How migrants find their voice

Dr Andrea Ciribuco

Posted: 26 July, 2018

Andrea Ciribuco teaching at TAMAT

We continue this month’s blog series on languages with a piece by Andrea Ciribuco on interaction and the impact of migrants’ voices on both communities. Andrea received his PhD at NUI Galway, where he studied the works of Italian migrant poet Emanuel Carnevali and his use of English as a second language. In the following years, he participated in the Irish Research Council-funded research project My Story, My Words: Language and Migration. In October 2017, he moved to Italy to perform field research as part of an Irish Research Council CAROLINE fellowship, co-funded by Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions.

Everyone is aware, to a certain extent, that learning the local language is essential when moving to another country. At a time in Europe where migration holds the centre stage, it is important to investigate all the ways in which language regulates the relationship between a migrant and the host community. This is what my research is about: how a new language is connected to survival, adaptability and creativity in contexts of migration.

Six years after arriving in Ireland to pursue a PhD at NUI Galway – an academic migrant myself – I returned to the Italian region where I grew up, Umbria. This mostly rural region in central Italy has a percentage of foreign residents that is above the Italian average (10.8%) and hosts 3,027 refugees and asylum seekers (March 2017 data). Here, I am working on the field with the operators of Tamat, an international cooperation NGO who are experimenting with new methods to integrate migrants through agricultural training. Following the day-to-day work of NGO operators, and teaching some of the Italian language classes myself, I have first-hand insight into how language proficiency can make the difference between a satisfying relationship with the host community on one hand, and a life of hardship on the other.

The question is one of having a voice versus staying silent, perpetually cast in the role of the stranger. In this conundrum, language provides or denies opportunities in various sectors. In the economic field, it is not only a matter of presenting oneself to colleagues and employers in the right way; it is a matter of understanding the market, negotiating contracts and knowing one’s rights. In some cases, such as the okra plantation that a group of migrants are starting in Umbria with Tamat’s help, it is also a matter of bringing something new to the host community – and communicating it.

A migrant’s voice can resonate also through the arts. In my work, I witness every day the activity of migrant poets, video makers and musicians. Their art often stems from language classes or integration-oriented programs; other times, it is something that they make simply because they believe in it. What brings all these experiences together is the fact that one day, they will be an invaluable trace, a document of a complicated time when migration occupied the public debate in Europe but there was not much space for representations that came from ‘the other half’ of the debate.

In the artistic market, as well as in the job market, it is sometimes hard to ascertain what constitutes ‘success’. I am cautious of using the omnipresent word ‘integration’ here: how well does one have to master a language, know the intricacies of a culture, abide by the written and unwritten laws of a country, before calling oneself ‘integrated’? The president of Keti Kola Kelamihan, a newly formed migrants’ association from Umbria once told me that perhaps we should replace integrazione (integration) with interazione (interaction): a concept as one-sided as integration can be difficult to manage, but we can intervene on how we interact on a daily basis. Effective and inclusive language practices help us do that.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in our guest blogs are the author’s own, and do not reflect the opinions of the Irish Research Council or any employee thereof.

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