Some reflections on BAAL ICSIG event

We gave the following paper this week:

Leah Davcheva and Richard Fay —– “Linguistic Identity-Play Amongst Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria: A Narrative Study”. Paper presented at the Language, Identity, and Intercultural Communication joint conference of the British Association for Applied Linguistics Intercultural Communication Special Interest Group and The Annual Bloomsbury Round Table, 9th -10th June, 2011, Birkbeck College, University of London). Abstract. ppt

Richard: Highlights for me were the plenaries by Claire Kramsch on imposture (“Identity and subjectivity in the era of globalization”) and Celia Roberts on the identity games played and the performances required in gate-keeping events such as exams and interviews (“Performing the institutional self”) ….

More personally, this research project – a narrative study of (usually) elderly Sephardic Jews in Bulgaria (the eldest so far is 93) on the place of Ladino in their lives (this is a rough-and-ready statement of focus) is a new one for me. It is one where Leah and I have differing researcher and individual identities vis-a-vis the research, differences which we see as a strength and richness to be embraced transparently and reflexively rather than as something problematic. Put somewhat simplistically, whereas Leah is Bulgarian, of Sephardic Jewish origin, with Ladino memories from childhood, an ‘insider’ and lead researcher in the research field (undertaking all of the data generation and restorying, transcribing and translation activities), I am (vis-a-vis the research – I repeat this to explain the negative formulation that follows), non-Bulgarian, non-Sephardic, a newcomer to Ladino, an outsider in the research field, and essentially desk-based (able to work only with the data once restoried and translated into English). 

However, we also share things such as a common interest and experience in narrative and intercultural research, a history of collaboration together, an interest in the operationalisation of a multilingual research design [a topic we will talk about at BAAL in September – link], and a fascination for ‘Balkan’ history, culture etc. My ‘back-catalogue’ of work also involves a focus on other languages existing ‘in the margins’ so to speak (e.g. Polari) so this is something else which I also bring to the table.

Given these collaborative complexities, we are developing a researcher-methodology of using researcher narratives to develop reciprocal mutuality, a topic that was initially explored ina draft paper we brought to a RAW session back in February or March this year [link] , and to which we will return in the autumn.

However, the paper we gave on London focused not so much on these methodological issues but more on the topic itself as linked to the conference theme of Langage, Identity, and Intercultural Communication. In the paper, we explored how our 14 storytellers spoke about the place and role of Ladino in their (narrativised presentation of) lives and how this role/place has changed over the years (as set against the changing geographical, political, cultural,. linguistic and social contexts in which they lived their lives).

In esence, what we presented wat we have gleaned from their stories about their (Ladino-enriched) identity-play. Given that they are culturally-complex individuals (aren’t we all?), living in a culturally-complex part of the world (but where isn’t?), and have lived through complex eras (is life ever simple?), it is not surprising that their identity-play is also complex. This reminds me that such complexity is not a new phenomenon despite so many intercultural papers beginning by indicating that the rate of change (technological, cultural, migrational etc in this globalised time of ours) is making intercultural communication and cultural complexity more and more common (and thereby emphasising its contemporary power).

Finally, this was an event led by the BAAL ICSIG, as newish body of applied linguists interested especially in intercultural communication. This body has 90+ members and seems to riding a wave of current interest attracting big names like Claire Kramsch, Adrian Holliday, Celia Roberts and involving (as members of the committee interculturalists like Donna Humphrey (an LTE MA alumnus based at Nottingham Trent University) and Jane Woodin (from Sheffield University) with whom I collaborate on ‘Doing Research Multilingually’ and ‘IC Pedagogy’ amongst other things.

Leah: Richard’s reflections on the IC SIG event and his review of our joint paper cover most of the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ of our participation there.  As for me, I was a complete novice to BAAL and held a ‘beginner’s mind’ to its spaces and people, and importantly, to the way the conference papers were presented. To my more interactive inclinations, it all appeared rather detached, own research-centred, inward-looking, and somewhat unengaging.

I ask myself the question: What is different after the conference? How have things changed for our collaborative research project and for us?

In the first place, the conference fast-approaching deadline, stimulated us to transit from contemplating and indulging in our data to the hard work of analysing it and making some sort of sense. We now have a complete, albeit interim analytical product, which captures our first leap from raw data to interpreting and understanding it.

Secondly, we avoided the temptation to present the audience with what we ourselves deemed was fascinating to talk about. We managed to stay within the language, identity and IC communication brief and thus make sure we fulfilled our promised focus. The result was that we had a roomful of people, over ½ of the total number of participants. Clare Kramsch was also there and asked a question but I forget what it was.  [Richard: she asked about the multilingual operational dimension of the study]

Her work on imposture and identity intrigued me. I find her way of looking at the concept and using it to understand the experiences of second, third, etc language users quite helpful in understanding some of the experiences of our storytellers.

Further, I want to think of our presentation as providing an opening through which the participants in our research, the people who told us their stories of Ladino, became visible to educators and language professionals from worlds other than those the storytellers typically inhabit. They could see their faces in the pictures we showed, read excerpts from their stories, and enjoyed the sound of Ladino as sung by Yasmin Levy.

I benefited from the interaction which, I imagine, occurred between our audience and ourselves as presenters. We did not just give our paper, I think. Our enthusiasm for the research spread beyond the screen and the table we were presenting from and came back to us enriched with the smiles of the members of the audience as they were reading the excerpts, their attention as we were outlining the concentric zones of experience, and their nods as we shared our insights.

All in all, the conference was worthwhile, not the least because we managed to find our own shared voice.

One comment

  • Richard Fay

    Thanks Leah for your contribution – I always find it interesting to see the other side of a joint activity, i..e how our collaborating partners see the ‘same’ experience.