Seeking mutual understanding. Perceptions and experiences on language skills and involvement

Thematic Section: Multilingual interaction – questions of participation and belonging

intercultural encounters; language ideologies; learning ‘in the wild’; linguistic asymmetries; multimodal conversation analysis

Liisa-Maria Lehto, University of Oulu
Kaarina Hippi, University of Oulu
This study discusses ways of talking about language use in situations where one interactant has a multilingual background. The study focuses on the motivational aspect of linguistic strategies.
We combine data from altogether 20 single and pair interviews with people residing in Finland. The interviewees were asked about their experiences of interacting with Finns. The study utilizes discourse analytical tools (Fairclough 1989) and qualitative content analysis. Our focus is on
  • strategies that the interviewees report Finns to use when they recognize a possible asymmetry in an everyday interaction with the interviewee
  • motivations that the interviewees see behind these strategies, and
  • how mutual understanding is built overall.
Three different types of interaction strategies were found to be used by Finns: 1) changing the language to English, 2) commenting on the Finnish language spoken by the interviewee, and 3) modifying their speech when speaking to the interviewee. Interviewees report possible motivations behind the Finns’ interaction strategies as: 1) an assumption based on hearing the interviewee speaking (non-native) Finnish, 2) an assumption made based the looks or name of the interviewee, and 3) other assumptions, such as internationalization. On the basis of the interviewee reports, it seems that Finns sometimes lump together certain background and linguistic knowledge so that, for instance, a multilingual background provokes evaluations of interviewee command of Finnish, as well as challenges the membership of the multilingual speaker to Finnish-speaking society.
The study sheds light on the ideologies and assumptions that affect communication among people with different backgrounds. While revealing the challenges involved in communications between participants with different linguistic and cultural backgrounds, the study also shows perspectives that may help to unpack obstacles to mutual understanding and involvement in multilingual interactions.