The aim of this study is to document the symbolic functions of language choice in the highly multilingual nation Belize. With its stimulating traditions of language contact and sociolinguistic research, Belize offers a rich environment for studying languages as cultural symbols. Symbolic meanings of languages, including the transnational and non-territorial discourses to which they are linked, are analysed in public, governmental and everyday contexts. Without loosing sight of the fact that national discourses often remain crucial, this sheds light on the actual social functions of language beyond the “erasures” (Irvine and Gal 2000) that national language ideologies bring about. Thus, on a theoretical level, this study is a contribution to understanding the social functions of language choice and the ontology of linguistic categories in a post-national era.
The project contributes to the sociolinguistics of globalisation by developing an empirically based understanding of language ideologies and the symbolic functions of language choice in multilingual, globalised contexts. It documents discourses on language in Belize, where the link between a language and a culture cannot be taken for granted. Linguistic diversity has a long and lively tradition in Belize as Arawakan, Mayan, Indo-European and African languages have been in contact for several centuries. Thus, a “monolingual habitus” (Gogolin 1994) – the idea that monolingualism of individuals and of societies is ‘normal’, or that people need to ‘integrate’ into a majority society – is not part of everyday culture. The country only has about 300000 inhabitants; nonetheless, there are eight languages spoken officially, and several other languages and varieties belong to the sociolinguistic repertoire. As virtually all Belizeans grow up speaking at least three languages (Escure 1997:28, see also Statistical Institute of Belize 2011), languages and cultural groups do not match up in a one-dimensional way. Close transnational ties (mainly to the US) enabled by media and travel, increase traditional diversity. Diversity is not only found in the number of languages spoken, the respective languages also refer back to different histories, cultures, economic positions and transnational networks. The sociolinguistic economy of Belize proves to be an ideal context for developing an understanding of symbolic meanings of language choice beyond the confines of national epistemology, which has led to over-simplified notions of multiculturalism and under-theorised sociolinguistic concepts. The study thus broadens the empirical basis on which sociolinguistic theory of a post-national age can be formulated.
Central research questions are:
1) What are the symbolic meanings of language choice in Belizean public, official and local contexts?
2) With which local, national or transnational discourses are symbolic meanings of languages interwoven?
3) How does national language policy react to complex linguistic milieuxs?
4) What are the effects of language policy in everyday language ideology?
5) Does multilingualism affect the category of language?