Dr Naomi Wells, a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute of Modern Languages Research, highlights the role of language and culture in how migrant and Italian residents maintain and build communities and a sense of shared belonging.
In recent years migration to Italy has become a daily focus of Italian and international media and political attention. News stories and political discourse are, however, dominated by an ‘emergency’ or ‘crisis’ approach to migration, focusing primarily on the immediate arrivals of refugees.
It is vital to draw particular attention to the human rights abuses individuals face at the borders. But often neglected are the longer-term practices of settlement, and the everyday processes of cultural and linguistic adaptation and translation by both those who migrate and those they live alongside.
My own research, carried out in Bologna in 2014, aims to foreground the daily negotiations of linguistic and cultural differences by individuals and groups in the city. Although not intended to be representative of the different migration contexts across Italy, by focusing on a specific place it offers a more nuanced and grounded approach to understanding the lived experiences of migration, beyond the exaggerations and simplifications of newspaper headlines and divisive political rhetoric.
The research focused in detail on a single site in the city, the Zonarelli Intercultural Centre, and the migrant and intercultural associations who visit and use it to host cultural events and activities. While paying attention to the wider political context of migration, the research highlights how language and culture are not marginal concerns but central to how migrant and Italian residents maintain and build communities and a sense of shared belonging within the city.
Aiming to move beyond the idea of static or fixed cultures and identities, the research draws attention to the adaptability and creativity of transnational lives. For example, it highlights examples of activities that take place at the Centre including cultural and religious festivals and community language courses led by migrant associations.
Often these activities are seen as merely the maintenance of cultural traditions and ‘heritage’ languages. But this narrow perspective overlooks the processes of transformation, translation and adaptation that they undergo with their relocation in time and space. In this sense, the research draws attention to the creative responses of individuals and groups as they adapt and build new homes and community spaces in the city.
Other examples picked up in the research include intercultural associations where multiple languages are spoken, such as a multilingual theatre group which engages in collaborative and creative practices across significant cultural and linguistic differences. Although such activities are sometimes conducted in the Italian language, migrant participants contribute to these encounters by introducing traces of other languages, histories and traditions from their own histories of migration (Hall 1992, The question of cultural identity). This focus on the use of Italian as a lingua franca of cultural exchange and production is also aimed at challenging fixed and nationalistic conceptions and approaches to the study of the Italian language and culture.
By focusing on everyday cultural and linguistic practices in relation to contexts of migration, this research critiques and challenges the discourses of ‘integration’ which overlook the cultural and linguistic translations and adaptations made by migrant communities. It also highlights the importance of reciprocal practices of exchange and adaptation by local Italian residents.
There is an urgent need to broaden the representation and debates about migration to Italy. By drawing attention to the ways in which people from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds successfully negotiate and creatively collaborate across these differences, this research will make a valuable contribution to the discussions.
Dr Naomi Wells, a postdoctoral research associate at the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the School of Advanced Study, University of London, is currently employed on the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Cross-Language Dynamics project. She has a book under contract with Liverpool University Press on her research in Bologna, entitled Transnational Lives and Transcultural Encounters: Negotiating Linguistic and Cultural Diversity. The research was part of an earlier AHRC project, Transnationalising Modern Languages: Mobility, Identity and Translation in Modern Italian Cultures.