Bridging and Bonding Languages

Sociologists sometimes distinguish between bridging and bonding social capital. Bridging capital  refers to the value of connections between heterogeneous people or groups and bonding capital refers to the value of within-group connections. These concepts seem straightforward but actually they are quite difficult to apply without trouble.

I’ve been thinking about language a fair bit in the last couple of months and I think the idea of bridging and bonding can be assigned to language (although, admittedly, with many of the same complexities that arise when they are assigned capital).

I am studying Swedish. The kids are picking it up at school. I like acquiring languages in general and my research here will definitely benefit from Swedish competence. I try to spend 12 hours a week on my Swedish acquisition, but sometimes I get a bit grumpy and wonder what the point of the effort is. Most people here speak passable English and there are only 9 million Swedes. Thus, Swedish isn’t absolutely necessary within Sweden and once I leave Scandinavia the language will do very little to increase my ability to communicate with others.

Despite the apparent lack of general utility of Swedish, here in Sweden folks definitely expect me to learn the language and they see that as a very important element of settlement in the country – a key aspect of Swedish-ness. In fact, in the last week or two many of the people I encountered in everyday life who have known me since I arrived 3.5 months ago (folks at work, the kids’ teachers, etc) have apparently decided that I have been here long enough and started speaking to me exclusively in Swedish.

And this is how I got to the idea of Swedish as a bonding language that works to bring people into the circle of those who have acquired a “small” language. For example, one of the other students in my Swedish for Immigrant class has been in Sweden 9 years but saw no point in learning Swedish until he finally decided he was staying in Sweden. English, I would suggest, often operates as a bridging language that fosters connections and communications across very disparate groups. For example, in my Swedish for immigrants class I usually try to pair up with the few immigrants who do not speak any English because, although I am the only native English speaker, basically everyone speaks English and uses it as the lingua franca as we are working collaboratively on our Swedish grammar worksheets.

Sometimes I feel angry when I find myself struggling with Swedish comprehension or when I feel like so much of my time is spent filling out forms that are only available in Swedish, and reading the notices that get sent home from school and arrive in the mail. Sometimes I feel disgruntled when I have to choose between missing out on departmental life or attending a work seminar where I will understand only a portion of what is being said. When I am feeling tired, lazy or left out, I usually resort to the self-justification that folks should just be doing those things in English because what is the point of putting so much effort into producing research that will only be accessible to such a small audience? I sullenly think of the persistance of “small” languages as motivated by exclusivity and particularity. At those times I think of Banal Nationalism by Michael Billig. In the book Billig talks about the emergence of the idea of distinct (internally homogeneous) languages as important to the development of the idea of a national “people” represented by a nation-sate.

Of course all of that is some of what is going on. But really, I’m not being fair when I think that way. Modern national languages are not merely constructed and forgotten categories that justify the existence of the nation, they are also the raw material that people use to build their everyday lives and establish locally-shared understandings and social order. To suggest that it is more rational and practical to abandon Swedish denies the bonding nature of the language. Bonding languages aren’t for communicating with the largest number of co-present others. They are for accessing the past. Such languages operate as shorthand for cultural commonalities and deep attachments.

I think it may have taken me to grasp all of this because, as a native English speaker, I don’t relate to my language as something exclusive and unique to the nation.

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