The Politics of Language and Identity

This month we published Choosing a Mother Tongue by Corinne A. Seals. In this post the author describes an encounter with language, identity and politics on a visit to Ukraine in the winter of 2017.

While I was writing Choosing a Mother Tongue: The Politics of Language and Identity in Ukraine, I was constantly reflecting on language choice and use, especially when I would find myself at a Ukrainian community event with a Ukrainian language conversation happening to my left and a Russian language conversation happening to my right. However, the power of the politics of language and identity struck me particularly during a visit to Ukraine in the winter of 2017.

I had been in L’viv (Western Ukraine), traveled to Kyiv (Central Ukraine), and had just arrived back again in L’viv to the same hotel and same restaurants in which I had spent time during the first part of the trip. However, while I had been very conscious of my language use when first in L’viv (sticking to Ukrainian to align with the preference of most people in this city), I had just been in Kyiv where language choice and use was more fluid and where my hosts were Russian dominant speakers. Additionally, my trip back to L’viv had been during a snowstorm, and in an exhausted state I was not as conscious of my language use.

L’viv during the snowstorm

When I went to grab a quick dinner at the restaurant next to where I was staying, I was bemused by the insistence of the maître d’ that she couldn’t understand me. “Surely,” I thought, “there must be something I’m doing wrong if this hasn’t happened to me before.” It was then that I realized I had been speaking to her in Russian (due to having just returned from Kyiv), but I was in a Crimean Tatar restaurant in L’viv.

This context is significant, as the Crimean Tatars have repeatedly been displaced by both the Soviet and Russian governments in history and had just been displaced again from Crimea not long before my trip to Ukraine. Recognizing my major faux pas, I switched to Ukrainian and apologized before repeating my request in Ukrainian. The maître d’ smiled slightly, nodded in acknowledgement, and proceeded with our conversation.

A Ukrainian poem in L’viv about language and identity by famous poet, Lesya Ukrainka

Now, Russian and Ukrainian are similar enough that most people can at least loosely understand one if you speak the other. So, this was highly unlikely to be a case of not having proficiency in a language. Rather (and as further informed by our interaction), this was a political statement reflecting linguistic history and identity. It was more important for the maître d’ to uphold her linguistic principles than to make the transaction. However, my awareness and acknowledgement of this, as well as my subsequent linguistic alignment with her, meant that all was again equal.

This is one of many examples that speaks to the strength of connection between language and identity, as well as the importance of being aware of current and historical events related to language and politics wherever you are.

Corinne Seals (Mykytka), Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

corinne.seals@vuw.ac.nz

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Language, Identity and Education on the Arabian Peninsula edited by Louisa Buckingham.

Language Teacher Agency Matters!

This month we published Theorizing and Analyzing Language Teacher Agency edited by Hayriye Kayi-Aydar, Xuesong (Andy) Gao, Elizabeth R. Miller, Manka Varghese and Gergana Vitanova. In this post the editors explain how the idea for the book came about.

We witnessed scholars’ and teachers’ growing interest in language teacher agency throughout the process of producing this volume. This book idea was hatched over dinner at AAAL (2016 in Orlando, Florida) before a colloquium on language teacher agency in which we editors had all participated. The colloquium attracted a large number of keen attendees and ended with a lively discussion that we all enjoyed. It became clear that many of the attendees were also doing research on teacher agency, and we decided that it was important to bring these developing research studies together into an edited collection. A few months later we posted a Call for Papers, and we were overwhelmed by the response: we received more than 100 submissions! Language teacher agency clearly matters everywhere as these submissions include studies based in urban schools and rural schools, in university classes and church-based volunteer-provided classes, located in diverse national contexts including Australia, China, India, Japan, Mexico and the US. Now, several years later, we are delighted to see a good number of these submissions developed into chapters.

Language teacher agency is not easily defined, in part, because it is always contextually mediated. It thus seems inevitable that scholars will use different methods and focus on a range of topics in order to understand teacher agency in the particular contexts they are exploring. The chapters in this book explore teacher agency in relation to social justice and equity efforts, teacher identity and professional development, teacher evaluation processes, curricular decisions and innovations, and the creation of new teaching practices. It is likewise clear that scholars will adopt different theoretical approaches to help them make sense of the on-the-ground practices and activities that they observe. In this volume, authors draw on ecological theory, sociocultural theory, actor network theory, critical realism, and positioning theory. Our book is not prescriptive in nature; in other words, we do not tell teachers what they should do to be an agent. However, through systematic data collection, the chapters successfully document the complexities associated with language teacher agency in strikingly different contexts, which we believe offers unique insights, implications, and strategies for language teachers. Given the range of perspectives offered in this collection, we are hopeful that it will spark new and continually diversifying research approaches and methods.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Language Teacher Psychology edited by Sarah Mercer and Achilleas Kostoulas.

 

“What Happened to My Language?” Working to Reclaim Indigenous Languages

Earlier this year we published A World of Indigenous Languages edited by Teresa L. McCarty, Sheilah E. Nicholas and Gillian Wigglesworth. In this post Teresa and Sheilah discuss how they came to participate in the global movement for Indigenous language reclamation.

Sheilah Nicholas remembers the rude awakening when, as an adult, her mother said to her, “When you were a child, you were fully Hopi,” referring to the fact that she was a first-language speaker of Hopi as a child. Teresa McCarty, a White scholar-educator, remembers a parallel moment when a Diné (Navajo) elder, referring to the legacy of colonial schooling, said to her, “If a child learns only English, you have lost your child.” Reflecting on this, Sheila and Teresa identify the point when their life trajectories came together and they became participants in a nascent global movement for Indigenous language reclamation.

Sheilah: The very first time I thought about language issues was in a pilot study I conducted for your class at the University of Arizona. I wanted to understand how a K-8 community school on the Hopi reservation was implementing their Hopi language program. At the time my focus was on Hopi language and literacy and the role of Hopi education practitioners as literacy specialists.

Teresa: That would be about the mid-1990s. At that time I was working with Diné teachers at a community school within the Navajo Nation. The teachers were Indigenizing their literacy curriculum. I had been working with this community for many years and we were starting to see a noticeable shift from Navajo to English among the children entering kindergarten.

Sheilah: In 1995, while there were still a large number of Hopi speakers across the reservation, in this particular community school the Hopi education practitioners were also observing a visible shift to English among their students.

These experiences inform our work together and individually in the field of Indigenous language revitalization and reclamation. For both of us, an important site of this work was the American Indian Language Development Institute (AILDI) at the University of Arizona, an international program to train educators and language practitioners in strategies to revitalize and promote the use of Indigenous languages across generations.

Sheilah: I was a graduate student at AILDI and found myself unable to integrate Hopi into my assignment. I asked my instructor, Akira Yamamoto, “What happened to my language?” He said, “It didn’t go anywhere. It’s deep inside you—you just need to pull it up.”

Teresa: Akira Yamamoto, Lucille Watahomigie (Hualapai) and Leanne Hinton cofounded AILDI in 1978, with long-time AILDI director Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O’odham) joining shortly after. I had been working with them for several years. Each summer the Institute brings together Indigenous community members and educators, and non-Indigenous allies, in collaborative partnerships around language revitalization, documentation, and outreach.

Sheilah: AILDI became the catalyst for my current work.

Our stories are part of a larger story told in the pages of our edited volume with Gillian Wigglesworth of the University of Melbourne, A World of Indigenous Languages. Gillian has worked for many years with Australian Aboriginal communities on the languages Aboriginal children in remote communities learn, the complexity of their language ecologies, and how these interact with English once children enter the formal school system.

Our book exemplifies a movement we characterize with the “4 Rs”: resurgence, reclamation, revitalization, and resilience. From Aotearoa/New Zealand, to South Africa, the Yukon Territory, Western Australia, Latin America, Ojibwe and Hopi in the USA, Aanaar Saami in Finland, Limbu in Nepal, Nahuatl in Mexico, and the “world of Indigenous languages” in cyberspace, every chapter – authored or coauthored by an Indigenous scholar-activist – illuminates the vitalities of this movement.

In gathering these accounts, we are honored to present the diversity of pedagogical innovations and the persistence of this movement. These are not accounts about languages as abstract entities to be “preserved,” but rather a dynamic display of Indigenous voices being heard.

For more information about this book please see our website.

 

The Linguistic Foundations of Homophobic Discourses

This month we are publishing The Discursive Ecology of Homophobia by Eric Louis Russell. In this post the author explains how he came to study homophobia in far right groups.

The cover image for this book shows les Hommen during a protest

“But… they’re SO GAY, right?”

A*** and I stared back at our mutual friend B*** [not their initials], somewhat incredulous. Gay? These guys? How could he possibly think that?!

It was early 2013 and the three of us were observing protests against same-sex marriage legalization in France. Among the more conventional opponents on the streets were les Hommen, young men in colorful pants and white opera masks, strutting around shirtless with messages painted on their mostly-chiseled chests, chanting arm-in-arm. For B***, an American anglophone, they would fit in the Marais or Dupont Circle, but were out of place at an anti-gay march. A*** and I understood things differently. Colorful jeans, bare-chested sloganeering, yelling in unison? Not just traditionally hetero-masculine, but exaggeratedly so.

Discussion soon turned to how it is we “read” the Hommen so divergently, without really thinking about it. Particularly curious to me was the inseparability of cultural and linguistic knowledge required in such moments, and the ways in which these are grounded and embodied. With common Francophone backgrounds, A*** and I called on shared knowledge of language and their intersection with cultural practices, concluding the Hommen to be examples of rather blatant heteronormative masculinity. Our American friend misinterpreted these signs at nearly all levels. All three of us, however, struggled to articulate exactly how or why we came to our judgements.

As a linguist, I focus on language forms, structures, shapes and patterns. When I read text or hear speech, I dissect and deconstruct the communicative package – much the way an engineer looks at a bridge or a musician listens to a symphony, I imagine. With some time to reflect on this and similar moments, I became increasingly uneasy at how rarely scholars like myself contributed to conversations around hate speech, regardless of target, context, or participants. It was as if we were only scratching the surface of language, and therefore only looking to a small part of how meaning is created, transmitted, and received. Perhaps worse, so much of the work being done seemed to depart from a “one-size-fits-all” perspective, as if sexualities and identities, as well as reactions to them, were universal or could be understood in linguistic and cultural translation. Being a bit mule-headed – and always up for a challenge – it seemed a good idea to wade into this controversy. Which is what led to this book: an attempt to pierce the surface of language performances and unravel communicative practices at a deeper level.

Is it complex? Certainly. Is this the type of thing that everyone needs to do? Probably not. But I believe it’s important to bring more understanding of language into the critique and confrontation of homophobia (and much else), and to engage in a more culturally-grounded way when doing so. With any luck, this sort of examination can shed light – a potent disinfectant – on hegemonies and hate, especially when they lurk in the shadows and their authors maintain a veneer of civility. At least, that is my hope.

For more information about this book please see our website