Language ecology in the diaspora: Chinese minorities in Brussels

Funded by the China Scholarship Council (CSC)
PhD candidate: Xiangyun Li
2016 – 2020
Supervisor: Rik Vosters

The Brussels Capital Region is a dynamic urban region in the heart of Europe, housing the seat of numerous international organizations and institutions, but also providing a home to a large number of people who migrated to the city from all over the globe. With about a third of the population having a foreign nationality, and an even larger group with a family migration background, Brussels is a profoundly and increasingly international and multilingual region: recent surveys suggest that almost half of all families in the city have at least one home language other than Dutch or French, and in about a third of all families, neither one of the two official languages of the region is spoken (Janssens, 2013, p. 34).

Not all languages, however, can boast a similar base of speakers or similar levels of support, and language shift is a common phenomenon in migration contexts: speakers from linguistic minorities may give up one or more of their heritage languages in favor of a more dominant language such as French. Other groups may maintain their heritage language(s), but restrict its use to the home context. This leads to a division of different patterns of language choice in different domains: the official languages, French and Dutch, along with other dominant languages such as English, are frequently used in the public domain and for formal communication, while many smaller, immigrant languages remain in use within the family.

This research project aims to shed more light on such issues of domain-specific language choice more generally, among linguistic minorities in the multilingual context of Brussels. As a case study, we will focus on the Chinese community specifically, undertaking a comprehensive survey of language use, language attitudes and language planning among Chinese heritage language users in the city. By monitoring their language use, by evaluating the attitudes and ideologies held by speakers, and by examining language management and language planning from a critical perspective, we hope to gain insight into issues of language shift and maintenance in different spheres of usage in this particular community, but also enrich our knowledge of linguistic practices among smaller groups of linguistic minorities in an urban, multilingual urban context more generally.