Twenty-first century families: Connecting multilingualism, kinship, gender, and sexuality


The family has occupied a privileged place in the study of bi- and multilingualism as a microcosm of language maintenance and shift where language policies are negotiated among members and members socialize each other into multilingual practices (King & Fogle, 2017; Fogle & King, 2017).  While understanding that the language ideologies, practices, and planning involved in intergenerational language transmission are important to societal language policy efforts (King, 2016), most work to date centers on a prominent set of normative, nuclear family contexts.  Such a myopic focus excludes many of the diverse family configurations and kinships characteristic of the twenty-first century (cf. Poveda et al., 2014; 2018) and limits the possible examinations of multilingualism as an important aspect of family construction (King & Lanza, 2017; Wright, 2020) and experience unique to each individual (Zhu Hua & Li Wei, 2016). The fluid kinship and family processes associated with twenty-first century families, including non-normative or extended family configurations, transnational and digital parenting, and new or understudied kinships, entail complex multilingual realities where language learning and multilingualism shape and are shaped by processes of family building, caring, and belonging.  

The papers in this panel interrogate definitions of family and foreground discussions of kinship, gender, and sexuality as key constructs in understanding family language policy and planning across different scales.  The data for these studies are drawn from transracial and transnational adoptive, LGBTQ+, Indigenous, repatriated, and refugee contexts with critical approaches that shift the focus from parents’ and children’s ethnolinguistic identities and language ideologies to discussions of other public and private kinship and identity processes. In a world of globalized, technologically mediated, and changing families, these studies present new perspectives on societal language planning, family language policy, and multilingual family language socialization.

The affordances of ʻohana: Revitalizing language through Hawaiian kinship

Christina Higgins, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

Most research on Family Language Policy (FLP) has investigated language among families who are kin to one another as parents, grandparents, siblings, and children, drawing attention to the significant role that family members play in language maintenance and language shift (e.g., Curdt-Christiansen & Lanza, 2018; Fishman, 1991; King et al., 2008). In this presentation, I consider how the Hawaiian concept of ʻohana provides a wider set of affordances for kinship relations that support Hawaiian language revitalization and maintenance. The term ʻohana has always been more inclusive and expansive than many conventional understandings of the term family (Kanaʻiaupuni, 2004; Kanuha, 2005), as it refers to one’s biological relatives but also to the connections between people who forge familial relationships in the home and community (Kawaiʻaeʻa et al., 2007).  Most speakers of Hawaiian are new speakers, or individuals who did not have significant exposure to the language in the home, and who learned it through schooling, most often as adults (O’Rourke et al. 2015). New speakers typically do not have many immediate family members who share their heritage language, but they often have a network of ʻohana members who speak the language because of shared interests in Hawaiian language, cultural practices, and political movements.  This paper reports findings from interviews and observations at home with three new speakers of Hawaiian whose kinship relations extend beyond biological ties. Using narrative analysis (De Fina & Georgakopoulou, 2013), the study examines how ‘ohana relationships facilitate the use of Hawaiian, and in turn, it considers how new speakers’ investment in Hawaiian has also shaped the very formation of their ‘ohana.

Narratives of change: Repatriated, returnee, and immigrant Russian-speaking mother identities in Finland

Lyn Wright, University of Memphis and Åsa Palviainen, University of Jyväskylä

Migration has been argued to be a “gender” phenomenon in which both the motivations and outcomes are associated with shifting identities and roles (Mahieu, Timmerman, & Heyse 2015).  Concomitantly, migration often results in changing multilingual and digital communication practices in families (King, 2013; Palviainen, 2020).  This study brings together these two strands by considering the experiences of Russian-speaking mothers in Finland to demonstrate how mothers positioned themselves in talk about changing their own parenting practices in relation to Finnish cultural norms regarding children’s autonomy, digital communication, and multilingualism. The analyses integrate perspectives on childhood socialization, parental identities, and family language to expand examinations of family multilingualism.

The study examines data from a larger project of multilingual digital practices of bilingual Russian, Swedish, and Polish-speaking families in Finland. In-depth interviews were conducted with six Russian-speaking mothers.  Narratives in which the mother noted a change in beliefs or practices related to children’s increased autonomy or agency in the Finnish context were selected for closer analysis to examine the discursive positioning of mothers in relation to other parents, their children, and their past selves.

Russian-speaking mothers negotiated the Finnish context of children’s autonomy with their own beliefs and desires about childhood, technology use, and ethnolinguistic identities. The mothers in this study talked about being socialized into new parenting, digital, and multilingual practices and in some cases attributed these changes to their children’s desires and agency.  They compared themselves to Finnish parents in relation to their understanding of children’s freedom and to their children in relation to their own Russian-speaking identities. The experiences of (marginalized) Russian-speaking White mothers in a predominately White society further highlight the complexities in negotiating gender, ethnicity, and multilingualism across generations and contest the (assumed) centrality of essentialized ethnolinguistic identities in these processes by putting the mother identity first.

Making a family: Language ideologies and practices in a multilingual LGBTQ-identified family with adopted children

Kinga Kozminska, University of Oxford, and Zhu Hua, Birkbeck University of London

Changes in sociopolitical arrangements in the European space after the 2004 EU-enlargement, together with new digital communication technologies and affordable travel, enable new family communicative routines. Fairly recent developments in reproductive technologies and legal arrangements across the world, including Britain, have also led to new groups being granted legal rights to constitute families and new forms of adoption becoming possible. In this talk, we examine these new family configurations and accompanying experiences of multilingualism by drawing on linguistic ethnography conducted in the UK in 2017-19 as part of the ESRC-funded Family Language Policy project. We focus on embodied communicative practices within one self-identified LGBTQ family with a history of transracial adoption and transnational migration from Poland, living and working in South-East England. We demonstrate how the family achieved bonding through their translanguaging practices, i.e. the coming together of multiple entities (semiotic, corporeal and material) in everyday life. We argue that such language ideologies and practices in making a family are related both to the immediate context of communicative and bonding needs and the wider context of complex language relations conditioned by political and economic subordination, and by experiences of non-heteronormative masculinities in transnational space.  The findings add further evidence to the current debates on complexities, contradictions and multiple factors shaping family language ideologies and practices with particular attention given to sexuality and gender.

Nanny State? Integration, kinship and identity among refugee and asylum-seeking unaccompanied minors

Rafael Lomeu Gomes, Elizabeth Lanza, & Zahir Athari, University of Oslo

Many countries today are faced with the integration of refugee and asylum-seeking minors, who arrive unaccompanied, without any family. Norway, referred to as a Nanny State, is one of several Nordic welfare states that assumes the family role as proxy, making decisions for these minors regarding not only their well-being but also their education and language learning, which can have an impact on their identity formation. These minors are divided into two age groups: under 15 and from 15-18. Municipalities decide their residence, with the younger usually placed in foster homes while the older live in reception centers. Some municipalities engage a foster family with the same country background in the transition through language, religion and ethnic affiliation, while others do not. The Norwegian Child Welfare Services has been criticized, with some cases brought to the European Court of Human Rights. Gender roles are particularly salient, as most of these minors are young males, mainly from East Africa, Afghanistan, and Syria, who at times are portrayed in problematically stereotypical ways by mainstream media. This scenario presents a challenge for current notions of family, opening up for more fluid kinship and family processes in the child’s integration into society and for a more complex framework for analyzing the child’s identity construction (Lanza & Lomeu Gomes 2020; Lomeu Gomes 2018). The data we present come from policy documents and reports, along with selected media presentations. Drawing on Santos’ (2014) intercultural translation, we examine and problematize the very notion of integration drawn upon in policy documents and circulating in media discourses. Moreover, we examine how gender intersects with other social categories in discussions about unaccompanied migrants across contexts. Such an approach can contribute to non-hierarchical understandings of culture, which can challenge stereotypical representations of unaccompanied migrant minors and in turn hopefully influence future policy.