top of page

about the project

This project studies how unacquainted persons spontaneously engage in interaction in settings in which multilingualism is expectable. It investigates language practices in present-day, urban environments. Officially multilingual cities, such as Fribourg (Switzerland) and Brussels (Belgium), have received extended attention with regard to how language policies are locally implemented. Little is known, however, about how people choose and negotiate the language of conversation here and now when addressing an unacquainted person – who might speak one of the local languages, but also a language of immigration or tourism.


Based on video-recordings collected in bilingual regions (Brussels, Fribourg, Tri-national region of Mulhouse-Basel-Freiburg, Udine), in touristic locations (Bruges, Ticino), cosmopolitan cities (Basel) etc. this project documents everyday language practices in public space. It focuses on encounters between unknown persons engaging in two types of events: 

  1. Symmetrical Ordinary Encounters, which happen when people going about the same activity (e.g., sitting on a bench, walking the dog) start talking to each other; 

  2. Asymmetrical Institutional Encounters, which occur in institutional and service settings or, in public space, when someone requests something from a passer-by (e.g., political support, money) or offers them something (e.g., a flyer, a product sample). 

The analyses show how, during the opening phase of an encounter, individuals progressively discover the linguistic options they have for efficiently engaging in interaction (ranging from the choice of one common language, to a mode of interaction in which speakers alternate languages, to conversations in which each individual speaks a different language, etc.).

The diversity of resources interactants deploy in order to establish focused interaction with each other is analysed from a multimodal perspective, taking into account how linguistic resources are embedded in the individuals’ embodied actions. Using multimodal conversation analysis and interactional linguistics, this project will provide the following results: 

  1. It will contribute to the analysis of conversational openings by systematically taking into account the individuals’ embodied and linguistic resources; 

  2. it will provide a situated analysis of language contact “as it happens” and show that the speakers’ language choices are sensitive to the situated emerging categorisation of the interactants and the local context; 

  3. it will describe urban public space as a locus of multilingualism, hence challenging the present-day image of public space (often associated to fear and insecurity) in contemporary societies, by showing its relevance for pro-social ways of living; 

  4. it will engender methodological guidelines for video recording in natural public settings of interaction.

bottom of page