Language Research

  • The linguistic landscape of crisis zones

The policy and practice of languages in conflict areas has become an issue of increasing interest to academic researchers, policymakers, and language practitioners over the past five years, an interest at least partially stimulated by recent Western military deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Before this, traditional war studies’ scholarship had been markedly ethnocentric, adopting a nation-state ontology of conflict which eschewed what Tarak Barkawi calls the, ‘cultural mixing and hybridity of war’ (2006, x). In such work, ‘foreignness’ was largely positioned as an unproblematic given, so that any conflict appeared to exist monolingually, with enemies and allies obligingly speaking our own language.

More recently however, a number of detailed case studies have examined the role of foreign languages in war zones across the world, in periods ranging from the Hundred Years War to Afghanistan today. This has involved challenging many of the unspoken preconceptions in our representation of theatres of conflict. Thus for example, Ardis Butterfield (2009), Sylvie Kleinman (2009) and Christopher Tozzi (2012) have looked at armies themselves as linguistic coalitions which manage internal language diversity as an integral part of their military effectiveness. Other writers have concentrated on the role which languages play in military/civilian relations ‘on the ground’, both in macro and micro relationships. Catherine Baker (2012a) for example traced the effect which the British presence in Bosnia / Herzegovina had on local societies between 1995 and 2007, whilst Simona Tobia (2012) examined the problematics of one-to-one interrogations in prison cells. In the aftermath of war, as Constadina Charalambous (2012) argued in relation to the situation in Cyprus today, the way in which languages are positioned can  nuance and reposition the continuum between conflict and peace, between ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ war.

In all this work, the presence of languages is now understood as an integral part of the dynamics of conflict, affecting the composition of armies and military deployment, conditioning the nature of military/civilian relationships on the ground, and influencing post war peacebuilding and peace keeping. From these studies it is clear that international conflict has a visible and audible linguistic landscape.

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