Barbican ArtWorks: the beginning of research on performing first languages

I became first interested in language when working with multilingual participants in 2013 at the Evelyn Oldfield refugee unit, where I realised that I did not have sufficient methodologies for allowing their languages to enter the room. The need was even more evident in performance devising processes where I began to see three phenomena arise:

  1. That everyone in the group was using English as a second language and that if I were to try to create a participatory process, then the least I could do is invite their languages into our emerging performance.
  2. A major barrier to multilingual practice is the Standard English and British politeness strategy that languages cannot be produced in social discourse in the company of people who don’t understand those languages.
  3. That working in English as the lingua franca – the main language – was sometimes not only restrictive but oppressive, particularly with participants whose pasts involved English as an oppressive language of colonisation.

Because of these three phenomena, I was urged to at least understand the limits of multilingual language use in my own practice further. As part of a week of professional development led by the Barbican (Artworks, April 2014) and alongside peer applied facilitators, I tested an improvisational exercise that asked participants to select a moment from their day that seemed ‘right’ to speak in any language variety – any language variant that we might understand as accent, dialect or language – in their repertoire that wasn’t the English variety that they used with us. I participated as part of a group with a French/English bilingual, a Singaporean who spoke English and Singlish (an English-Mandarin hybrid), and a Briton with a Northern English regional variety, and French as a second language. Each participant improvised a story in their chosen language variety, transcribed, and then translated it for other group members.

These were then performed for the other groups. And this is where we were met with laughter during the Singlish monologue – unexpected because it was a serious piece. During the evaluation at the end of the day, I asked participants the reason for the laughter and they said that they thought that Singlish was a made-up language, that it didn’t sound like a ‘real’ language. This is where the fourth phenomena emerged:

  1. Singlish, a low-status variety, a result of colonisation and hybridity without a literary canon, was juxtaposed against French, a high-status colonisers’ language with heavily populated literary canon, these macro language hierarchies impacted the way the audience interpreted the languages in our performance.

It became clear to me that beliefs about language and language use are constructed in our socio-historical contexts and therefore any multilingual methodologies need to be foregrounded by knowledge of these contexts in order to best facilitate their use. What was also clear was that colonisation was bearing directly on these language beliefs, and for a deeper analysis of these complexities, I should look beyond the UK to post-conflict and decolonial settings, namely South Africa, and my country of birth Australia. This was in an effort to learn examples of how the most socio-politically complex linguistic contexts, with colonisers, indigenous and other minority languages, are embedded in performance practices.

These beliefs about language and language use could be understood as the foundational building blocks of language ideologies and my current PhD research engages with these as a precursor to multilingual praxis.

I thank the Barbican and my wonderfully supportive Applied Theatre peers for helping me through these inquiries in 2014 because it has led me to this exciting new research.

Peer Applied Facililitators, Barbican Artworks Professional Development, April 2014

Claire French is a performance maker and researcher, specialising in multilingual, applied and autobiographical performance.