Diasporic Language, Mobility and Diversity

Workshop at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America

Diasporic Language, Mobility and Diversity:

The Importance of Social Context in Understanding Contact and its Outcomes

Amelia Tseng (Georgetown University/American University/Smithsonian Institution)

Lars Hinrichs (The University of Texas at Austin)

The workshop now has its own dedicated website.


This workshop addresses the role of social context in understanding contact among diasporic speakers and its linguistic outcomes under conditions of urban diversity. It brings together highly renowned scholars working on language contact, multilingualism, and structural change in different diasporic situations. This comparative approach allows for new insights into debates in linguistics more broadly.

The session is structured as a three-hour workshop comprising five 25-minute papers, each followed by five minutes of audience Q&A, culminating in a 30-minute moderated panel discussion. We aim to provide a venue for the discussion of case studies as well as their higher-level theoretical implications for research in diasporic sociolinguistics.

The papers in this workshop demonstrate that there is no “one size fits all” model for contact outcomes. However, outcomes are patterned, not chaotic. The determining factor is social context. The papers

    • Demonstrate the importance of patterns of migration and settlement in contact outcomes and varietal formation,

    • Interrogate the creation and codification of linguistic ideology,

    • Address the impact of contextualized understanding of contact situations on social perception and social action, and

    • Challenge ideologies of language as “perfect”, unified, bounded systems.

The organized session grew out of topics raised at the “Culture, cognition, and identity: Insights from diasporic place” workshop at the 2017 Linguistic Institute, organized by Amelia Tseng. Through presentations and discussion, it became clear that social context, a complex variable influencing immediate and long-term language behavior in situations of human mobility and diaspora, deserves a more nuanced examination than it often receives in linguistics. Rather than being dismissed or assumed to be a simplistic variable, social context is key in understanding language contact situations and outcomes. Departing from the tenet that language is a social practice which cannot be divorced from its context (Duranti & Goodwin 1992), the panel demonstrates the need for multiple approaches such as ethnography, discourse, and social geography to address language structure, contact, and change as dynamic within its lived and imagined social environment.

Diaspora sociolinguistics in particular can add insights into contexts and outcomes of language diversity and contact and the intersection of language and social context. The study of diasporic speech is not a new field (Haugen 1953), but it has recently seen a strong increase of interest among linguists, as globalization increases speed and intensity of language diversity, contact, and outcomes (but see Pavlenko 2017, Hinrichs 2015 for a critique of invocation of “superdiversity” in the study of language contact in urban settings). As Blommaert (2010) has pointed out, the increasing interest among sociolinguists in mobility and diversity also forces us to concede blind spots in established theory which has been basing itself on the assumption of unidimensional monolingual continua, isomorphic within the speech community, and of essentialist paradigms that simplistically link monolithic notions of language and social identity (Tseng 2017).

An improved sociolinguistics of diaspora, to which this session intends to contribute, can also help alleviate the western bias of sociolinguistics, as noted by Smakman (2015) and others. As an increasing number of scholars is pointing out (for many, see Blommaert 2010), sociolinguistics is facing an urgent need to reframe its theoretical fundamentals to include realities of globalization such as the ever-increasing diversity in many cities, an ever-diminishing relevance of monolingual models of speech communities, and the increasing fictionality of the monolingual speaker in most parts of the world. The sociolinguistics of diaspora is an ideal entry point to such discussions, and this session will contribute to the much-needed theorization of the moving parts in this new conception of sociolinguistics.



Amelia Tseng, Lars Hinrichs


Raj Mesthrie, University of Cape Town

Devyani Sharma and Sue Fox, Queen Mary, University of London

Stefanie Jannedy, Leibniz-Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, Berlin

Norma Mendoza-Denton, University of California, Los Angeles

Li Wei, University College London



  • Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Duranti, A., & Goodwin, C. (Eds.). (1992). Rethinking context: Language as an interactive phenomenon (Vol. 11). Cambridge University Press.

  • Haugen, E. (1953). The Norwegian language in America. 2 vols. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

  • Hinrichs, L. (2015). Review: Jan Blommaert. Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity (Critical Language and Literacy Studies 18). Bristol, U.K.: Multilingual Matters. 2013. 144 pp. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 19(2), 260–265.

  • Pavlenko, A. (2017). Superdiversity and why it isn’t. In S. Breidbach, L. Küster, & B. Schmenk (Eds.), Sloganizations in language education discourse (forthcoming). Bristol, UK: Multilingual Matters.

  • Smakman, D. (2015). The Westernising mechanisms in sociolinguistics. In D. Smakman & P. Heinrich (Eds.), Globalising sociolinguistics: Challenging and expanding theory (pp. 16-36). Abingdon, UK/New York: Routledge.

  • Tseng, A. (2017). “Se me traba la lengua” (“I get tongue-tied”): Proficiency, identity, and the second-generation dilemma. Linguistic Society of America Linguistic Institute. University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY. July 12, 2017.


Individual abstracts

Patterns of migration and diasporic outcomes: Indian languages in South Africa

Rajend Mesthrie, University of Cape Town

The present paper will focus on (a) a period of forced and semi-forced migration to newly established colonies under slavery and indenture in the era of European imperialism; and (b) a post-independence period of economic migration involving voluntary movements of large numbers of individuals to the West, Australia, parts of Africa and so forth. It will show that there is no one size fits all regarding the linguistic outcomes of migration. Rather the patterns of migration matter greatly: fixed time period, open-ended, cyclic, or chain migration. The paper will describe past and ongoing research into four Indian languages of South Africa: Bhojpuri-Hindi, Tamil, Konkani and Gujarati. The kinds of diaspora varieties that evolved over a 150-year period fall into four socio-historic types, chiefly involving the formation of koinés as against dialect persistence, correlating with patterns of recruitment and migration.

Ethnolectal repertoires in London:

The role of class and political context in contact outcomes

Devyani Sharma and Sue Fox, Queen Mary, University of London

With one of the highest urban proportions of foreign-born residents globally (35%), London is a key site for understanding how social context affects linguistics outcomes of migration and contact. We compare two neighbourhoods: A working-class area in the East (Tower Hamlets) and a lower middle-class area in the West (Ealing). Although the majority ethnicity is South Asian in both cases, differing material correlates of social class have led to radically different outcomes. In Tower Hamlets, different heritage groups live in close quarters in public housing and Multicultural London English (MLE) has resulted. MLE has some limited presence in Ealing, but in lower middle-class South Asian streets, mono-ethnic choices in housing, work, and school have led to the formation of a South Asian variety of English. We also illustrate consequences of political context, showing how a single change in schooling policy may have influenced dialect outcomes within one family.

Linguistic ideologies of intermediate zones:

Non native speakers of English in the American judicial system

Norma Mendoza-Denton, University of California, Los Angeles

In trying to understand a new sociolinguistics of diaspora, we must pay attention not only to the linguistic repertoire of diasporic subjects but also to the ways that surrounding communities interpret, legislate, and understand those repertoires. This paper will take a historical look at jurisprudence surrounding non native speakers of English in the United States. We look beyond English-only legislation to specific court cases to ask the following questions: How has the supremacy of English been codified into law? What are the mechanisms in the courtroom through which English semantics and pragmatics are held to be dominant even when subjects before the court are evidenced not to speak or understand English? Does the type and extent of legislation vary with the proportion of speakers of a different language? With the type of language? This work aims to contribute to the changing legal thought around the proper administration of the Miranda warning to non-native speakers of English.

Production and Perception of multi-ethnic urban German

Stefanie Jannedy, Leibniz-Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft, Berlin

Kiezdeutsch or Hood German refers to the style of German spoken by young adults and adolescents in multiethnic urban neighborhoods with ethnic and cultural roots in Lebanon, Palestine, Turkey, Russia, Croatia, Britain, Poland, and Vietnam and their monoethnic monolingual German peers who socialize in the same neighborhood. Its grammar is characterized by the usage of bare NPs, a lack of prepositions, copula verbs, or congruency or the overuse of “so” marking vagueness which resembles that of “like” in English. A perceptually rather salient alternation where the palatal fricative /ç/ is often substituted by the alveopalatal fricative /ʃ/ (Jannedy & Weirich 2014). In Berlin, features of this German multiethnolect create negative attitudes towards the speakers, as they are being accused of simplifying or using wrong grammar or impoverishing the language as a whole.

Language as a unifying tool: Contact and ideology in the Chinese diaspora worldwide

Li Wei, University College London

This paper argues two points: 1) despite popular belief and institutionalised discourse, Chinese has always been a contact language, like most other human languages in the world, and linguistics innovation and change in Putonghua (Modern Standard Chinese) are all outcomes of language contact in specific historical contexts; and 2) language, especially the written script, is being used as unifying tool between the major Chinese-speaking territories and across the Chinese diaspora worldwide, even though significant difference exist in morphosyntax, lexicon, and of course phonology. I examine the ideological context behind the various unification efforts, including the most recent publication of the Comprehensive Global Chinese Dictionary. I will also discuss the emerging phenomena of internet Chinese and New Chinglish, which present new challenges to the linguistic ideologies amongst Chinese users. Theoretical and methodological issues regarding the study of Chinese as a contact language will be explored.