Project Title:
Communities of the Global Midwest: A Linguistic-Comparative Study

Project Description:

The Midwest in general and Michigan in particular, is often characterized in the public imagination as the heart of ‘white America’. It is also frequently perceived as the home of the ‘best’, ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ American English (Lippi-Green, 1997; Preston 2002). However, the truth is far from this perception. Like all of the U.S., the Midwest is multicultural and diverse. According to the American Immigration Council (2013), the composition of foreign-born immigrants in Michigan rose from 3.8% in 1990 to 6.1% in 2011, with 307,726 people (50.9%) becoming naturalized U.S. citizens in 2010. Over the same period, the Asian population increased from 1.1% to 2.5%. Moreover, Michigan holds the highest concentration of Arab Americans residing in one area in the United States.

This is a preliminary study of the Arab, Chinese, and Nepalese communities in Michigan. It will be guided by Shohamy et al.’s (2010) framework of ‘Linguistic Landscaping’ (LL), which is defined as the “scene where the public space is symbolically constructed” (Ben-Rafael, Shohamy and Barni, 2010: xi). Our project aims at investigating languages in public spaces, including the visual aspect of signage (through photo and video documentation). The project will also expand on the notion of LL to include informal meetings and formal interviews with locals in these communities. In other words, our research hopes to enhance the concept of LL in order to demonstrate the diversity of LL in a Midwestern setting. Further we will be working with community partners in each of these communities to share our data and findings for their own uses.

The most immediate outcome is the collecting of the oral histories of immigrant experience in Michigan in the 21st century in both English and the heritage language(s), combined with photo documentary work on the respective communities’ public places.

Oral histories will initially be preserved and made accessible through Michigan State University Libraries Vincent Voice Library. The research team will work concurrently with immigrant community organizations like the Arab American Museum in Dearborn and local and state historical societies (such as the Historical Society of Michigan) to integrate oral history content in their collections and outreach and engagement activities. The Arabic Program at MSU is already engaged in outreach activities with the Arab community in Dearborn.

Photographs and illustrative short excerpts from the oral histories (translated into English) will be presented via a website about the project. The site will also direct the public to the archived oral histories.

This research will make needed contributions to the conversation in the relatively new interdisciplinary research area of LL, thus contributing to the debate on globalization, and its relations to language rights, and language policies, and what they mean both at a macro and at a micro levels in a place like Michigan.

Future Directions

As mentioned, this is a preliminary study on the immigrant communities of Michigan. We hope to include more communities from across the Midwest in the future. We are already in contact with Suresh Canagarajah, director of Migration Studies Project at Pennsylvania State University to potentially collaborate investigations of the diaspora communities in Pennsylvania. Other possibilities include the Somali diaspora in the Minneapolis area (where we have begun discussions on collaboration with researchers from the University of Minnesota).

In order to enhance public impact, this study will explore partnerships with museums and historical societies throughout Michigan and the greater Midwest to host audio, video, images, and text produced in the course of the study and integrate that content into community organization outreach and engagement activities. Our research team would work with community partners to develop visual and audio-exhibits, lectures and/or discussions at community partner sites throughout Michigan. Given the high likelihood for multidisciplinary interest in speech data collected in the course of this study, the research team will explore development and implementation of consortia and/or centralized approaches to preserving and sharing speech data collected throughout the Midwest.

Organizer Names:
Camelia Suleiman, Peter De Costa, Suzanne Wagner, Russell E. Lucas

Organizer's Departmental and University Affiliation:
Department of Linguistics & Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages
Global Studies in the Arts & Humanities
Michigan State University