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Linguistics’ and Anthropology’s Jaffe Back After Year In Corsica

Published: October 15, 2012

Alexandra Jaffe
Alexandra Jaffe in a restaurant in the resort city of Porto on the island of Corsica.

Linguistics’ and Anthropology’s Alexandra Jaffe returned to campus in August from a year spent on the island of Corsica as part of an international team of scholars studying “Peripheral Multilingualisms,” with funding from the Academy of Finland, which administers more than 260 million Euros in support of more than 5,000 researchers.

Jaffe, a member of the university since 2001, is a linguistic anthropologist who examines the relationship between language, culture and social process on Corsica. The three-year research project, “Peripheral Multilingualism: Creativity and Contestation,” looks at the dynamics of indigenous and minority language use in educational and tourist settings in Lapland, Ireland, Wales and Corsica and includes four senior scholars and several pre- and post-doctoral research assistants. Jaffe and her research team members are focusing on continuities and change in multilingual practices in Sámi, Irish, Corsican and Welsh contexts. In particular, they are interested in the tensions and creativity that arise as a result of complex and changing multilingual processes, practices and experiences that go hand in hand with globalization. Jaffe argues that peripheral multilingual contexts are crucial sites for understanding how globalization works, how it impacts local social and linguistic arrangements and generates counter-currents in local environments.

“The languages we studied, Sámi, Irish, Corsican and Welsh, represent cultures on the peripheries of the mainstream,” she explained. “They are conceptualized as cultural as well as geographical peripheries. They are on the margins. What does it mean to be small and peripheral in a global era? What role does their geographical, cultural and linguistic difference play in how they mobilize heritage for their own, or tourists’ consumption?”

Corsica is not a place you stumble over, Jaffe pointed out. You need to make an effort to get there. For tourists, that effort is part of what makes the destination unique. For tourists, visiting these societies at geographical and cultural borders is part of their added value. Minority language and culture are part of that mix. At the same time, marketing the local can create tensions to do with ownership and intimacy. That is, part of the value of the local can be that it is not shared with outsiders.

One local project that embodied both creativity and contestation/tensions of ownership studied by Jaffe was initiated by a village that received a regional grant to explore new technologies linking landscape, language and music. The project was initiated during a weeklong summer music festival. Jaffe explained that, “Local actors put up smartphone symbols by local heritage sites, including a refurbished fountain near the center of the village. Visitors capturing the smartphone image were sent to a webpage which launched a sound file of traditional courting songs that might have been sung on the way to this popular gathering place.” A bilingual French-Corsican text accompanied the song.

In the future, Jaffe will study how the expansion of the sound points in and around the village to create a “narrated landscape.” In terms of tensions, she points out that project managers had concerns about “overtechnologizing” the landscape, and making themselves and their village into a kind of “living museum” for observation by outsiders.

In her educational research, Jaffe also observed five adult Corsican language classes over many months and conducted research at the middle- and high-school levels using a lengthy online survey and focus group discussions. She emphasized the importance of doing ethnographic research over time.

“I wanted to understand people’s experiences, and that requires an investment of time. Without it, you can’t make generalizations. In the adult education courses, the time I spent was both formal—in class—and informal. We ended up getting to know each other and talking about all kinds of things in one another’s lives, which was crucial for me to understand how the Corsican language fit into those life stories and paths,” she said.

In middle and high schools, “I distributed more than 250 surveys and spoke with approximately 150 students in focus groups,” she said. “I talked to the students about their knowledge and use of Corsican and other languages in school and out of school. What languages did they use when? How did they imagine their linguistic trajectories? Where were they going with their languages?” This helped to situate Corsican and its cultural value within a wider framework of their linguistic repertoires and attitudes. Jaffe discovered student perceptions through her discussion groups. “When asked, almost everybody responded ‘We need to know English!’ but few students believed that their language courses gave them strong enough oral communicative skills. Many students believed Corsican was important, but often felt that identity work could be accomplished with fairly low levels of competence.”

A highlight of her year was her action research on a genre of improvisational poetry called “Chjam’è Rispondi,” which means “call and response” in Corsican. In this traditional practice, the first poet composes and sings a six-line poem with eight syllables per line and a variety of rhyme schemes. His or her opponent has to pick up on the theme of their last line or the overall topic and improvise a response using the same format. Jaffe said that this back-and-forth improvisation has seen a revival of interest during the past 30 years and is part of a Corsican cultural and linguistic revival. What’s new is its use in schools.

Jaffe helped set up a cross-school Chjam’è Rispondi exchange between two geographically distant elementary classes while documenting their composition process. First, she recorded one school’s composition, then showed it to the other class for their reply. “At the end of the school year, they met at the Corsican museum of anthropology, performed the entire song cycle including half a dozen exchanges, and participated in a number of poetry and music workshops,” she said. “I find this form of creation to be complex and interesting. It connects kids to a practice that is valued outside the school and connects them, as Corsican language learners, to speakers out there in the society.”

It’s also a practice that is attracting more young poets and is taking place in both old and new media. For example, one of the two teachers in the project learned to compose Chjam’è Rispondi in an online forum, where he and other seasoned and younger poets exchanged written verses. Gradually, the novice poets reduced the time they allowed themselves for a response. “They finally got it down to a kind of written improvisation,” she said. Then, when they attended a traditional Corsican poetry event, older poets invited the younger ones to step up on stage and perform orally. Many of them are now performers on a poetry circuit. “This represents an interesting shift going on in Corsican poetry,” she said. “A poetic form that began as spoken word made its way onto the Internet and came back out as spoken word again.”

Jaffe won a $37,000 Guggenheim Fellowship in 2004 to research Corsican language and her 1999 book on Corsica titled Ideologies in Action: Language Politics on Corsica was recognized with the first Edward Sapir Book Prize by the Society of Linguistic Anthropology under the American Anthropological Association. She is currently the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Linguistic Anthropology. Before joining CSULB, she worked at (State University of New York) SUNY Cortland and the University of Southern Mississippi. She received her B.A. in English and French literature from the University of Delaware and her M.A. and Ph.D. from Indiana University, the latter in 1990.

Jaffe travels to London in January to begin planning with the other members of the Peripheral Multilingualism team on a jointly authored book to be written next year and to map out her own individual publications from the mountain of data collected last year. She is also working on a multimedia DVD on the Chjam’è Rispondi project that will be made available to Corsican educators interested in launching poetry projects in their own classrooms.