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Unity in (super)Diversity: whats new for Europe?

Franco Zappettini Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication, Birkbeck College, University of London

Following the recent surge of interest in language and superdiversity this article offers some comments on the implications of the notion of superdiversity for the European social and normative fields and how such notion can be best applied in such fields. This article suggests that the current normative approach of multilingualism has been based on the definition of languages as denominational codes problematizing non-standard communicative practices and drawing from national models. Instead, treating Europe as a superdiverse speech community could provide a key to understanding a superdiverse and yet united European community.

Framing super diversity

In social sciences superdiversity has been a bit of a buzzword of late. Coined by Vertovec (2006, 2007) in relation to the social impact of major migratory changes in Britain, the term was soon adopted by other disciplines including linguistics (Blommaert and Rampton, 2011). In brief, the term superdiversity underscores the fact that more people than any previous time are increasingly moving, coming into contact and interacting within any society as a consequence of globalization processes and the development of technology. Of course this social variety had been acknowledged before the notion of superdiversity emerged and it was often captured by the multi-cultural, -ethnic,-lingual labels. Whats new about superdiversity however, it has been suggested, is the scale and intensity of processes that are occurring reflecting on the individual awareness that what is around us is more finely grained that we might have thought possible or experienced in the past. One of the consequences of living in a superdiverse society is that whilst we are more likely to engage with a much wider range of resources, patterns of social interaction have largely lost their predictability. Among the scientific community, therefore the realization has emerged that, in the face of the diversification of diversity (Jrgensen and

Juffermans, 2011), new theoretical and methodological tools are needed in exploring social phenomena.

Like all social scientists, sociolinguists try to make sense of the world with explanations and theories that make order out of social chaos. In this respect, for example, they have often relied on the (assumed) predictability or consistency of social constructs such as national language, mother tongue, native speaker and so on. These terms have been loosely used to in academic, institutional and every-day discourses as convenient labels and, at the same time, have often provided a taken for granted basis - if only as a priori social categories - for exploring social phenomena related to language use in society. Of course in many linguistics circles this view has long been contested and more alternatively approaches have been critically adopted. As a result, in the last few years sociolinguists have actively engaged with the challenges of increasingly messy data by adapting their repertoire of theoretical approaches often reflected in the proliferation of new terms such as heterolingualism, poly-languaging, trans-languaging and so on. As it stands, rather than representing the latest entry in this expanding vocabulary, superdiversity can thus be seen, among the many definitions suggested, as a reflexive exercise on the nature of language and the changing society.

For example Silverstein (2013) offers an interesting reading of linguistic superdiversity as the global reflection of local plurilingual social formations which have always been in flux, in other words, an old phenomenon that has just gone incremental in scale. To account for these changes, Silverstein supports a distinction between language community and speech community. Language community refers to a social group oriented towards an interpretation of languages as denotational codes that is distinct standardized communicative forms (such as English, French) which are typically treated as cultural objects and essentialised entities indexing ones identity. By contrast, speech communities rely on intrinsic normality of plurilingual practices and norms of indexicality are based on the interpretation of such superdiverse communication practices. Of course, this interpretation raises tensions between categories, their regulamentation, representation and systematization often leading to problematising languages and speakers that do not fit the institutional model.

How to understand superdiversity in the European context

The dramatic changes framed by Vertovecs (2007) super diversity are having profound implications for the European project whose institutional aspirations are encapsulated by the Unity in Diversity philosophy. Although the European continent may not be the most diverse

per se and superdiversity clearly needs to be understood beyond the western world paradigm
and its Eurocentricity, contemporary Europe offers an interesting standpoint for the analysis of the social changes brought about by the EU project and the normative approach adopted by the institutions in relation to the linguistic diversity. European superdiversity however, is reflected in the institutional vision of multilingualism to a very limited extent. On the one hand the EU has ideologically rejected the rhetorical mobilisation of languages based on the national model recognizing that all languages are equal and fostering multilingual policies that would celebrate diversity. On the other hand, however through the promotion of linguistic policies based on a selective understanding of multilingualism, the EU has contributed to a reproduction of a hierarchy of official, working, minority regional, and immigrant languages and a reproduction of national ideologies (see Zappettini forthcoming). In this sense multilingualism has been treated as another denominational code albeit at supranational level. For example, the recognition of official languages of individual member states as the official languages of the EU has reasserted this assumption. Similarly, the mother tongue + 2 formula, which leaves curricula implementation within national competences, has resulted in the naturalization and

marketization of English. Furthermore, the introduction of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, which is meant to protect around 60 lesser languages, leaves the definition of what counts as regional or minority languages to individual Member States which then have the right to choose which provisions to apply to which minorities. From this perspective, the EUs multilingual regime remains thus a difficult balancing act that recognizes and promotes a notion of selective multilingualism vis--vis an increasingly superdiversified and linguistically complex European society highlighting the discrepancy between different interpretations of Europe as a language community vs. a speech community. These tensions have been further amplified in different fields and along different lines: for instance in the divergent discursive construction of multilingualism at institutional and grassroots level (Zappettini and Comanaru, 2013) in the struggle between transnationalised communities of

practice converging towards functional lingua francas and local communities committed to linguistic ecologies.

The EUs postnational project of bringing together a community of culturally diverse citizens may still a pursuable endeavor, but it calls for an approach to the study of normative intervention and discourses of language ideologies and identity politics that move away from the methodological nationalism (Wimmer and Schiller, 2002) that has characterized it so far. In this respect we should thus take up Fanshawe and Sriskandarajah (2010) argument that, in the context of superdiversity, a new politics of identity will have to take into account that people cannot be put in a box anymore and rely instead on the notion that a European speech community exists and has been interacting independently of definitions such as official languages, minority languages and so on. This would obviously imply a move towards conceptual and methodological tools that treat the linguistic superdiversity of/in Europe beyond the multilingual set up based on the recognition of languages as denotational codes, a political bravery that institutions would hardly be ready to subscribe to.

However, linguists could turn to the exploration of the European speech community without restricting the notion of Europe to the institutional angle but rather interpreting it as a social field available for social, political, cultural, bottom-up, top-down and in-between examinations. In this context insights could emerge on social change in Europe through the lens of language in its amplest inference including but not limited to discursive constructions, policies, attitudes, practises and ethnographies and more importantly, challenging the national paradigm. In this sense, there are opportunities for (linguistic) superdiversity to be a factor in shifting the language-identity relation away from the national and towards the post-national envisaged by the European project. Understanding the issues at stake in the process of change especially from fresh methodological and theoretical perspectives can help us make sense of a (super)diverse' and yet 'united' community of Europeans.


Blommaert, Jan and Ben Rampton (2011), Language and Superdiversity: A Position Paper. Working Papers in Urban Language and Literacies, paper 70.

Fanshawe, Simon & Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah (2010), 'You Can't Put Me In A Box'. Superdiversity and the end of identity politics in Britain. Institute for Public Policy Research.

Vertovec, Steven (2006), The Emergence of Super-Diversity in Britain. Centre on Migration, Policy and Society Working Papers, 25. Oxford University.

Vertovec, S. 2007. Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30:1024-1054.

Jrgensen, J. and Juffermans, K.

Superdiversity available online http://www.toolkit-

online.eu/docs/superdiversity.html visited 28/2/2013

Silverstein, M. 2013. How Language Communities Intersect: Is superdiversity an incremental or transformative condition? Language and Super-diversity: Explorations and interrogations June 57, 2013. University of Jyvskyl, Finland.

Wimmer, A., Schiller, N. G. 2002. "Methodological nationalism and beyond: nation-state building, migration and the social sciences." Global networks.

Zappettini, F. (forthcoming). A Badge Of Europeanness If You Like: Shaping Identity Through The Eus Institutional Discourse On Multilingualism. Journal of Language and Politics. Accepted 15 April 2013

Zappettini, F., Comanaru, R. (2013) Bottom-Up Perspectives On Multilingual Ideologies In The Eu: The Case Of A Transnational Ngo. Paper presented at Language and Super-diversity: Explorations and interrogations conference June 5-7, 2013. University of Jyvskyl, Finland.

Zappettini, 2013