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.

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

The Motivations of Adult Language Learners in Continuing Education Settings

We recently published Identity Trajectories of Adult Second Language Learners by Cristiana Palmieri. In this post the author explains what inspired her to conduct this research.

The reasons I became interested in conducting the study presented in my book are connected to both my professional and personal life. Having an academic background in social sciences with a specific interest in the nexus between languages and cultures, I have always been very interested in the relation between L2 language learning and processes of identity development, to better understand how languages influence the way we think and interact with other people. My interest in this area has been compounded by my personal experience as a second language speaker and my professional practice as a teacher. In my role as an educator I have taught a variety of subjects, including Italian language and culture, both in Italy and Australia. When I started teaching Italian as a second language in Australia I realised that the Australian sociocultural context presented specific characteristics connected to the history of Italian migration to this country. I was surprised to discover that my native language is one of the most widely-studied languages in Australia, in spite of the large geographical distance that separates the two countries. What makes this finding particularly remarkable is the fact that Italian is spoken by a relatively small percentage of the world population, about 64 million speakers in Italy and in a few other countries in Europe and Africa, which equates to less than 1% of the world population. Moreover, it is not considered a language of business, and its command it is not an essential requisite for Australian travellers visiting Italy.

Having been myself a second language learner, I am very well aware of the fact that strong motivation is needed in order to sustain the effort and to cope with the frustration that the learning process sometimes brings about. In my case, my motivation was relatively easy to frame: I wanted to learn English, a global language, to be able to live and work in English-speaking countries, and to travel the world with an international language as a passport at my disposal. While teaching Italian to adult learners in Australia, looking at my students, highly committed individuals striving to master a second language which is not an international language, I could not stop wondering about the factors sustaining their motivation.

This book explores the motivations of adult second language learners in continuing education settings. It focuses on their learning trajectories and related dynamics of identity development triggered by the learning process. By presenting an in-depth analysis of motivational drives and their interconnectedness with the sociocultural settings in which the learning process occurs, the book contributes to boosting our understanding of adult second language learning, a rapidly expanding field of research of language and identity in multicultural contexts. In a nutshell, this book is about the fascinating experience of learning another language and understanding another culture.

 

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Language Teaching and the Older Adult by Danya Ramírez Gómez.

We Speak Up: Firsthand Experiences of Gendered Language

This month we were very excited to publish Speaking Up by Allyson Jule – a book that looks at how language use and related ideas about gender play out in the home, workplace and online. In this post the MM team considers their own experiences with language and gender.

Elinor

One of the most frustrating thing about sexist language is that it is so ingrained in people’s everyday speech that they are often completely unaware of the significance and implications of the words they use. One word that particularly infuriates me is that of ‘manning’ a stand. As we attend conferences a lot and the majority of our staff is female I really take objection when people use the verb ‘to man.’ While many people wouldn’t necessarily be offended by it, I feel that it is very easy to use the word ‘staffing’ instead which removes the gender connotation completely.

Another issue that I often face is that of titles. Frequently, I am asked whether I’m ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs’ and when I reply ‘neither’ people are sometimes confused. I’m glad that the term ‘Ms’ exists in English so that I have an alternative to Miss and Mrs but I really don’t see why women should be forced to use a title to denote their marital status when men do not. As a married woman who hasn’t taken my husband’s name, neither Miss or Mrs is correct but I still find Ms is not an option that is always available or that everyone even understands. I would be happy if we did away with titles completely as in my mind it only confuses people and creates an impression of inequality between the sexes.

Tommi

The recent publication of Speaking Up has given me a few moments to pause and reflect on my own use of language in my professional life, and how this might be seen by other people. One of the habits that I have been trying to train myself out of for years has been referring to my female colleagues collectively as “the girls”….

The term arose years ago when we had a larger office, and the majority of the staff and directors were tending closer to retirement age. We had a new intake of younger staff members, who happened to be women. Often my mum, Marjukka Grover, then editorial director, would say something like “are the girls coming to lunch?”. The term stuck, and was a lighthearted way of referring to a group of colleagues and distinguishing the younger ones from the older ones.

Fast forward 15 years, and those “girls” are now Editorial Director, Head of Production and Head of Marketing themselves, and have been joined by another two extremely capable women. They all know very well that I have the utmost respect for them, and that without them this business would be in desperate trouble. I manage mostly to refer to them outside the office as “my colleagues”, but every now and again, usually when we are talking about something social rather than business related, I’ll call them “the girls” and I’ll kick myself for doing it. Will I ever be able to train myself completely out of this habit? I doubt it, although I am getting better, and since one of my colleagues recently commented that she really hates that term, I will try even harder in the future. If any of you catch me using the term, please feel free to challenge me!

Anna

At 20 weeks pregnant with my elder daughter, I’d just found out at a scan that everything was ok with the baby, and that she was a girl. I decided to buy some baby clothes to mark the occasion, and so I took myself to Mothercare to buy some vests and sleepsuits. It was like stepping into another world – the baby clothes were rigidly divided by gender, pink for girls and blue for boys (my mum bought a set of blue sleepsuits with penguins on them for my daughter to the absolute horror of the shop assistant, who kept trying to tell her she was making a mistake). The ‘boy’ clothes encouraged boys to do things – drive tractors, fly planes, run fast – or be the boss. The ‘girl’ clothes encouraged baby girls to aspire to be princesses or defined them in relation to other people or how they looked: there were racks and racks of ‘Daddy’s Little Cutie’ vests, or ‘I’m so Pretty’ tops. Having lived up to that point in a feminist bubble, it was a rude awakening to discover that messages about gender equality are still something you have to work hard to instil in your children, in the face of prevailing culture.

My daughter is now nearly 7, and it’s clear that some of her contemporaries, brought up on these messages, have internalised and now believe them. One of her friends was told recently by a classmate that she wasn’t a proper girl as she prefers shorts to summer dresses and enjoys sports. The gradual drip, drip of these judgements hurts both girls and boys, men and women, and it turns out that the stereotyping starts at birth, if not before.

Flo

In our office I’m usually the one who answers the phone when it rings and I’m happy to be gatekeeper if needs be. However, we’ve noticed that when answering a cold call, I am often assumed to be a receptionist (I was even referred to as “just the receptionist” by one cold caller), with no authority, knowledge of the business, or decision-making power. Not only is this very insulting to genuine receptionists (surely it’s a mistake to get off on the wrong foot with the person who has access to the entire company), but as we’ve noticed that when Tommi (or for that matter, a male intern) happens to be the one who answers the phone, he is never taken for a receptionist, it could be argued that it’s an assumption based on my voice being identifiable as a young woman’s. Where I would be fielding question after question about who is in charge of accounts or how do I know my boss isn’t interested (I can see him from my desk waving his arms ‘no’), callers generally seem to accept being dismissed in the first instance by a man.

For more information about Speaking Up please see our website

Martial Arts and Sociolinguistics

Earlier this month we published Lian Malai Madsen’s book Fighters, Girls and Other Identities. In this post, she explains how her interests in martial arts and sociolinguistics came together in this volume.

Fighters, Girls and Other IdentitiesI was 12 when I began practicing taekwondo in a small village club. At first it was my gender-egalitarian occupation that attracted me to the martial arts. Later it became an integral part of my self-perception, my main leisure activity and a source of lasting friendships. I continued to enjoy the sport as a fun way to keep fit, but it was the social community around the sport that had the greatest impact on my life.

I was 19 when I was first introduced to sociolinguistics at an urban university. At first I thought studying Danish was mostly about literature, but my teacher in linguistics opened my eyes to the connections between language use and social relations. I became involved in his research project and developed a keen interest for language, identity, diversity and inequality. During my years as a university student I became a black belt, an instructor and a board member in a large urban taekwondo club.

Although these paths in my life seemed like two very different worlds they eventually became united in the book Fighters, Girls and Other Identities: Sociolinguistics in a Martial Arts Club that investigates the martial arts club as a site where language, identities, diversity and inequality take effect.

In research on sports and identities, language has mainly been studied as discourses about sport, rhetoric surrounding sports or as speech genres connected with specific sports activities. But in tune with a wish to capture the social and linguistic diversity and mobility of today’s societies, sociolinguistic research has also turned to sports as an important site for studying linguistic hybridity and multilingualism. Such interests in globalization and superdiversity make the combination of the language use, sports and identities a fruitful research cocktail. It was my involvement in these topics as a scholar that led me to exchange the punching pads for a pen, notebooks and recording equipment for a while and to look at the social community of young martial artists in Copenhagen through the glasses of a sociolinguist.

I am 39 and the results of this research have finally been published, and, in the meantime, I have even become a taekwondo-mum.

Lian Malai Madsen
Associate Professor, University of Copenhagen
lianm@hum.ku.dk

For more information on this title please contact Lian or see our website.