The starting point for my research work at the IMLR in February/March this year was a major project of what was formerly the London Research Group for German Exile Studies and is now the Research Centre for German and Austrian Exile Studies (RCGAES): “Changing countries. The experience and achievement of German-speaking Exiles from Hitler in Britain from 1933 to today” (henceforward CC). This is the title of a book presented in 2002 produced by eight researchers (in alphabetical order): Marietta Bearman, Charmian Brinson, Anthony Grenville, Stefan Howald, Marian Malet, Jennifer Taylor, Irene Wells and Erna Woodgate). The book was the result of a study in Oral History based on 34 interviews with former refugees from Nazism living at the time of the interviews in the UK, belonging mainly to German-speaking families. These interviews were conducted from 1994 with the aim of preserving personal memories, analysing them and making them available for future research. This study has been, and still is, an inspiration for my own research, which is similarly based on a corpus of interviews with German-speaking refugees (mainly gathered during a Visiting Fellowship at Clare Hall Cambridge in 2017). Although the two interview corpora – that of “Changing countries” and mine – have much in common, my research aims in regard to the interviews are in fact quite different from those of the original CC project. Whereas their main aim seems to have been to establish the historical record, mine is much narrower and is firmly centred on the linguistic and cultural side of the experiences of the refugees. Apart from this, there are significant differences in the interviews themselves: my interviews were overwhelmingly done in German (whereas those of CC had been mainly in English. In addition, the interviewees in my project only partially overlap in terms of age with those of CC, mine being in many cases a generation younger).
During my stay at the RCGAES I started to analyse the 34 recorded and transcribed interviews available in the Archives of the Senate House Library. What I principally want to understand from my research is how linguistic repertoires are formed and how language/s have influenced the trajectory of the speakers’ lives and relationships within changing social contexts. From a methodological point of view, my research is based on the analysis of language biographies (cfr. Pavlenko 2007, Busch 2013/2017, Stevenson 2017).
Language biographies constitute one of the biographical approaches in multilingualism research and within this area there are in fact considerable differences in theoretical and methodological foundations. What language biographies most often consist of are accounts of an individual’s language development across their lifespan (Franceschini 2010) and include aspects such as language learning or the acquisition processes, the linguistic strategies which speakers use in different situations and the attitudes associated with these strategies. Thinking and speaking about one’s linguistic development or “upbringing” can help people to identify the role that different languages or different varieties have played in various stages of their lives; it can lead them to identify crucial events that have influenced their attitudes, as well as people who might have had a great influence on their attitudes to the languages and speech communities they are in contact with. Different studies in the language biographies tradition have employed different research designs (cfr. Krumm 2013, König 2014, et al.); some of them are based on live history research and narrative analysis and have shown how individuals continue to be aware of their heritage languages and see them as part of their identity (cfr. Betten 2010, Leonardi/Thüne/Betten 2016). This perception of linguistic continuity is very important because it helps to compensate for actual discontinuities in one’s personal biography (e.g. a change of location), which leave their traces in one’s memory in the same way as socio-political discontinuities (e.g. regime change). Perceived linguistic continuity may exist even where the heritage language has acquired problematic cultural and political associations. From this point of view the “lived experience of language/Spracherleben” (cfr. Busch 2017) is a key element in language biographies. The interviews of the Research Centre present a rich and multifaceted basis to focus these aspects.
Professor Eva-Maria Thüne, University of Bologna/Miller Visiting Fellow