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Multilingual Practices of Senegalese Immigrants in Paris and Rome: A Comparative Study of Language Use and Identity Construction

  • Smith, Maya Angela
Publication Date
Jan 01, 2013
eScholarship - University of California
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This study investigates language use, language acquisition, and identity construction among Senegalese immigrants in Paris and Rome. Whereas previous research in second language acquisition (SLA) has focused on the relationship between identity and language use in single sites, this study compares how immigrants from one country learn and use language in two different settings. The study's research questions are the following:1) How do immigrants conceptualize identity in relation to dominant ideologies in the host country? 2) How do these notions of identity affect immigrants' language learning, and more generally, their language use?3) How do immigrants express identity through their use of multiple languages? Through ethnographic fieldwork incorporating interviews, recorded conversations, and participant-observations, the study shows how these two groups, Senegalese immigrants in Paris and Senegalese immigrants in Rome, conceptualize and perform their identities through multilingual practices. Based on the discourse analytic approach adopted in the study, it is not only <italic>what<italic> they say that conveys certain understandings of self and environment. It is also <italic>how<italic> they speak--the ways in which they switch between languages and structure their discourse--that contributes to their expression of identity. By juxtaposing the experiences of immigrants in a country with a strong colonial tie (France) to those in a country with no such relationship but with high levels of current immigration (Italy), the study presents a nuanced and detailed analysis of the relationship between host country and migrant community. With regard to the first question, the study shows that Senegalese immigrants in France have a more complex relationship to the host country than do Senegalese immigrants in Italy because of historical and social factors that influence how they relate to the language as well as to the second language culture. In both sites, not only did dominant discourses position Senegalese immigrants as "the Other" but in many instances the informants also positioned <italic>themselves<italic> in such a way. However, this "othering" was found to be more conflictual for the informants in France precisely because they demonstrated greater expectation and desire to be regarded as members of the in-group. In addition, Senegalese immigrants in Rome developed their language ideologies from personal experiences, whereas those in Paris formulated their ideologies not only out of personal experiences but also based on historical factors. Concerning the second question, contrary to what was expected, the findings suggest that having to learn Italian did not dissuade Senegalese immigrants from migrating to Italy, nor did the majority of them have difficulties learning Italian because they used their knowledge of French to facilitate the process of acquisition. The informants also indicated that the multilingual context to which they were accustomed in Senegal created motivation to learn another language such as Italian. With regard to the third question, the study finds that just as in Senegal, many informants in Paris and Rome expressed a desire to use multiple languages in creative ways, implying that being multilingual is a valued aspect of their identity. However, multilingual practices such as code-switching were more common in the data from Rome, which may be because multilingual practices such as code-switching did not seem to affect the informants' perceived linguistic competence as much as it does in Paris.Previous studies have focused on identity markers but do not fully contextualize these markers. The present study aims to fill this gap. Overall, this study shows how language ideologies and the identities that are constructed within them are context-dependent, foregrounding the dynamic nature of identity and demonstrating that comparative studies make these relationships salient. The study, therefore, not only corroborates previous studies that argue for the importance of factors such as race/ethnicity in second language environments, but also, by virtue of its comparative dimension, more adequately highlights how the specific relationship between immigrant group and host country setting influences language acquisition and identity construction.

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