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The Promise and Peril of Multilingualism: Gitan Students’ Language Socialization in Perpignan


This dissertation focuses on multiethnic, multilingual ‘migrants’ who are historically well rooted and yet long marginalized: ethnic minority Roma who self-identify as Gitans. Despite their presence in Perpignan, France for centuries, the Gitans continue to be marked as unintegrated ‘sedentary travelers’—referred to as les gens du voyage sédentaires. The study explores how L1 Catalan-speaking Gitan students navigate language ideologies at a French monolingual elementary and middle school in Perpignan. Drawing on eleven months of ethnographic fieldwork, I examine the process whereby instructors attempt to socialize Gitan learners to normative linguistic and cultural practices as defined through classroom language lessons. Specifically, the study addresses the following research questions:

1. How do Gitan students and their instructors understand language and its relationship to identity?

2. How do instructors seek to instill linguistic and cultural norms during weekly Catalan language lessons, and how do Gitan students respond to classroom-sanctioned practices?

3. How can the practice of translation in language learning support the development of language awareness and offer Gitan students an opportunity to position themselves vis-à-vis classroom norms?

Gitan students and their French instructors are found to hold differing understandings of language and its relationship to identity. Whereas Gitan learners conflate language and identity, instructors maintain that identity is not defined by speech. As L1 speakers of Gitan, a variety of Catalan shaped by contact with French, and of a French variety influenced by Catalan, they can find themselves framed as impostors in both Catalan and French circles. Imposture at times results in marginalization, as when instructors delegitimize students’ speech. At other times, Gitan students capitalize on their imposture as a resource: Through the decision to employ a specific language and to accentuate particular aspects of speech that index social allegiances, students demonstrate their ability to align with or distance themselves from speakers of other backgrounds.

In contrast to previous language socialization research, which has predominately focused on ideal outcomes, this study importantly illustrates socialization “gone wrong”: instances in which instructors frame Gitan students as deviant subjects due to their resistance to classroom language norms. Students and instructors are observed to differ in their conceptions of language and identity; while Gitan children understand languages as inherently heterogenous and intimately tied to identity, instructors tend to view languages as ideally “uncontaminated” by language contact and independent of identity. Instructors characterize Gitan learners as “bad subjects” when the students assert their linguistic authority and challenge sanctioned classroom language practices. The data bolster the notion that children are not helpless or blindly obedient subjects; rather, they exercise agency to challenge classroom language practices and the underlying ideologies that they reflect.

Another salient finding of this study is the potential of in-class translation as a pedagogical resource for minority students. The analysis centers on an activity that asked Gitan learners to translate a Catalan comic into French. The language of the text is at once startlingly recognizable yet foreign—as a standardized, written Catalan variety that presents unfamiliar vocabulary and cultural references. Whereas instructors approach the activity primarily as a means to develop learners’ French orthography, students are preoccupied by reflections on language and identity. They consider their relationship to the Catalan language of the original, which they define as Gitan’s ‘linguistic cousin,’ and they express a desire for a Gitan version of the text. The activity and the discussions that it gives rise to highlight the potential of in-class translation to increase students’ and instructors’ awareness of linguistic and cultural variation.

Overall, the classroom-based fieldwork reveals both the promise and peril of multilingualism for Gitan learners in France, and multilingual minority students more broadly. Although the Gitan students “operate between languages” (MLA, 2007, p. 237) in their daily lives, their multilingualism largely remains overlooked in the classroom. Moreover, the extensive use of other languages, particularly French, by Gitan children may be perceived as compromising their Gitan identity. To speak French is sometimes referred to as “parler payo” (i.e., speaking Payo, that is, Payo or French people’s language) (Escudero, 2004, p. 57; my own observation) within this context and doing so too extensively can signal identification with Payos. The Gitan students also resist “standard” Catalan and defend the superiority of their L1 variety. Mutual comprehension between speakers of closely related languages and linguistic varieties, I contend, is dependent on more than objective linguistic similarities; more importantly, it involves perceived linguistic relatability, stemming from a desire to understand and be understood—or not—by a cultural Other.

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