Identity and language practices in religious settings:

Münch, Christian

University of Frankfurt, Germany

WS170: Multilingual societies, identities and globalization: rethinking language, migration and identity

The study of the relationship between identity and language in churches in the United States has for a long time been dominated by the model of the ethnic neighbourhood church and the concept of ethnic, cultural and linguistic identity it implies. As the social center of community life, for generations of immigrants ethnic churches have played a major role in religious life, cultural practices and the maintenance of the immigrants’ language of origin. As important as ethnic churches have been in keeping up religious rites and cultural traditions, their conservative nature has not made them particularly attractive as research spaces, offering very little in terms of sociolinguistic dynamics to be studied.

However, the recent wave of immigration from all over Latin America to the United States and the presence of numerous sizable groups of immigrants from all over Latin America has not only changed the religious landscape of the United States, but it also has led to an increasing diversity among Latinos as well as within their churches. While the use of Spanish allows churches to organize services in which immigrants of widely different groups such as Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Ecuadorians or Dominicans can participate, their cultural identity remains intact even after years of membership in a religious community. Yet, there can be no doubt that the use of Spanish as their common language allows the crossing of social and ethnic boundaries, enabling members of a church to identify with other members on the basis of language rather than adapting to their cultural paradigms.

In this presentation I will present results of my research in New York City on churches of different denominations (catholic, baptist and evangelical). All of the churches studied have undergone significant changes in their membership due to the new immigration from Latin America and reacted by adapting their language practices in Spanish to the needs of the newcomers. Each church, however, has dealt with issues of language practices and identity in different ways. The methodological approach of my research was based on participant observation, semi-structured interviews and critical discourse analysis.

The case of Latin American immigrants in churches in the United States is an example of how migration processes are changing the character of religious settings that, for a long time, have been deemed unattractive for sociolinguistic research. It invites us to rethink the link between religion, cultural practices and language and look for new theoretical and methodological approaches to dissect existing paradigms and render the complexity of an emerging Latino culture in the United States that defies traditional notions of ethnicity and places language in the centre of their religious and cultural life.

Session: Workshop (part 2)
Multilingual societies, identities and globalization: rethinking language, migration and identity
Saturday, April 5, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 02