Einar Haugen Lecture Series: Cultural Encounters in transnational multilingual families

In the first Einar Haugen lecture, Professor Li Wei will address cultural and linguistic challenges facing transnational multilingual families. Open to everyone.

Li Wei (Photo: bbk.ac.uk)

Language policy in transnational families

  • How does it affect family life when different languages are used in the home and outside of it?
  • What happens to the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren when they so not speak the same language?
  • Is it possible to be ashamed of your own mother tongue?

Li Wei is one of the world's most eminent researchers of language culture and language choices in transnational multilingual families. He has followed three of these families through three generations, and looked at how their language choices have affected, amongst other things, their sense of identity and cultural heritage.


For many transnational families, bilingualism and multilingualism mean different things to different generations: For the first generation migrant adults (parents), learning new languages for the new resident country is the most important task, while their local-born children face the challenge of maintaining the home/heritage language. Additive Bilingualism is not universal.  Grandparents often have reduced opportunities to interact with others speaking the same languages, without gaining any new languages. Transnational families have to face these different challenges together: the presence of monolingual grandparents is as much an issue as children not wanting or being able to speak the home language in the everyday family life. Moreover, transnational families also face the challenges of fighting against prejudices and stereotypes and constructing new identities.

This lecture discusses some of these challenges through a sociolinguistic ethnography of three transnational families, all from China, now living in Britain. One is of Korean ethnic background from China and has decided that their children should concentrate on using Korean and English, in effect cutting off their ties with China. One is of 2nd and 3rd generations of Chinese immigrants whose grandparents were Cantonese and Hakka speakers, now feeling the pressure to learn Mandarin, due to social changes in the British Chinese community. And one whose grandparents are highly educated professionals, speaking very good English, but not having sufficient social networks to support their everyday interaction. We examine how the three families cope with issues such as family language policy, children’s language socialization, linguistic ideologies, symbolic competence and changing linguistic hierarchies, and struggles in maintaining contacts with both the former and new “home” countries. Implications for social policy and professional practice, as well as bilingualism and multilingualism research generally, will also be discussed.

About the speaker

Li Wei is Pro-Vice-Master of Birkbeck College, University of London, where he is Professor of Applied Linguistics. His research interests are in the broad and multidisciplinary field of bilingualism and multilingualism. He has published on language development and disorder of bilingual and multilingual children, language maintenance and shift in multilingual families, code-switching, bilingual education, and intercultural communication. He is an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences, UK, Chair of the University Council of General & Applied Linguistics (UCGAL), and Principal Editor of the International Journal of Bilingualism.



Published July 24, 2013 1:14 AM - Last modified Sep. 24, 2013 5:02 PM