Monday 28 November 2011

Multicultural London English – part 1

The term Multicultural London English (MLE) has emerged in recent years and is used to describe the distinctive range of language features used in multiethnic areas of London. Researchers Jenny Cheshire, Paul Kerswill, Sue Fox and Eivind Torgersen link the emergence of MLE with large-scale post-war immigration from developing countries. In this situation children of immigrants often shift rapidly to the majority language (in this case London English). However, majority-language speakers may be in the minority (for example, many inner London Cockney speakers moved to outer London areas in the post-war period) or there may not be much social integration between immigrant and indigenous populations (also the case in London during the first waves of immigration) and so the availability of local, native models of the majority language to the second-language learners is weakened. This means that the majority language may be acquired from other second-language speakers in what is known as a ‘group second language acquisition’ setting. In London, the researchers argue that many immigrants and subsequently their children may have acquired their London English in an unguided and informal way, mainly through friendship or kinship groups of other second-language learners.

The researchers therefore see language contact (where two or more languages come together) as an important determining factor in the emergence of MLE. They do not claim that there is direct transfer from any one language in particular but rather that it is the language contact situation itself that has led to linguistic innovations. The way that they conceptualise this is by reference to a language ‘feature pool’ which is produced from the range of different input varieties and from which speakers select different combinations of features, sometimes modifying them into new structures in the process. In the inner London area investigated in the MLE studies the input varieties consist (among others) of African Englishes, Afro-Caribbean English, Indian English and a range of interlanguage varieties which are spoken alongside traditional London English. The range of features in the pool therefore allows a great deal of scope for innovation and restructuring in inner London.

The researchers draw on two large-scale sociolinguistic studies in their report. In the first project Linguistic Innovators: the English of Adolescents in London an area of inner London (the borough of Hackney) was compared to an area of outer London (the borough of Havering) and focused primarily on adolescents aged 17-19, although elderly speakers aged 70-86 were also recorded. The second project Multicultural London English: the emergence, acquisition and diffusion of a new variety focused on Hackney again but also areas close by in the boroughs of Islington and Haringey (collectively referred to as ‘north London’). The age range for this study was much wider and consisted of recordings from speakers aged 4-5, 8-9, 12-13, 16-19, c.25 as well as some of the children’s caregivers. Each project recorded approximately between 120 -130 individuals. The adolescents (16-19 year-olds) were recorded in the Further Education colleges that they attended while the younger children were recorded in their schools or youth clubs (and sometimes at home). The caregivers and the elderly participants were mainly recorded in their homes.

Keep an eye on the next few postings – we’ll be taking a look at some of the main findings of these projects!
Cheshire, J., Kerswill, P., Fox, S. and Torgersen, E. 2011. Contact, the feature pool and the speech community: the Emergence of Multicultural London English. Journal of Sociolinguistics 15/2: 151-196.

DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9841.2011.00478.x

This summary was written by Sue Fox


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