: “I am learning different languages at the moment. I am learning Kalanga, Chichewa, Swahili and French which will enable me to communicate more with people from different countries. [. . .] I learn the languages by talking to people, I listen when they are speaking in their own languages and I learn that way.” The subjects are endowed with the ability to intuit the rules of new norms as they are engaged in conversational interactions. What enables such practice-based learning is also their adaptive capability. Many of our subjects narrated how they get used to new norms and incorporate them into their repertoires. Consider how MA mentioned above that he masters Indian or Chinese English through ongoing interactions during his travel to those countries. LZ (Zimbabwe, male, researcher at Leeds) also pointed out: “Of course sometimes you will find some English accent and dialects difficult to understand but you can always adapt to different situations. But you can always adapt.” LZ repeats the word “adapt” to emphasize his learning strategy. In some cases, the subjects treated the social ecology and agents to scaffold their learning. Consider the learning process of TT, as recounted in an email:
TT (Tanzania, male, teacher in Bristol): There will be tensions as English is my fourth language. This means I wouldn’t know some words, some pronunciation, and my accent is not like native speakers. I know this and I am learning everyday from my wife, students and colleagues. How do you handle/overcome these differences? I socialise with native speakers of English and at home I communicate in English with my wife and family while learning Creole, my wife’s native language, and she learns Kiswahili my native language. And we also read widely.
TT shares how he learns different languages simultaneously. He is using diverse agents—his wife, students, and colleagues—as enablers of his learning. We also see that these practices are complemented by his tolerant language attitude—i.e., an acceptance that his norms will be different from those of native speakers of English.