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Sociolinguistic superdiversity and asylum

21 Feb 2018-pp 379-395

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Sociolinguistic Superdiversity and Asylum
Marco Jacquemet
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Sociolinguistic Superdiversity and Asylum
Marco Jacquemet
(University of San Francisco)
October 2016
This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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Sociolinguistic Superdiversity and Asylum
Marco Jacquemet (University of San Francisco)
A shortened version of this paper will appear in the Routledge Handbook on Superdiversity
(2017). Please do not cite without the author’s permission but feel free to share this paper and to
provide feedback at
Language and superdiversity
The concept of superdiversity is directly tied to the contemporary discourse on globalization.
Although there are a few pockets of theoretical resistance, most scholars agree that the world
is experiencing globalization at an unprecedented scale and scope, mostly because of the high
degree of space-time compression achieved by the increasing mobility of people,
commodities, texts, and knowledge (Harvey 1989, Hannerz 1996, Clifford 1997, Tomlinson
2007). As a result of these social and technological changes, we are witnessing the growth of
a novel and generalized global consciousness (Robertson 1998, Bauman 2000): people all
over the world experience the speed and immediacy of global flows as significant factors in
their ability to feel interconnected, to be part of a world where geographical, social, political,
and linguistic entities seem to be losing their bounded nature.
Best understood as a development within globalization, late modern globalization is
characterized by mobile, deterritorialized people and digital communication technologies. As
Appadurai conclusively established two decades ago (Appadurai 1996), transnational
migration and digital communication technologies are the two most important diacritics of
post-industrial globalization. These two forces play a central role in the organization of social
life on a global scale, and where they intersect, we find novel communicative environments
shaped by the multiple languages of deterritorialized speakers transmitted over diverse,
simultaneous communicative channels (Jacquemet 2005). At the same time, these forces do
not operate against the background of neutral space, but are rather shaped by relations of
power and inequality visible in communicative flows crossing national boundaries and socio-
political formations (Blommaert 2009, Coupland 2010).
Late modern globalization makes a significant impact on language in two ways. First,
as people move, they learn new languages, often while maintaining previous ones. The
movement of people across borders thus creates multilingual speakers. Second, the global
circulation of resourcesboth material goods and intangible resources such as knowledge
increases the demand for people with multilingual capabilities. Globalization makes
multilingualism more common and more valuable (Heller 2003).

Consequently, multilingualism in all its forms has taken center stage in the
communicative environments of late modernity. As a corollary, the study of multilingualism
in transnational communities has generated an impressive array of new terminology to explain
the increasingly unbounded nature of communicative practices through which speakers not
only engage with their immediate surroundings (by developing locally appropriate cultural
and communicative competencies), but also activate wider networks (allowing them to stay in
touch with distant social realities and alternative social imaginations). In the past decade,
language scholars, never too shy to create new words, have introduced the following terms:
codemeshing (Canagarajah 2006), transidiomatic practices (Jacquemet 2005), truncated
multilingualism (Blommaert et al. 2005), transnational heteroglossia (Bailey 2007),
polylingual/polylanguaging (Jørgensen 2008, 2013), translanguaging (García 2009),
plurilingualism (Canagarajah 2009), flexible bilingualism (Creese and Blackledge 2010),
heterolingualism (Pratt 2011), metrolingualism (Otsuji and Pennycook 2011), translingual
practices (Canagarajah 2010), and transglossic language practices (Sultana et al. 2015). This
impressive nomenclature of compound terms is evidence of a movement within language
studies to develop much-needed tools for analyzing a transformed communicative landscape.
The concept of sociolinguistic superdiversity entered the fray during the same period,
as northern European sociolinguists (Jan Blommaert and Ben Rampton above all) sought to
extend to language studies the sociological insights of Steven Vertovec’s concept of
superdiversity (2006, 2007). Vertovec coined this term in a review of demographic and socio-
economic changes in post-Cold War Britain: “Super-diversity underscores the fact that the
new conjunctions and interactions of variables that have arisen over the past decade surpass
the waysin public discourse, policy debates and academic literaturethat we usually
understand diversity in Britain.” (2007: 1024). He developed the term to describe the
evolving, late-modern patterns and itineraries of migration worldwide, resulting in “more
people now moving from more places, through more places, to more places” (Vertovec
2010:86). Through this concept, he set out to investigate the tremendous increase in the
categories of migrants, not only in terms of nationality, ethnicity, language, and religion, but
also in terms of motives, patterns of migration, processes of insertion into the labor and
housing markets of the host society, and so on (Vertovec 2010).
In 2009, during a workshop at Tilburg University attended by Vertovec, a group of
language scholars (led by Jan Blommaert) proposed to extend the concept of superdiversity to
the analysis of communicative practices.
I was also present at this workshop, where I made
the case for studying communication resulting not only from complex migration flows but

also from dramatic upheavals in communication technologies (the so-called “digital
revolution,” McChesney 2007). During this meeting we agreed that the contemporary
complexity of migration depended on, and was enabled by, communicative technologies that
made digital media accessible to everyone via digital devices (from mobile phones to tablets
to computers), producing an epochal transformation in long-distance interactions (just think of
Skype or Facebook) and access to knowledge infrastructure (Google, above all). Digital
technologies have greatly facilitated the transcontinental travels, transnational moves, chain
migrations, and diasporic networks of migrants.
With this shift toward looking at digital communication as well as migration, scholars
of sociolinguistic superdiversity joined the growing number of sociolinguists and
communication researchers who have come to see digital communication technologies as
much more than enablers of interactivity and mobility. These scholars understand digital
communication technologies as altering the very nature of this interactivity, confronting
people with expanded rules and resources for the construction of social identity and
transforming people’s sense of place, cultural belonging, and social relations. The integration
of communication technologies into late modern communicative practices has resulted in the
emergence of a telemediated cultural field, occupying a space in everyday experience that is
distinct from yet integrated with face-to-face interactions of physical proximity. This field is
transforming human experience in all its dimensions: from social interactions (now globalized
and deterritorialized) to the semiocapitalist marketplace (with its shifting methods of
production, delivery, and consumption of virtual sign-commodities, Berardi 2009) to the
production of new conveniences and excitements as well as new anxieties and pathologies
(Tomlinson 2007).
To summarize, sociolinguistic superdiversitythat is, the extraordinary
communicative complexity of contemporary social configurations, resulting from “post-cold
war migration patterns and the digital revolution” (Blommaert 2013: 4)has come to be
understood as the diversification within diversity, produced by the interaction of mobile
people and digital communication technologies.
Yet the concept of superdiversity has recently received pointed criticism, especially
from scholars in the United States (Makoni 2012, Orman 2012, Reyes 2014). Most have taken
a cautious middle ground, impressed by the concept’s quick rise to become a “branding
juggernaut” (Pavlenko 2014). For instance, Michael Silverstein delicately pointed out the
metropolitan bias of this concept: “from a wider, sociolinguistically informed perspective,
minority and majority language communities in the states of the politico-economic north or

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