Research into language and culture in Europe

A language does not stand by itself. It is always part of a social and cultural context. This is one of the cornerstones on which the Graduate School in Language and Culture in Europe rests.
Jenny Malmqvist och Ali Reza, Forskarskolan Språk och kultur

At the Graduate School in Language and Culture in Europe, linguists and literary scholars meet in joint seminar series and in constant dialogue with each other.

“We’ve developed a tradition of dialogue that crosses disciplinary boundaries,” says Carin Franzén, the school’s administrator.

Linguistics and literary studies literally inspire each other. While linguists primarily look at language empirically – how it is used – literary scholars devote themselves more to interpreting and analysing texts.

“We share our different scientific traditions, and it gives us a lot.”

Dialogue is not only a method that promotes research; it is also a subject of successful research at Linköping University. One example is the PhD project of linguist Ali Reza Majlesis (photo above), which deals with communication between people who lack a common language. He has studied the instruction at Swedish for Immigrants (SFI), in different groups. He wanted to see what happens in the classroom, and he describes SFI instruction as quite a bizarre situation. The groups are mixed – not only linguistically but also as regards country of origin and level of education. The challenge for teachers is enormous.

But despite the lack of a common language they manage to communicate, Ali Reza argues, and that is largely owing to their making use of other resources – their bodies, for example.

“They develop great communication skills with the help of body language,” he says, and provides an example: A woman who wanted to explain that she was a twin pointed to her own stomach, held up two fingers, and said in extremely broken Swedish, “Two same time”. No further explanation was needed!

Another example is the teacher illustrating what overshoes are by pulling something imaginary over his shoes.

“Instruction isn’t just about making use of verbal resources, but using bodily ones at least as much. We don’t learn just by listening and reading, but also by seeing and experiencing in our common surroundings.”

Distance learning, where the teacher and the student cannot see each other, thus limits the teacher’s opportunities, Ali Reza argues, which also emphasizes the fact that instruction does not just deal with passing on knowledge. It is a mutual commitment that requires collaboration.

“Teaching deals with seeing, processing, manipulating, handling, and reorganising that which we call knowledge. It doesn’t occur just in our heads, we make use of our whole body. Knowledge doesn’t build only on abstractions, but on experiences lived as well.”

Literature can also be seen as a type of dialogue and interpreted as one. Literary scholar Jenny Malmqvist (photo above) is studying the Northern Irish poet Ciaran Carson. What distinguishes his poetry is that he “re-uses” classical texts of authors like Shakespeare, Keats, Baudelaire and Ovid. He both reworks them and comments on them in a kind of literary dialogue.

As to why he does this, Jenny brings out the conflict-laden reality Carson experienced in his home town of Belfast.

“In his poems, he seeks to describe that reality. But he also wants to make us aware that there isn’t just one picture, but many that are equally valid.”

What distinguishes this conflict is that there are several versions of what Northern Irish identity, history, and culture are.

“Literature is a way of describing reality; that is his message. How we describe that reality depends on our perspective, our starting points.”

In September, Jenny will defend her thesis and receive a doctorate in language and culture. Even though students develop their scientific competency in one field as a PhD student, the doctorates they receive are interdisciplinary.

The Graduate School takes in a few PhD students every three years. It will be time again in the autumn of 2014. The competition is stiff; last time in 2011, two graduate students were chosen out of 36 qualified applicants.

Photo: Göran Billeson

LiU magazine no. 2, 2013