S1 E10: Language and Identity – Dr. Katerina Strani

In this episode, we are joined by Dr. Katerina Strani who is an Associate Professor and Head of Cultural Studies at the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot-Watt University. Katerina has a background in Languages and Politics, having taught translation and interpreting for 10 years, and worked as a freelance translator, interpreter and later as a researcher for the shadow interior minister in Greece. She has published papers on intercultural dialogue, racist discourse, hate speech, language and heritage, as well as an edited volume on Multilingualism and Politics (Palgrave, 2020). Katerina has led EU-funded projects on racism and discrimination, intercultural training for educators, language and culture apps for newly arrived migrants and refugees, and a language and culture app for indigenous languages (IndyLan). She was also Co-Investigator on a Global Challenge Research Fund project on digital inclusion of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. More information and a list of publications are available here.

Katerina is a Chartered Linguist and speaks French, English, Russian and Greek (native). She has also learned German, but claims to speak it very badly. She plays the piano and sings at any given opportunity, but according to her, much to the dismay of anyone listening.

Listen here!

Episode Transcript

[Brittany] Hello, and welcome back to another episode of Much Language Such Talk. In this episode, you’ll be listening to me, Brittany, and our wonderful volunteer Vittoria.  

[Vittoria] Hi, everyone. Hi Brittany. 
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[Brittany] Just as a general reminder, before we jump into today’s episode: if there are any terms used in the episode or any of our previous episodes that you’re unsure of what they mean, we do have a 
glossary on our website, so be sure to check that out. We also transcribe each episode, which can be found on the website as well. So, if you’re listening on Spotify, or iTunes or any of the other podcast platforms, you might not see these extra resources that we have available. For today’s episode to celebrate International Mother Language Day, which was on the 21st of February, we are joined by Dr. Katerina Strani, who is an Associate Professor and head of the Cultural Studies section at the Department of Languages and Intercultural Studies at Heriot Watt University. With a background in languages and politics. Her present research focuses on language and identity, and how multilingualism and multiculturalism affect contemporary society and politics at all levels. Welcome, Dr. Strani. 
[Katerina] Thank you. It’s wonderful to be here. And thank you for the invitation. 
[Brittany] So we’ll just jump right into it. Our first question being: How did you develop your interest in languages?

[Katerina] Languages were always fun for me, really, I never saw it as a career. And I never really wanted to pursue a career in languages, I didn’t even see them as a way into a career path. It was fun from an early age, it was something that helped me make friends. I was born in Thessaloniki in Greece, and I spend my summers in Halkidiki. Seriously, there’s no place like Halkidiki, it’s the most beautiful place in the world, it’s very popular with tourists. And ever since I can remember myself, I tried to speak all these different languages with tourists. And it was fun. And I always got a smile from people who were impressed, I could speak a few bits of the language, whether it was English, or French, or German and Serbian or Hungarian, you know, we had tourists from all over the place and they… So that’s what really started the journey with languages really. And then, growing up, I learned French and German because these languages were, were easier for me because of all my contact with tourists. And then, as part of my University degree, I learned Russian. But I never really wanted to study languages. I wanted to be a doctor when I was younger, but then a failed medical school exam forced me to reconsider my options. And I thought, well, why not? And here we are. 

[Brittany] Wonderful. Yeah, I also wanted to be a doctor when I was younger, and realized that I didn’t like injections, or needles. And that was out for me and also jumped right into the languages. So in your childhood, there was a lot of contact with different languages and different people from different backgrounds through the tourists. 
[Katerina] Yes, exactly. 

[Brittany] That’s super interesting. So recently, you have written a book chapter titled ‘Language and Heritage’. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?

[Katerina] Oh, I love that chapter. This book chapter was actually a gift to my colleague and mentor, Mairéad Nic Craith, as part of the celebratory volume that we put together for her. And the chapter is entitled ‘The Lightness of Heritage’. It’s quite a personal essay, but I mean, it has a good academic value. It’s based on academic research and academic scholarship, but it’s derived from personal experiences. And for this, which, which is my gift to my to my colleague and mentor, I talk about attitudes to language as heritage, and how all the impression or the sense of language as heritage implies a duty or a heaviness. And when we try to pass on our language, because it’s our heritage, it sounds like something that is a huge task, and for some people an impossible task. And I discussed things such as what happens to language when it is passed on in heritage, what happens to heritage when we try to pass it on through language. And then I conclude with what I call the lightness of heritage, again, inspired by the writings of, of Mairéad Nic Craith. Because in her writings, she sees heritage not as heavy, but something that’s quite easy and light, and that can be passed through storytelling rather than anything formal. And I think that Mairéad does this very well in her writing. This is what I wanted to, to show with, with this essay, language as heritage. I also talk about my personal story a little bit so. 

[Brittany] So if anyone wants to find out more about your interesting personal story, they should definitely read your chapter.  

[Katerina] (laughs) Yes. 

[Brittany] So I think it was a really interesting point you’ve mentioned in that explanation was there’s a sort of bi- directional consideration being language carrying heritage but also what happens when heritage is carrying a language? Could you explain a little bit, or talk a little bit more about what you mean by that?

[Katerina] So I think the point I’m trying to make and I’m not the only one making this point, you know, many other scholars and many other people have made it before me is that both language and heritage are dynamic, they’re not static. And it’s not something that can be passed on like, like an old watch, let’s say you inherit an old watch from your grandparents. And it’s kept like that, and you keep it in a box. And every now and then, I write this in the in the chapter, every now and then you open the drawer and you see the watch. And you polish it a bit. And you and you keep it, and you keep it as it is to remind you of what your grandfather or whoever did. Language and heritage or language as heritage, are not like this, they evolve, and they change. And as they are passed on, they are filtered through people and through identities, and they change and it is up to us what we do with them, how much we change them, and how much we don’t. And there’s a huge debate of how much we can change. And, you know, if we change too much, is it’s sacrilegious? And, you know, how much are we allowed to do, but this sort of iterative process of how we change language, or how language changes, if language has this heritage status, because if it doesn’t have the heritage status, we can do whatever we want with it, is, is quite interesting. And that these are some of the questions that I that I write in the essay, but also there are questions that scholars have been grappling with, you know, for four decades.

[Vittoria]  So you mentioned identity being really connected with your language, and how much does your native language play a role in how you construct your identity? And can it be the case that the native language is not the language where actually one feels more comfortable or true to oneself? And I know, that’s definitely the case for me.  

[Katerina] Oh well, tell me about it first, and then I tell you. 

[Vittoria] Well, I was brought up in Italy until I was 19. My family doesn’t speak any other language apart from Italian. But I don’t really know where my passion for English came up for the first time. But just like towards, like 17/18, I just started really getting into English and wanted to learn it properly. And kind of almost like having this obsession with dropping most of my Italian accent or sound in as little Italian as possible. And, yeah, so it got to the point where like, partly because English is my dominant language. Now, it’s the language that I use every day for most of my interactions. I don’t really feel like myself in Italian anymore, and I almost sort of feel out of place when I go back home. And speaking Italian just like feels very uncomfortable. Like, I don’t know how to make jokes in it anymore. Like, for things like this. 

[Katerina] Wow. So, do you feel, I’m interviewing you now. So, I can’t say I have the same experience. But I recognize a lot of the things that you’ve just described. And when you talk about making jokes, or you know, similar things, you’re using slang or whatever, because I left Greece when I was 19. And I see myself now I mean, I’m in touch with the language. And obviously, I have family and everything. But I see myself when I try to make jokes. My jokes are sort of 19-year-old jokes. And some of the language that I use is still a little bit, you know, teenage language, but teenager in the 90s rather than teenager in the 21st century. So definitely, I can relate a little bit. 

[Vittoria] I absolutely relate to that. I actually, I had this conversation so many times, it’s almost like I, when I speak Italian, I am still 19 because the language didn’t develop with me. So, it’s almost like I’m some end of high school kind of level. Like, I don’t know what’s cool to say anymore, or, you know, things like that. It’s really weird. But actually, I feel, I felt like this sort of like identity that I built for myself through the language like transpired in a lot of different areas of my life. Like for the longest time, I would dye my hair blonder to like, even like look less Italian, and I don’t know what it is. But I definitely feel like the language was a massive part of that for me. 

[Katerina] Well, 19 is not a bad place to be, you know, it’s not a bad age to be stopping, I don’t think, but to come back to your question, I think there are two parts to identity, and also to follow on from what you were saying Vittoria. So identity is, as we know is both ascribed and it’s also self-determined, in your case, Vittoria, you’re talking about self-determined, or self-definition, you know, self-defining, but it may also be determined by what we are and by what we are not. And it sounds to me in your case that you were saying, you know what, I don’t want to be associated with all the stereotypical Italian things anymore. I want to do, I want to draw my own path. And language has a huge role in this but it’s different for each individual. And I remember I can give you countless examples. I have friends who are second generation Greeks in Canada and Australia, for example. They can’t speak Greek very well. Some of them can’t speak Greek at all, but if you ask them, they will say there Greek. And this is probably the case with other people in languages, I’m sure it’s the case with some Italian Americans, for example, they will say I’m Italian, but they’re sort of third generation. And they, I’m not sure if they’ve ever been to Italy or, you know, whichever other country. So for some people language is central and for others, it’s, it’s not so. But when it comes to language, the language that you feel more comfortable or true to oneself in that’s a different question, as you’ve also shown Vittoria, because it depends on the context and the purpose of a language. I know that for myself, I feel more comfortable talking to my family, obviously, in Greece, not just because they don’t speak any other languages, but also because you know, of everything that we associate ourselves, you know, growing up family, you know, things that have happened, our past and everything, our experiences together. But for most people who use many languages, they will have the language of the family, the language of work, the language of love, you know, there are people who fall in love in one language, and they can’t think of speaking another language with their partners. My husband is English, and obviously, my Greek family are telling me ‘oh he must learn Greek’ and, and all this and to be fair to him, he’s very good, but I would never even dream of speaking Greek with him. I mean, why would I, that’s, you know, the language of love. And all these languages can be different, and it can work perfectly fine. But what is true to oneself, I think it’s something very personal, and what we are used to, and if we’re you, Victoria, if you feel speaking English as being true to yourself, then you know, why not? It’s it doesn’t make you less Italian, I don’t think. (laughs) 

[Vittoria Thank you so much. And actually, something that I think is, I find very interested in the connection to language and accessing memories. So especially when you were talking about your relationship with your partner, the idea of like switching to a different language, I completely understand that would feel weird to me as well, it’s almost like you built this relationship with this person. And you can’t access the memories that you’ve shared together, if you all of a sudden switch the code that you’ve used for your relationship that whole time. So, I completely relate to that. And actually, you mentioned something about third culture kids, which are people that maybe are born in a country but have roots into a different country from like generations prior to them. So, these kids often speak a large number of languages, and sometimes they don’t speak the languages of the country that they were born, or that their parents and the previous generations were born into, and the language that they speak. Does moving from country to country where the languages are difficult, change your identity, is it more about the local cultures, the language, or both, that affect these individuals’ identity? And this is a question that Atif and Carine sent in because they were having this conversation about, you know, having so many languages into your heritage, but maybe not speaking all of them? And how, how does you build in your own identity in relation to that happen? 

[Katerina] It’s a, it’s a fascinating question, isn’t it, especially for people like Atif in Carine who are, who have got this background and are going through this process of sort of negotiating their, their identities, and I mean, scholars have been doing identity work and identity research for, for many, many years. And I think we will be doing it for many more years to come, because some of these questions are very difficult to, to answer. So, the question that Atif and Carine are asking, I think, relates more to multiple identities, but also hyphenated identities, and, and liminality, which is what anthropologists use. liminality is a term that anthropologists use to refer to this state of being in between identities to find that you’re oscillating between one identity and the other not being one or the other and sort of moving from one to the other or not being, not being in a fixed place. But when, when we talk about hyphenated identities, it’s not simply saying, ‘Oh, I am a, I don’t know, British- Syrian, or a British- Italian’ or whatever. It’s not just putting the hyphen in and you know, then it’s done. But it’s also looking at the relationship between these two identities. Which identity do you put before the hyphen and which identity do you put after. Does it mean that what you put first is your dominant and what you put secondly, is your, is your sort of less dominant? Is it the host identity that you put first and the home identity that you put second? Is it the other way around? You know, it’s not, it’s all quite complex. I remember there was a recent blog. There was a recent article on the LSC blog. I don’t remember who wrote it, but it was absolutely brilliant. And he talked about hyphenated identities and it said, the article said that it gives the impression if someone has a hyphenated identity that they’re oscillating between two cultures, but it’s not as simple because then people might ask you so what are you then, are you British or Asian? You can’t be British- Asian, you can be one or the other. And it also gives the impression that the person is not fully integrated if they have a hyphenated identity, but then that makes us think: Well, what is integration anyway? What does integration look like? You know, so for Atif, for Carine to say, ‘How do we negotiate all this? How do we define ourselves?’ Well, let’s say if you define yourself as I don’t know, British, what does that look like? Or if you’re an integrated British citizen or whatever? What does that mean? Really? I can’t give you an answer, obviously, because that is, that is personal. But I can say that identities are much more interesting and much more complex than we would give them the credit. I think, and it’s also obviously a political issue. But I’m not going to talk about politics yet unless you ask. Because politics is really my passion. 

[Vittoria] I’m sure we’ll get to that in some way or another. 

[Katerina] I hope that answers your question, though. There was a long sort of long… 

[Vittoria] No, absolutely. And I actually think it’s not even just the case for third culture kids, or people that just have multiple languages in their own family tree. I think it’s just it could be the case for just first-generation people, people that move to other countries that have this feeling of like, liminality, and not quite belonging to a place or the other. And going back to what we were talking about earlier, as well, just, you know, when you leave a country, it’s almost like your language development stops the moment you leave it. And then when you go back, how do you make up for all these years that you haven’t lived in the country? 

[Katerina] Yes, absolutely. And I think most studies that have been, that have been done on this show that people who have left and then go back do feel that they, they are in the state of liminality because language evolves, as we said, earlier. Culture evolves, but language as well. So, if your language regardless of how much you keep in touch with your language, and you may even be part of a language community, in you know, in your host country, it will not be, the language will not be spoken in the same way as in, as in the home country. So, there will be differences. And when people go back, they always find differences. 

[Vittoria] Yeah, so in relation to this idea of liminality. So, not belonging to a place or another, or like not feeling like you belong to a place or another. Do you think monolinguals are often thought of as having a more complete identity, while bilinguals have a split identity? This is a question that was sent in by Teresa. 

[Katerina] I think we need to make a difference here between bilingual people and bicultural people. Because this question really depends on the role these languages have for a person, if it’s a foreign language, or if it’s a mother tongue, or if it’s a heritage language, or whatever they want to call it. Because if, if by bilingual people or bilinguals, you mean also bicultural people, then yes, it affects your identity, then we go into the territory of, you know, do we have a hyphenated identity? Do we have liminal identities? You know, what sort of, what are we talking about in terms of, of identity for this person? So it does depend if you’re bilingual and bicultural, you can assume different traits, of course, when you speak “your languages”, and again, what are “your languages”, you know, when you speak your languages? But whether this is a totally new identity? I don’t, I don’t know. 

[Vittoria]  Yeah. And in bilingual research, there is that concept of, you know, the bilingual is not two monolinguals in one person; it’s complete identity. It is not to separate people that just like exists in one person. It’s like, a whole thing that interacts constantly all the time. I don’t know, that’s kind of how I see it. But it’s such a complicated topic. 

[Katerina] Oh, yeah. And you can see it, I mean, you can see the in children if I if I, you know, if I can share a personal sort of story. I have a young daughter and I always joke with her that she’s obviously she’s, she’s half Greek and half English. And I joke that she’s never had a tantrum in English ever. (general laughter) You know, any sort of drama has to be in Greek. She’s still the same person, but she expresses different parts of her personality in different languages. And it’s, it’s quite a lot of fun when you’re a child, I don’t know what she’s gonna do with all that when she’s older. But you know, it’s fun to watch. 

[Brittany] That was a beautiful anecdote, because I think that’s really, it’s really great. And also it shows, in some ways, from my perspective of just hearing it and what we’ve been discussing, the ways in which your daughter is trying to navigate the different roles those languages play in her life. So presently, then Greek is the more emotional one, the one that that’s where the drama happens (laughter) and English, maybe not so much. And that might be I mean, that can be for a variety of reasons. But I can imagine if she’s going to school where English is the predominant language, and that’s what we do, you know, when you’re behaving and you’re following all the rules of school, and then Greek is where you can sort of just let all the fun happens. 

[Katerina] (laughter) Exactly. 

[Brittany] So, speaking of different songs, of languages and communities. You mentioned earlier that there’s a difference between bilingualism and biculturalism. So, in terms of reinforcing this sort of bond between language and culture, language and identity, what role do you think that Saturday schools play so where you have schools where a heritage language perhaps or just another language is being spoken and taught by community members who are also living, say abroad? 

[Katerina] Hmm. The role of these Saturday schools. So, I think that the role of these sort of complimentary language schools can be a double edged sword. The principle is excellent, obviously. But you know, if we connected to our discussion earlier about heritage as a duty and heritage is something heavy that you must do otherwise, you’re not true to yourself and all this, if children feel that they have to learn a language because of the heaviness of heritage or because of tradition or because of duty, then they won’t have, I don’t think, they will have a very healthy relationship, with that language. So it depends on how those these Saturday schools are framing the language teaching, what sort of language do they teach? And how do they teach it? If we’re talking about a sterile way of passing on language, because it’s your duty, then I’m not sure how effective they can be. And, you know, the, the purpose of teaching a language because there’s only so much Saturday schools can do, you know, for 90 minutes or two hours, or whatever, you know, children spend learning the language. So, you know, if language is seen as heritage as something heavy, then Saturday schools may actually have a detrimental effect. And children may say, you know what, I don’t need this, I’d rather go outside and play rather than learn something that is, that I’m never going to use just because it’s part of me. And but if it’s taught in a different way, in a more sort of constructive way, in a in a more alive way, if children are allowed to play with the language and experiment with it and sing with it, and, you know, make jokes with it and make mistakes, then it’s a different, it’s a different kettle of fish. One of my colleagues, Ullrich Kockel, who is a well-known anthropologist, he wrote once that unlike other resources, language is not depleted by its use, but it’s enhanced. He didn’t say it in so many words, but that’s what he meant. And I thought that’s’ actually a really good way of looking at language is like, the more you use it, the better it becomes, rather than, you know, being depleted. So if Saturday schools can do that, and that’s, that, that’s brilliant. But I think when we’re talking about children, we really need to be careful not to discourage them in that way. 

[Brittany] Yeah, I think, not, I don’t have the personal experience of Saturday schools or anything like that. I’m a native English speaker. But I think that the description you just provided reminds me to some friends, luckily, I didn’t have to go through this, (general laughter) but to some friends, say, who were forced into learning a musical instrument or doing some sort of activity that they needed to do, because their parents said it was important, but they didn’t find the inherit interest, or they didn’t find the classes enjoyable. So, then they’re not going to have a really positive relationship with that moving forward, they need to sort of navigate that themselves. And I drew that sort of parallel for my sort of more monolingual upbringing background, but it makes total sense. If you’re, if you’re… have this heaviness of heritage, as we were discussing, then it’s just a little bit too much to put on a child and say, you know, your heritage is in this language, you must then learn it in this way. 

[Katerina] Yes, because if you I mean, I think you gave a good example there. So, if you if you take the example of having to learn, I don’t know, the violin, just because, I don’t know, your dad played it or because you have to play it. And children not wanting to imagine. So, imagine having that pressure but also telling the child, “you must do this, because if you don’t, you will not be true to yourself,” which is what we were talking about earlier. “Oh, but this is part of you. If you don’t learn the language, then it means that you are not, you know, French, German, British, whatever.” That is a huge pressure, I think to put on a child and in many cases, it will have the opposite effect. 

[Brittany] That’s a huge pressure, I think to put on anyone, anyone, (laughter) The heaviness. Really, I really liked that metaphor. I’m not sure if it’s a metaphor, but the feeling of that really, I think is transpired in that example where you can just feel the complete heaviness. It feels like a like a big cloud that you can’t really get under if that’s how it’s being presented to you in that case. So, do languages then, say you have a multilingual person, give you personality traits? So that’s to say, why do some people feel more extroverted speaking in one language than speaking in another? Or is it perhaps related to the status of the language or what’s culturally associated with speaking that language? 

[Katerina] It’s … that’s a great one, I mean. I remember I once joked that I would be more organized if I spoke better German. (general laughter) But, you know, I don’t speak it very well. So that’s why I’m very disorganized. But I think the way you ask the question, I think you’ve basically answered the question yourself about what’s culturally associated with speaking a language. And I think, again, I think that this has to do with culture, rather than language. So, it has to do with being bicultural, and bilingual. So, I don’t know, if at this age now, in my 40s, if I learn another language, I don’t think it’s going to give me any personality traits, it will definitely enrich me very much because I’m going to learn a few things about another culture, but it’s not going to change my personality, I don’t think.  

[Brittany] So then do you think that, or in the literature as well, maybe not just your opinion, that in order to become bicultural, do you need to learn a language by a certain time? Or does it need to be passed on to you through family members? Or can you say, let’s take the Vittoria’s case, for example, say instead of you were 19 when you started learning English and really getting into that, maybe you were 9? Would that then become a bicultural situation or still bilingual? I guess for me just trying to navigate the differences between these terms? 

[Katerina] Hmm, yeah. It’s interesting the way you put it now, because you are really talking about the process of acculturation. You know, whether acculturation can really, you know, happen at a at a later stage. And I guess, you know, that there are different reasons why you learn a language, but if you if your purpose is also to be immersed in the culture, you know, you can achieve this by immersion, you can go and live in a country. But I think you’re right in saying that there’s no sort of time limit that or a time estimate that you put after how many years can you say that you’ve become acculturated or that you’ve, you know, that you have become bicultural. But I think when we talk about bicultural people, we tend to mean people who are either born in a culture and raised, you know, raised in two or more, rather than people acquiring these cultures later in life. I’m not sure if this is correct, because now that you’ve mentioned it, I would say that I don’t see a reason if you know someone moving to a country later on in life, and if they’ve lived there for I don’t know how many years they can be immersed in such a way that they can become then bicultural. But at least from what I know, any, you know, research on bicultural people or you know bilingualism biculturalism has focused on people who were bicultural, either from birth, or at least grew up, you know, with, with many cultures. But it’s an interesting one to look into. I think and thanks for raising it. 

[Vittoria] I was actually thinking about a couple of examples from my own experience. But when it comes to myself, obviously I feel very much bicultural. Because for the past six, seven years, I’ve lived in the UK. And there are many aspects of the UK culture that I actually struggle to explain to my family back home. My best friend, she’s Greek-South African, and she was born in South Africa. She never lived in Greece, and she moved to the UK at the age of two. But her family and her to me, they feel very much a Mediterranean. Like I see her as a fellow Mediterranean person, and it goes from the things that they eat, the souvla I think it’s called, the Greek barbecue, that they make. To me, everything about her family and the culture that they share as a family unit is Mediterranean, even if she herself has never lived in Greece. 

[Katerina] Yes, I mean, it happens very much with diasporic communities, it happens. Because especially within in countries, such as South Africa, or Australia, actually, were such desperate communities are very close-knit. So, I imagine your friend has never been to Greece, but I imagine that the community she grew up in, in South Africa was a very sort of Greek community. I have friends who are Greeks, from South Africa. So, I know a little bit about this. And I think, you know, growing up, she felt Greek-South African, rather than, you know, just South African so I can understand why the family is like this, even though they’ve never lived there. But it’s important to, to remember that if your friend ever went to Greece to live, she would still struggle, you know, she would still find it difficult because even if you grow up in a Greek diasporic community or Italian diasporic community, it’s still not the same. So, you know, you don’t have the same points of reference. So, you still, you’re still in a liminal sort of state, which I find fascinating. I’d love to meet your friend and talk about her experiences. 

[Vittoria] Yeah, I mean she’s supposed to move to Edinburgh very soon, so that might happen. 

[Brittany] Oh, that’s exciting. 

[Katerina] Fantastic. We can have a souvla together then. (general laughter) 

[Vittoria] Oh, so I did say it right (laughter), I’m glad.  

[Brittany] So, could you tell us a little bit more about the IndyLan project, so IndyLan mobile virtual learning for indigenous languages, and how that idea came about?

[Katerina] Oh, I love this project. 

[Brittany] It’s very, cool, yeah. 

[Katerina] I shouldn’t say it, but it’s my favorite project so far, and I’m quite proud of it. So, the full title of the project is mobile virtual learning for indigenous languages. So, the idea is quite simple. We’re developing an app, which is meant to help and encourage people to learn indigenous languages. It’s an international project. It’s funded by the EU through Erasmus plus. And the language that people can learn through the app are: Cornish, Scots, Gaelic, Basque, Galician, and Sami, Northern Sami, the northern Sami variant. And the sort of dominant languages that are associated with these are English, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, what am I forgetting… and Spanish. So if you speak these dominant languages, and you want to learn the corresponding indigenous languages, you know, the six indigenous languages, then you can download the app and you can learn the language. But it’s not just about the language, the reason I’m quite proud of it is, its not just about the language is because it is the fact that we place a lot of emphasis on the cultures of the people speaking the language. We also try to raise awareness through the app of things like that, you know, focus on the speakers, not only on the languages, and it’ll be ready in November 2021.  

[Brittany] Exciting.

[Katerina] Watch, watch this space. 

[Brittany] That’s incredible. So, I was just gonna, I was just going to ask that actually, when it would be ready. So, is it called IndyLan, the app to be downloaded? 

[Katerina] Yes, it’ll be ready in beta version in April 2021. But then we’ll be doing some testing. So, I might email you and say, “This is the beta version, do you want to test it?” And then officially, the official launch will be in November? So yeah, watch this space.  

[Brittany] Wonderful, that’s an incredible project. So then was that project and international project, it sounds like if you had indigenous languages and native languages to different sort of countries, as well? 

[Katerina] Yes, definitely. It’s an international project with international partners. And it came about because we had a project before that called Moving Languages. And for that previous project, we developed an app for refugees and newly arrived migrants who didn’t speak English so that they, they could learn English. So it was a classic English learning app, but the sort of support languages were refugee languages, we had 26 refugee languages, but we also had a culture tab where they could learn things about Scotland, and, you know, to help them with their life here. So that project finished, you know, the Moving Languages app is available. And after we finished that project, one of my colleagues came and said, “Why don’t you try and do another app for lesser spoken or endangered languages?” And that’s how we came up with the idea for IndyLan.  

[Brittany] That’s lovely. So, sort of a collaboration, then that was built, and then continued to build through these wonderful ideas that you had to continue your great work. 

[Katerina] Yeah, to be, to be honest with you, I didn’t have the connections, all I did was I had a look. And I saw which languages were indigenous and endangered in various countries, and which languages really needed the resources, because some languages don’t need any more resources. So I looked at languages that really needed you know, resources like that. And I just contacted people out of the blue. (laughter)  

[Brittany] Really? Oh wow.  

[Katerina] And they, and they agreed to do this project with me. So, I’m very pleased and the partnership is wonderful. The Sami Council is our partner, the Cornwall Council is our partner as well. And we have various other partners in Spain and Finland. So, it’s, it’s great. 

[Brittany] That’s amazing, yeah. 

[Vittoria] That’s really interesting. I’m really interested in endangered language myself. I did some work on them during my master’s, so I’m looking forward to checking it out actually. And so, you’ve recently published a book about multilingual citizenship. Can you tell us a bit more about this idea, what does it mean to be a multilingual citizen?

[Katerina] So in that book, and you know, in the idea of multilingual citizenship, I look at citizenship as a set of practices rather than, you know, what is mentioned on your passport. And I think that most scholars do the same, you know that citizenship is not just what your passport says, or a piece of paper says. Someone said, I don’t remember who it was, but someone said that citizenship is a commitment. I look at it through this lens, so through the lens of a commitment but also through the lens of a set of practices. You’ are a citizen, because you participate in deliberating about, you know, matters of common interest, you form public opinion, you know, there’s a set of practices, that means that you are active in your community, and you want to change things that you don’t- that you don’t agree with. This all has to do with, you know, the public sphere and wh-what we do in the public sphere as citizens, and you don’t have to have formal citizenship to do that you can just be part of a community and you can be engaging in citizenship practices. So multilingual citizenship means that some of these practices take place in different languages. In all the examples we’ve discussed today, you know, people with different identities with different languages, you can be in your home and you can talk to your peers or your family in one language. And you can formulate arguments in one language, but then you go into another context and you discuss with your, let’s say, British friends, and you make the same arguments in English. And then when you vote, you have to think of a certain way. And all this your practices are translated into different languages, and you form your political opinions in a multilingual way. In a nutshell, that’s what I mean when I talk about multilingual citizenship and multilingual citizenship practices. But also, there are countries, obviously, that are officially multilingual and in this case, you do speak one language, you know, in one part of the country, or one language in public and another language in private or whatever. It’s the negotiation between these different languages and what happens when you argue in different languages. What happens to the argument and what happens to politics? 

[Vittoria] Yeah, that’s a fascinating idea. And actually, I was wondering, in relation to public spheres, should the concept of multilingual citizenship be introduced in school curriculums to increase acceptance and respect towards other people’s cultures? 

[Katerina] I mean, that will be, that will be a wonderful idea. I don’t think we should underestimate children and their brains. And I don’t think we should assume that they’re too young to process any of these concepts. You know, these concepts of political participation, we see politics, I don’t know if it’s if this is only the UK or if it happens in other countries as well. But we see politics as something that’s really sterile, really negative and we don’t see it as really everyday practices. If you want to change something, if you’re not happy with something and you want to make an argument, and I don’t know, you organise a local campaign and you organise a petition or something. These are all Political Practices. I know that in schools today, they have pupil Parliament’s, for example. And that’s and that’s great, you know, teaching children how to put forward an argument, how to make a case how to discuss, you know, things, how to respect each other’s opinions. This is all part of political culture and, you know, instilling political culture. And I think if we instill these values of argumentation, multilingual argumentation, multicultural argumentation, however you want to do it, if we instill these from a young age, then we will end up with better and more informed citizens. So yeah, I think your suggestion there is, is great. 

[Vittoria] To me, like all of the concepts that we see in politics, at the core really have to do with like managing your place within your community. 

[Katerina] This whole thing about the multilingual practices, you know, it would be the same as, let’s say, Vittoria, you, I don’t know, if you were speaking with your family about, I don’t know Brexit in Italian, you would make an argument in Italian and it would make real sense. But then if you had to talk about it with your British peers, or if you were a voter, you would have to grapple with all these concepts, and you would have to make all these arguments in English. Your English is perfect, it’s not. it’s not the language competence. It’s the fact that some of these concepts and some of these argumentation practices change when you change the language. And you know, what happens to arguments when we argue in a different language or in different culture? And I’m not sure if we think about these aspects of multilingual citizenship. I mean, I remember I was watching the European…, why would I do this, but it was the European Parliament, and I was watching, you know, the debates and you know, they’re all interpreted, they have professional interpreters who interpret the debates. And I was sitting there thinking, because I’m a trained interpreter, myself, the language is not lost, or, you know, the message is interpreted brilliantly, because these people are all obviously professionals. But how much of the sort of intercultural argumentation stuff is-is lost? When I argue with my husband, I, you know, I’m very passionate, and then he’s English. And he goes, “Well, I’m sorry you feel that way.” And that’s his, and that’s his thing you know. How do you capture that? There’s… You know, there’s this sort of para-verbal irony and sarcasm. How do you convey that? So, I guess it’s also these elements that I wanted to, sort of, bring forward and say, well, let’s take them into account because they’re all important in a debate. And I remember when I first came to Scotland, I don’t- in Greece we don’t use sarcasm or irony in the same way. And it took me a while to get into the, the culture of jokes here and all this because there’s a lot of a lot of that going on. 

[Brittany] Yeah, that’s actually really interesting because for me, so I’m from the States and then I’ve obviously been living in Scotland for some time. And in both countries, English speaking countries, but I had a very hard time adjusting to the sort of non-verbal approach. Or this, this cultural element in the language, especially with irony and sarcasm, because it’s used so differently. Or even just, phrases like, “Oh, well done.”, doesn’t mean the same, like, it’s the same words. And it’s the same language, but the cultural use of it is just so different. For example, when I was coming back to the University of Edinburgh, they had all these different resources for international students. But there weren’t any resources, and I’m not to say that there needs to be, but it was something I wasn’t expecting. In that, I felt “Oh, well, I’m an English speaker, I’m going to an English-speaking, predominantly English-speaking country, this will be fine”. There’ll be some differences, you know, like, flats will be smaller than apartments I’m used to, something like that. But there were so many other cultural things associated that I didn’t even consider could be different at some level, but also how different they are. And there’s something that’s really broaden in my perspective on different cultural elements, is there’s so many things that might not even be explicitly stated that we’ll be different that you’ll figure out through experience, basically all this to say, I also had a hard time adjusting to humour in the British context. 

[Katerina] Exactly. So, I think you get the point of, you know, bilingual and bicultural. Because so in your case, exactly. It’s the same language, but the cultures are so different. 

[Brittany] True. Yeah, exactly. That’s a great example. Indeed. Why do you think it is so important to emphasize the importance of other languages than English in the UK, for example?

[Katerina] Because despite the status of languages such as, well sure Gaelic or Scots or British Sign Language in the UK, and despite the increasing number of people speaking minority languages. The UK remains Anglo-centric or English-centric. And this is not just at government level, but it is at social and everyday level, which I think in many cases is-is more important. So, languages other than English are neither normalized nor encouraged. And unfortunately, unfortunately, this is the case. And let’s consider if a young child is othered, or teased, because of speaking a language other than English, then this will not only encourage monolingualism, and be detrimental to society, it will also stifle the child’s identity and, and part of who they are, if they feel strongly about this. Really, it’s a form of oppression, language oppression. And I think we need to all remember that minority languages are all important. They’re all valuable, and they all form part of our linguistic capital. We can’t have a pecking order of languages and see “Oh language X is more useful, or more important than language Y”. Because if, if we do that, then this is this is a dangerous process, where, where do you stop? Professor Allison Phillips from the University of Glasgow, has written a great book on decolonizing multilingualism. And she writes in that book that we should stop, you know, saying that multilingualism should only be about people speaking colonial languages. Oh, look at me, I speak French, German, and you know, Spanish, but if I speak, I don’t know, Arabic, Urdu, and, I don’t know, Somali, or something like that, then am I less important or are my language less important? We should really move away from this, from this view, and from the hierarchy of languages like that. Linguistic capital is linguistic capital. And if, if it’s impoverished, then we all lose. 

[Brittany] Yeah, I mean, I think that’s, that’s a really interesting point. I hadn’t necessarily thought of it in that way. But it is a colonial perspective, I guess, on that, that hierarchy. And it’s often not explicitly stated, but more of an implicit assumption or implicit bias of the language hierarchy. And of course, English has a certain status as lingua franca, or the general language of communication across a lot of different cultures due… to also colonialism, which is less exciting. But there’s, there’s a real important element there in all languages carrying value. And that value might just be different for different people, but not ‘necessarily value that is higher or lower it’s just different.

[Vittoria] Yeah, and that actually connects quite well with your interest in politics. And this idea that language can be quite political. And actually, in relation to that, in your research, what are some ways you have identified that languages play a role in politics? How important is language visibility in weighing the importance of one’s language as part of one’s identity?

[Katerina] And when it comes to language visibility in the importance of, of people’s identity, I think we, I think we touched upon this in the previous question when we said, you know, you don’t have to speak the language if you feel that you have, you know, a certain identity, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not part of the identity anyway. So, you know, we gave the example of, you know, Greeks in South Africa or Greeks in in the US, for example. But when it comes to the connection between languages and politics, I think it was John Joseph, who once said that politics is the art and language is the medium. There is a very strong connection between language and language and politics. And it has been researched for many, many years from the perspective of the language of politics, language as a political tool, minority languages, schooling… It is everything that you have mentioned in this discussion as well. You know, how languages are used in schooling, the status of languages, state politics, also called, you know, glottal politics. It is a huge topic with many dimensions. And this happens with identity as well sometimes, you don’t know how important someone’s identity is, until you try and suppress it. And then you see how important it is and how actually, people will react to it. We have seen this with language a lot, especially with minority languages. And it all comes back as well to the role and status of languages and the pecking order, you know, if you speak a minority language, “Ah it’s just a minority language is not as important as, I don’t know, a foreign language.” What’s the difference between a minority language and a foreign language? I remember discussing with my daughter about Greek because there was a day where she didn’t want to do her Greek homework. And I said to her, well, you’ve done your French homework. And she said, Yeah, but that’s different it’s a foreign language. Here I was thinking, okay, so there’s a difference here between a foreign language and a heritage language or a minority language. And I think labels are useful for categorizing purposes but then we need to be careful, because if a label gives a certain status, then yes, it becomes political, because it means that these languages have fewer resources. If a language is labeled as a minority language, does it mean that we give it less resources. You know, less money, less time less, you know, we don’t teach it at schools. But if we name a language, a heritage language, and we give it a higher status, then there’s more resources. And all these processes are political. 

[Brittany] It’s still thought provoking, honestly, like, there’s obviously these different terms and you can define different terms. But really, really thought provoking the point you made of, well, if there’s status that’s going to be inherent in those terms, then they’re no longer helpful necessarily for categorization because now you’re creating a pecking order or a hierarchy that is counterintuitive. Especially in the case of minority inherited languages, I would say to the entire point of labeling them.

[Vittoria] Yeah. And it’s very interesting as well how, you were talking about earlier, about the idea that we don’t give kids enough credits about how much they pick up on the discourses around certain identities, certain languages. So, the fact that your daughter is clearly very aware of the discourses around different languages, and what is taught at school and like the different status that that has and carries, so that’s really interesting.

[Katerina] Yeah, and also, coming back to the resources, if any child wants to learn French, or Spanish, or whatever, there are many resources out there for them to do it. But if they want to learn some of, let’s say, you know, what they may call their languages or their heritage languages, or whatever you want to call them, there’s not as many resources there. So, you know, if a child wants to learn Urdu or Somali, I mentioned these, these languages before, there’s not many resources there. We have developed Moving Languages, that’s a great resource. But (general laugher) other than that, you know, in all seriousness, there aren’t many resources there. So, it’s, you don’t have to be that explicit with children, you know, they do understand you’re right, you know, if you go on YouTube, and you see all these, you know, language resources for certain languages, but not for others, in their brains, their thinking, “well, it’s probably not as important then.” 

[Vittoria] Yeah, absolutely. 

[Brittany] What do you think the ideal interaction would be between people of two different cultures? What might that look like? What social forces or factors would be present or absent in such a situation. 

[Katerina] The ideal interaction between people from two different cultures… That will be a situation when people feel that their identities are not being threatened. And I think it’s as simple as that. Any interaction where people feel that their identities are not being threatened, you know, is a good interaction. You know, when we say identities here, we can mean any identities, really, they could be linguistic identities, cultural, you know, political, sexual, religious, any identity. If they’re not being threatened, then you know, that’s fine, then they can focus on other things on the actual interaction. (laughs) 

[Brittany] Yeah, I mean, that’s, that makes sense. And I think that’s a really feasible response to a very complicated question in that just sort of “Don’t be mean. And things can go well,” (laughter) which is… it’s sort of dumbing down the eloquent response you provided, but it doesn’t need to be something overly complicated. Just be respectful and considerate of another human being and you can learn from each other rather than threaten each other, I guess, in a cultural sense and identity sense. 

[Katerina] Yes. I mean, it is, it is much easier said than done. I have to say because there are, because identities are complex and because you don’t know, you know, someone’s background, but I think the, yes, the rule of thumb is, as you’ve described it. We can only try, but I think if we work with that in mind, then it’s definitely a way forward. 

[Brittany] Thank you so much for joining us today. While we spoke about language, politics, culture and identity with Dr. Katerina Strani. We hope you enjoyed it and learned some cool things, or at least some thought-provoking information from our amazing guest. I know I certainly did. A special thanks to Dr. Strani for her time and for sharing her expertise with us. If you’re interested in learning more about her and her amazing work, you can find a link to her University page in the episode description. Tune in next time to keep learning about how languages shape us and the environment around us. As always, stay safe, stay healthy. And

[Katerina] γειά σας [Greek for goodbye] 

[Vittoria] Slán [Irish for goodbye] 

[Brittany] Palaam [Tagalog for goodbye] [/expand]


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