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Displacement and the Lived Experience of Language: Testimonies from Children with Migration Backgrounds in an Austrian School

Lecture | March 22 | 3-5 p.m. | Dwinelle Hall, B-4 (Classroom side)


Brigitta Busch, University of Vienna

Berkeley Language Center


This presentation foregrounds the concept of Spracherleben, the lived experience of language, in contribution to the ongoing debate about the conceptualization of linguistic repertoire in the context of mobility and migration. Relocating the centre of one’s life always means a change, both in the lifeworld (Lebenswelt) and in the linguistic environment where practices, discourses and rules are no longer familiar. Under favorable conditions this kind of change can be experienced as a challenge, opening up new horizons and new opportunities to re-positioning oneself as a (speaking) subject. Under unfavorable conditions, however, such changes can also be experienced as a hardship or as a source of ongoing emotional stress.
I will draw on ethnographic research carried out in a primary school located in a multilingual neighborhood in Vienna which has received a high number of children who came as refugees from zones of conflict and war. The school curriculum foregrounds a creative writing approach which recognizes translocal communicative repertoires and appreciates heteroglossic practices as a legitimate way of expression. The learners do not perceive themselves as deficient non-native speakers but rather as competent heteroglossic speakers and authors who can “develop a voice worth hearing” (Hymes 1996: 64). This approach opens a space in which learners – drawing on multiple semiotic resources – can write about their everyday world, their interests and concerns. A close reading of such texts shows how learners make use of this space to express painful and traumatic experiences that cannot easily be verbalized, as well as to explore ways of coping with such experiences.


ogarcia@berkeley.edu, 510-877-4002