6th Issue, January 2010

Migrants and Minorities in Multilingual Cities

In Vienna (Austria), Jersey (UK), Southampton (UK), Pula (Croatia) and Cheb (Czech Republic), the historical context strongly influences the contemporary situation regarding status and residency of ethnic minorities and migrants. Their knowledge of their own language, of the receptor language, and of other languages, can sometimes be a profitable economic factor, but often mitigating factors need to be taken into account.

Two examples illustrate the importance of history regarding migrants status in a country: The italian ethnic minority in Pula (Croatia) exerted a huge social and cultural influence before World War II, and those who stayed enjoyed high status and a privileged position within the host society compared to other ethnic minorities, which has facilitated their integration: the italian ethnic minority are economically successful; they participate in politics; their rights, interests, and their national, cultural and linguistic identity is well protected either by associations or by law.


Vietnamese are poorly integrated
In contrast, the Vietnamese ethnic minority in Cheb (Czech Republic) is poorly integrated into the receptor community. Immigration started only in the early nineties. The Vietnamese in Cheb have been seeking permanent residence, bringing over family members, especially children from Vietnam. Their business is oriented partly towards visitors from Germany, partly towards Czech down-market customers. As business opportunities with German customers have been shrinking over the last few years, some families start to explore alternative business opportunities in small towns and villages within the region.


Language as a trademark
In Pula, knowledge of the receptor language is valuable to the Albanian ethnic minority, as it increases opportunities for economic participation in the tourism industry in Pula.

In Vienna, Italian owners of restaurants and ice cream parlours use their autothchonous language in order to cultivate, promote and communicate an Italian trademark (ice cream or good Italian food) as a marker of collective identity, and to distance themselves from pseudo-Italian competitors.

Similarly, knowledge of Portuguese and English is vital for employees of a Portuguese food and wine import company in Jersey (UK). However, this is the exception from the rule: in general, the ability to communicate in Portuguese or Polish may be useful in certain jobs, for example ethnic shops, restaurants etc., but it is not necessarily considered advantageous or indicative of promotion prospects within the general job market in Southampton (UK) or Jersey (UK).


Work environment vital for exploitation of language
Whether the knowledge of particular languages is an economic asset depends largely on the type of work accessed and in what environment it is done: tourism, ethnic services, menial or professional work, migrants being self employed, employees of other migrants or host companies. Another important factor is the educational and class levels of first generation and subsequent generations of migrants. Without a certain level of education and class, the migrants have no access to jobs where their language competencies may be requisite or advantageous, and in turn, may enhance their professional development.


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