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Regular version of the site

Weaving Languages Together

Why megacities need to preserve multilingualism

"The tower of Babel" Andre Rosda, 1958 / © WIKIMEDIA COMMONS / CC BY-SA 4.0

Moscow, like any modern big city, attracts migrants from different regions and countries. Some of them speak very little or no Russian. Their adaptation and successful integration depend in part on how fast they can learn Russian and in part on whether the city makes an effort to accommodate other languages. According to linguist Mira Bergelson, this latter factor is particularly important if the city is to benefit from immigration.

Meeting Migrants Halfway

A continuous influx of migrants contributes to a megacity's prosperity, as new arrivals often take up jobs which the locals do not want, thereby stimulating the local economy. 

However, people tend to be wary of 'aliens' coming over to their territory. Some cultures have a higher tolerance of migrants while some others are less tolerant, which is reflected, in particular, in how the receiving community handles multilingualism.

According to the 2010 census, 138 languages are spoken in Moscow. The city does not have specific monocultural areas, such as Chinatown in New York; instead, diverse ethnic groups are mixed and scattered across its districts, so that people speaking different native languages often live next door to each other. However, outside of their home they have to speak and understand Russian.

This can be a challenge for people and families who have only recently moved to Moscow. After the 2018 FIFA World Cup, English-language signs appeared in the metro and on the streets, which made navigating the city easier for western tourists but not for labour migrants. 

Their children often struggle with school subjects and can experience discrimination by teachers and peers if not sufficiently fluent in Russian.

'If someone speaks a language poorly, others tend to underestimate the person's intelligence', Bergelson explains.

'But we need to understand that fluency in a foreign language is not the same as intellectual ability and should not confuse a person's ethnic background with their language or culture – these are all different things'.

Today some schools in Moscow with a high proportion of non-Russian-speaking students are making efforts to help them integrate into the Russian language environment, e.g. by requiring teachers to offer supplementary classes for such students. Civil society groups and volunteers have contributed to migrant integration; the community centre Children Like Others (Takie Zhe Deti) uses volunteers to teach migrant children who for one reason or another do not attend school.

A few museums and art centres in Moscow run educational programmes for local residents to help them overcome xenophobia and fear of 'aliens'. 'I find it encouraging that we now have programmes such as “Languages of Neighbours” aimed at adults,' Bergelson comments, adding, 'Children are extremely adaptable and if included in the regular education process, they will be sure to learn Russian. Indeed, there have been instances at Russian language competitions where the winning essays have been written by students whose native language is not Russian: such bilingual youngsters often work hard to succeed in the new school and new country, and they can also be more capable than their peers'.

Adult labour migrants in Moscow rarely have the time or means to formally learn Russian, and their lack of local language fluency can become an obstacle to finding good employment and can therefore lead to economic and social insecurity and undermine their ability to communicate with a medical doctor or even shop assistants, affecting the overall quality of life.

'There are some social networks and fraternities [trying to help]. A migrant can contact them to find a doctor who speaks, e.g. Kyrgyz, and will be referred to a clinic which has such doctors,' Bergelson explains.

The city authorities, however, are more concerned with another aspect of the problem, e.g. having all migrants learn Russian.

'The Moscow authorities should not be so scared of languages other than Russian being spoken in the city', according to Bergelson.

She admits that at the moment, most non-Russian speakers have more concerns about getting through and economic survival, and few are willing to fight for their ethnic language rights. Nevertheless, labour migration to Moscow benefits the city as well as the migrants. 'This is where the interests meet, because the city cannot function without migrant workers. So this encounter should be facilitated as much as possible'. 

In addition to economic advantages, 'meeting migrants halfway' can have sociocultural benefits. Language and culture are core values which underpin human diversity. 'Unless they are supported, second-generation migrants will forget their roots', Bergelson warns. 'Awareness of one's cultural background is an essential part of a person's identity'. 

Researchers of urban multilingualism often hear migrants express pride that their children raised in Moscow are fluent in their native language – or regret that the next generation do not speak their mother tongue. This shows how sensitive the issue of language is and how much we should all value the ability to preserve it and pass it on. 

Builders of Babylon

In 2016–2018, the project Languages of Moscow was carried out at the RAS Institute of Linguistics by a team that included HSE researchers Mira Bergelson and Denis Zubalov, examining Moscow's linguistic diversity. There have been similar endeavours in other cities around the world, e.g. in Manchester, where Professor Yaron Matras and colleagues lead an international collaborative effort under the Multilingual Metropolitan Cities of the World umbrella project. Inspired by the Languages of Moscow project, HSE University's new Master's Programme 'Language Policy in the Context of Ethnocultural Diversity' trains those who will study urban multilingualism in today's megacities. The programme will produce its first graduates in 2020.

Bergelson explains the research focus of urban linguistics. 'Here's what multilingualism used to look like: say, there's a country with different villages, towns and townships, and people in one village speak a certain language or dialect, while people in a neighbouring village speak a different language or dialect, etc. One could examine differences between dialects and how they change over time. But this is not how things work in a modern city, where ethnic and linguistic groups rarely live as tightly-knit communities and cannot be studied as such'.

Here, multilingualism occurs among neighbours sharing a hallway. 'Ideally, people communicate at the workplace, at schools, in clubs, on the street, in transport. They do speak Russian, but for many of them Russian is not the only language, not the language of choice, and their fluency in Russian can vary too. Urban multilingualism is characterised by dispersion'.  

Based on what has worked for other countries, we can conclude that people find it easier to master a city's main language (i.e. Russian in Moscow) when, in addition to living among those who speak the language, they benefit from a supportive infrastructure ranging from adapted learning programmes to street signs in different languages. 

According to Bergelson, a key challenge today is to make sure that the main language used for interethnic communication does not suppress other languages.

Alongside helping migrants learn Russian and supporting their children in adapting to Russian school, efforts should be made to enable them to maintain their cultural identity and native language.

As part of a linguistic diversity policy, the city authorities should make translation services available at social welfare institutions and promote ethnic cultural centres, according to Bergelson. There was a programme in Swedish kindergartens for children whose native language was not Swedish: a speaker of their mother tongue would interact with the child for two hours a week to make sure they had a chance to practice their first language outside of home.

The programme was free for parents, but after a while, the Swedes were forced to cut it back, because they were not able to cover the numerous languages required. Bergelson admits that this approach needs a careful balancing of humanitarian values (respect of linguistic rights) with economic feasibility This is the focus of linguanomics – a subfield in economics as applied to issues raised by modern multilingual environment. A study based on Canadian data demonstrated correlation between the degree of multilingualism and city income. Urban administrations need to take balanced decisions to make sure that on one hand, services such as the police, courts, healthcare and education providers can easily interact with all residents, and on the other hand, that linguistic diversity is preserved.

'People who move to a big city choose to go beyond their comfort zone and to face the challenge of living in a different culture and environment', Bergelson says. 'Their native language serves them as a source of support and connection with things close to their hearts and dear to them. No one would want to lose something so precious. Stripping people of it may lead to depression and aggression'.

Author: Alena Tarasova, January 30, 2020