Behind the scenes of language quantification


Bettina Blatter

01.2016 - 12.2018
Diversity, History, Institutions, Interaction, Policy

The purpose of this project is to conduct a detailed analysis on language census issues in Switzerland since the 19th century and to better understand the role this tool plays in the Swiss political landscape. This project will also support the Federal Statistical Office (FSO) in developing future census tools. This will ensure that actual sociolinguistic facts are taken into account when designing thematic questionnaires on languages.

It will draw on historical sources but also on ethnographic and interactional data collected for a former project conducted by the RCM while collaborating on FSO’s “Language, religion and culture survey” (LRCS) in 2014. It will analyse the origin and the history of language census in Switzerland particularly the LRCS (section “langue”), linguistic issues and categories considered as well as the way the political and academic scenes and the general public received the results.

Purpose – Expected results

This project is of great interest in terms of sociolinguistics, particularly when it comes to understanding discourses and practices in the area of language census which make up implementations of language policies and show how we deal with languages. It will also supply new insight for other disciplines, particularly for political specialists and historians who work with language census data.

In addition to a final report (including the Executive Summary), a series of scientific articles should be released (for instance a special issue of the “International Journal of the Sociology of Language” on language census across the world) and two workshops will be organised (in collaboration with the FSO) with international sociolinguists and experts on linguistic demography.

In addition, a review of scientific literature on the topic has been prepared.

Thesis - Philippe Humbert (2021): (De)ciphering speakers: the official quantification of languages challenged by the language ideologies in Switzerland
The goal of this thesis is to conduct an in-depth exploration of the quantification of linguistic diversity using the national survey Language, religion and culture survey (LRCS), in that it is revelatory of current social and linguistic practices. The LRCS is a telephone survey initially conducted in 2014 by the Swiss Federal Office of Statistics (FSO). It aims to gather statistics revealing the sociolinguistic behaviour of locutors, focusing particularly on issues such as individual multilingualism and diglossia. Taking a critical sociolinguistic approach, the thesis addresses the LRCS’s dataset using the Foucauldian concept of governmentality. It seeks to understand how the LRCS produces objective knowledge about language, while simultaneously taking other scientific arguments and political interests into consideration. The concept of governmentality helps us to grasp the links between the stages of the production of said knowledge and the various ways of thinking about linguistic diversity, in order to exercise a form of control over the population and, more particularly, over speakers. Anchored in production conditions which induce methodological and technical constraints, the quantification of languages appears to be challenged by linguistic ideologies: the actors involved in the quantification project perceive languages and speakers according to diverging and converging ideas and beliefs, which have the effect of influencing their actions, or even of regulating certain sections of the quantification process.

This thesis adopts the methodological approach of institutional ethnography. Based on documents used over the course of the LRCS (methodological discussions about the drafting of the questionnaire and processing of the collected data, extracts from parliamentary debates, transcripts of interviews with respondents, etc.), the analysis focuses on the socio-historical and interactional dimensions of the discourses driving the process of the quantification of languages. The discourses studied during the quantification process are also revelatory of ambivalent language ideologies. They have the effect of extracting a somewhat monolingual vision of the speakers, but also of emphasizing their plurilingual nature. While these two contradictory concepts form part of the same political project of social cohesion, they had two main effects for the LRCS. On the one hand, the ambivalence of language ideologies generates defining issues that complicate the quantification process for the FSO. And on the other, these ideologies affect the social and linguistic behaviours of the interviewers and respondents taking part in the telephone survey: answering questions about languages is the same as seeking to legitimize one's position as a speaker, constituting either a threat or an asset to social cohesion. This thesis aims to contribute to our understanding of how power relationships are expressed during the process of producing statistical knowledge with the aim of (de)ciphering locutors.