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Intimate Strangers: language stories in a Berlin Mietshaus

Patrick Stevenson

(University of Southampton)

Research on the increasing complexity of urban societies has highlighted different dimensions of diversity in terms of language knowledge and linguistic practices. Home language surveys, for example, reveal the vast range of languages used in major European cities and their spatial distribution; many studies have been devoted to research on innovative styles of ‘mixed’ language use, both in face-to-face interaction and in mediated forms; and increasing attention has been paid to visual manifestations of language use. In this paper, I would like to talk about how these demographic, interactional and representational approaches can be complemented by a biographical perspective as a contribution towards a multi-dimensional understanding of what Ingrid Gogolin calls the ‘linguistic texture of migration societies’.

The talk draws on research in inner city districts of Berlin characterized by a high degree of migration and multilingualism. It is concerned with ways in which individual migrants reflect on how their experience with language has shaped their transnational life worlds. Drawing inspiration from research in sociolinguistics, social anthropology and documentary journalism, I explore this theme through the language biographies of inhabitants of a single apartment block, which in its changing ethnic and linguistic composition is a kind of metaphor for life in the contemporary city.