Language, Discourse & Society, 5(1) pp 53-70

Anderson’s notion of imagined communities has helped to focus attention on the complex
connection between language and membership of social groupings. This article explores the
sense of membership of an imagined transnational community of ‘Europe’ through a selection
of autobiographical narrative interviews in a multi-nation study of identity formation. Data
drawn from a sample of European Union citizens reveals how people narrate their experiences
of transnational mobility and how languages feature in their storytelling. We present evidence
of key linguistic situations and encounters, including childhood experiences of other languages,
experiences of education, as well as language choices in mature relationships and careers. We
engage with the question of what it means to identify oneself as a learner, user or non-user of
languages in the context of cross-border mobility. To the extent that language acquisition is
advantageous for expanding cultural horizons, increasing mobility, extending networks and
enhancing careers, the data is consistent with concepts of imagined community and language
learning motivation. However, we also see evidence that linguistic diversity is a source of
inequality and that languages can exclude as well as include. This prompts a conceptual
discussion designed to articulate the problem that what is imagined is less than a collective
identity or community, and more a mental frame of reference. In this context, we consider the
applicability in the European context of the metaphor of linguistic capital, investment, markets
and the right to speak developed by Bourdieu and others. Extempore narratives provide
particularly valuable data for showing how social relations of language are configured and how
they are experienced as constraint as well as opportunity.