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Sociolinguistics Symposium 15 Culture-Contact-Change University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK. 1-4th April 2004

Writer(s): 
Eda Üstünel, Mugla University, Turkey

In early April 2004, The 15th Sociolinguistics Symposium, Europe's international conference on language in society, returned to Newcastle (UK). The symposium was hosted by the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The organising committee included staff from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Northumbria University, the University of Sunderland, and the University of Durham. Before giving my personal review about the conference events, I'd like to briefly introduce the background of the conference.

The Sociolinguistics Symposia were begun in the 1970s by a group of UK-based sociolinguists who saw the need for a fairly informal forum to discuss research findings and to debate theoretical and methodological issues concerning language in society. It has since grown into a large, international conference, typically attracting 400-500 participants. Prior to 2002, it took place exclusively within the UK. The first symposium in continental Europe was held in April 2002 and organised at the University of Ghent. The intention since then has been to alternate between a UK and continental European venue every 4-year cycle. Those who attended had registered before the event, selected the plenary sessions, panels, and individual paper presentations they wished to attend. A personal agenda which was made available on-line and included in the delegate pack from the reception desk, was prepared for them. The conference venues were located within a triangular walking area where one could enjoy the campus view without getting lost.

The conference was opened by Li Wei, who gave a brief overview of the context for this conference and handled housekeeping announcements. Then, the first plenary session was conducted by Jenny Cheshire (Queen Mary, University of London). She gave an overview of old and new cultures in contact and referred to some approaches to the study of syntactic variation and change in the analysis of some data extracts. After the plenary session, attendees moved to a coffee gathering at the university ballroom. The coffee break seemed to be greatly appreciated on such a cold and rainy Newcastle morning especially after a long trip to Newcastle. I was amazed to notice the wide variety of nationalities in attendance - people from the US to the west, Japan to the east, Finland to the north, and South Africa to the south. Being in such a community, I considered myself as a 'local' since I have been studying in Newcastle for three years!

After the coffee break, there were nine simultaneous individual paper sessions and one panel discussion. I was working as a conference steward at one of the paper sessions in which my duty was to distribute presentation handouts, set electronic equipment, make sure that speakers were supplied with refreshment, etc. Working as a steward, as well as a speaker at the same conference, had some positive sides. Through my formal duty during the sessions, I developed informal contact with the attendees. Some of them treated me both as a steward by asking the directions in the campus, and as an academic (presenter) by having discussions about talks. I must confess that I enjoyed this dual personality during the conference.

After panel and individual presentations, delegates attended a conference lunch at the university ballroom. It was a pleasant environment where presenters had the chance to talk more informally about their research over good food. I came across one of my MA classmates and teachers from Lancaster University at lunch and had a chance to catch up on things. There were also some publishers' stands including Cambridge, Routledge, Edinburgh, Palgrave, Blackwell, and Multilingual Matters, offering field-related books at discounted prices.

After lunch, delegates attended one of six panel sessions. Each panel had three sessions related to the panel theme. The second part of panel sessions continued at the same venue after the coffee break. A second plenary session followed the panels. The speaker in the second plenary was Shana Poplack (University of Ottawa), who talked about language contact and grammatical continuity. More specifically, the discussion was based on the role of constraint hierarchies in the transmission of linguistic change. Poplack listed some hypotheses and functions grounding the discussion, and supported them with extensive lists of quantitative data. The attendance to the plenary was high and some interesting discussions took place during the question-answer session.

The Organising Committee arranged for a drink reception on the first evening of the conference, and this was well attended. In the same venue, there were also poster presentations, which allowed members the opportunity to take in the posters and as they sipped their drinks.

The second day started without any plenary sessions and the rain still continued. This morning saw the presentation of nine individual papers and one panel session. After the coffee break, presentations continued for two more hours until lunchtime. Lunch was set in the university ballroom once again with more people in attendance. This was due to the good food I reckon!

Individual paper presentations and one panel session continued until five o'clock in the afternoon. The third plenary speaker was Jane Hill (University of Arizona) and her presentation was about white racism and the culture of language in the US. Following the plenary session, there was an evening reception held in King's Hall at the university campus. The delegates seemed to be impressed by the architecture of the building, as it was built in 1888 and famous for hosting the university graduation ceremonies, concerts, and prestigious events. For two hours, guests were entertained by a local Northumbrian piper and by an acclaimed Tyneside poet.

The last day of presentations started with a plenary by Peter Auer (University of Freiburg) on Koineization in "Language Islands." He talked about how a new dialect formation was taking place in the German settlements in Rio Grande do Sul (Brazil) and what social identity it represented in comparison to the standard language variety of the area. After Auer's plenary, I returned to the presentation room to set up for my talk. More people attended my presentation than I had expected, but luckily I had enough copies of the handout. I think the best part of giving a presentation at such an international conference was to exchange ideas with audience members who were from different countries, speaking English with different accents.

After many parallel panel and individual paper presentations, the third day ended with Lesley Milroy's (University of Michigan) plenary talk. She gave a interesting talk on the contrasting sociologies and structural characteristics underlying two different types of socially motivated sound change in the UK and the US.

The conference dinner was held at the Assembly Rooms, which dated back to 1776. The evening included a drinks reception, then a full 4-course dinner followed by Ceilidh dancing to a Northumbrian pipe band. Many of the guests tried swing dance, which was an entertaining sight on its own as some big names in the sociolinguistic field were also on hand enjoying the dance. On the last day of the conference, there were excursions to Hadrian's Wall and Newcastle City Centre.

This conference was well organised, with a good balance between presentation sessions and social events. Help was on hand from conference staff at the reception desk and during sessions, breaks, etc. and the technology generally worked well.

Topical issues which struck me most included:

  • Proposed changes to the way in which code-mixing styles are categorised.
  • The push for applying sociolinguistic findings to second language education.
  • Major work in multilingual classrooms and how language alternation is used in such settings.
  • Currently emerging specifications and standards for apologising patterns in Turkish and English culture.

I found that the conference was informative and helped me to focus the direction of some of my current work, particularly in my research field - the pedagogical functions of code-switching in foreign language classrooms. The website of the conference is www.ncl.ac.uk/ss15/.

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