October 30, 2019

Linguistics Workshop Examines Social Justice, Language Diversity, and Globalization

Georgetown’s Initiative for Multilingual Studies convened linguists from the United States, Norway, and South Africa to explore issues of social justice in multilingual studies and other social sciences.

Participants from the conference in front of Healy Hall
Participants from the conference in front of Healy Hall

The research training workshop focused on multilingual practices and social justice and examined the contributions of different approaches to the analysis of multilingualism within contexts that are crucial to guaranteeing equity and access to all members of society, such as in court and health settings. In addition to hearing from expert panels, junior researchers in the field participated in feedback discussions and one-on-one sessions with more seasoned scholars from around the world.

“The world has always been multilingual, but nowadays migration, globalization, and digital technologies have augmented the multilingual human experience, making it ubiquitous, multifarious, and contested,” said Lourdes Ortega, professor in the Department of Linguistics and convener of the Initiative for Multilingual Studies.

Founded in 2013, the Initiative for Multilingual Studies comprises faculty and students from across Georgetown College, Georgetown University Medical Center, and Georgetown Law. The initiative regularly hosts public events, conducts cutting-edge research, awards students summer travel grants, and works globally and with the DC community to support research into equitable multilingualism.

‘South-North Conversations’

The workshop was supported by the International Partnership for Excellent Education and Research (INTPART), a grant funded by the Norwegian government to the Center for Multilingualism in Society Across the Lifespan at the University of Oslo. Known internationally as MultiLing, this Norwegian Center of Excellence boasts 40 full-time researchers working on multilingualism. INTPART’s goal is to foster research collaborations among MultiLing, Georgetown, and research teams from four top South African universities. 

“This workshop enabled invaluable South-North conversations about the enormous benefits of multilingualism but also the serious misunderstandings and mismanagement of multilingualism we witness across the globe,” said Anna De Fina, professor and chair of the Department of Italian and cofounder of the Initiative for Multilingual Studies.

Presentations from scholars and Ph.D. candidates focused on language used in domains ranging from police interrogations to migration and refugee contexts to press articles on big data and artificial intelligence.

“When governments, education systems, institutions, and families and communities fail to understand and manage multilingualism well, the social injustices can be grave,” said Ortega.

Left to Right: Elizabeth Lanza, Anna De Fina, and Lourdes Ortega welcome participants to the conference
Left to Right: Elizabeth Lanza, Anna De Fina, and Lourdes Ortega welcome participants to the conference

Interdisciplinary Presentations

In addition to geographic diversity, the workshop convened scholars from other social sciences—including law, anthropology, cultural studies, and education—to explore how different disciplines theorize and define social justice.

“The problems that afflict and impede the advancement of social justice are problems that have a high degree of complexity,” said Norberto Grzywacz, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. “You want to have lots of people from lots of backgrounds tackling them together.”

Sylvia Önder, an anthropologist and teaching professor in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies, described how interdisciplinary efforts have informed her work with Georgetown’s Disability Studies Working Group.

“When you cross boundaries, you get insights from the humanities, from social sciences, from the medical schools, and also standalone programs,” she said.

Social Justice in Research

The conference sought to deepen participants’ understanding of social justice across and within disciplines and to build their capacity to evaluate the social justice potential of research agendas in the study of multilingualism.

“Researchers, even within the same field, can have quite different ideas about what social justice is, and how deeply it can or should be embedded in the design, conduct, and dissemination of research,” said Elizabeth Lanza (G'90), professor at the University of Oslo and director of MultiLing.

The workshop acknowledged that the study of social justice is ongoing, constantly informed by new insights and methods.

“A lot of the people that I’m reading insist that justice is a process, and the goal is not justice but liberation,” said Önder. “And as the liberation becomes more inclusive, you get closer to a just society.”

INTPART comprises researchers from the University of Oslo, University of Cape Town, Stellenbosch University, the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of the Western Cape, and Georgetown University. The “Social Justice, Language Diversity, and Globalization” research training workshop took place at Georgetown University on October 11-13, 2019.

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