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.

Multi-sited Language Policies in Finland, Sweden and Everywhere Else

Earlier this month we published Language Policies in Finland and Sweden edited by Mia Halonen, Pasi Ihalainen and Taina Saarinen. Here, the editors of the book explain how the book came about.

“Calls for Latinization of Ukrainian alphabet on ‘civilizational grounds’ anger Russians”
“Are drugs the answer to language learning?”
“MPs divided on compulsory Swedish language education”

Recent news headlines from around the world show how we are constantly surrounded by language politics and policies. Often the news items in question have historical and spatial links to policy issues and discourses elsewhere or in another time – or to both.

Language Policies in Finland and SwedenOur observations on multi-sitedly linked language policies led us to work on the book Language policies in Finland and Sweden: Interdisciplinary and Multi-sited Comparisons. While our empirical cases are located in Finland and Sweden, similar debates are going on everywhere in the world. We saw examples of (potentially nationalistic) policy discourses in which concepts like “minority”, “official”, “main”, “domestic” and “foreign” were used to construct the political field and became sources for ideological constructions. “Language” turned out to be an even heavier political argument than we initially thought.

The comparisons between Finland and Sweden show for example that in spite of the shared long history of the two countries, the language political climate has developed in very different ways. In Finland, the present policy discourses still highlight a historically strong consensual ideal of state bilingualism, visible in the equal legislative status of Finnish and Swedish. At the same time, looking at educational settings, the Swedish language gets “defamiliarised”, i.e. constructed as a foreign, not a domestic, language.

In Sweden, in turn, the arguments advocating Swedish as the “main” language of the country are based on the ideal of the Swedish language enabling democratic participation in society. However, the support for Swedish has often also entailed losing possibilities to sustain heritage languages.

These kinds of frictions in language policies directed our focus to the apparent clashes between language “policies” and “practices” at different levels. These are often studied separately by either researchers interested in macro level politics and policy making, or researchers studying micro level use of language in interaction. We soon realised that observing the levels separately would not help us to understand their intertwined nature. Instead, we wanted not just to combine micro and macro analysis of the historical and the contemporary, but to see them as dialogical, feeding and construing each other.

This theoretical idea comes alive in the analyses of parliamentary discourses as a nexus of interrelated discourses, constructions of standard language ideals, embodied immigrant experiences of a lack of language, ethnic activism, and media discourses, among others. For us, the chapters opened a whole new world of a constantly changing sociolinguistic space, where just a minor change in a description of a status of a language or change in the amount (and status!) of a migrant group affects the whole field and the related political discourses. The separate cases emerged as stills of a film or details of a painting where everything has a crucial part in the entirety.

We hope the book helps you, too, in understanding language policies as historically and contemporarily intertwined, in other words, as multi-sited. We also strongly believe that the same strategy is applicable to any field of political discourse.

For further information about the book please see our website or contact the authors:
Mia Halonen, Researcher (language ideologies) mia.halonen@jyu.fi
Pasi Ihalainen, Professor of Comparative European History pasi.t.ihalainen@jyu.fi
Taina Saarinen, Senior Researcher (language education policies) taina.m.saarinen@jyu.fi

Celebrating 40 volumes in the New Perspectives on Language and Education series

The Multilingual Turn in Languages EducationThe publication of The Multilingual Turn in Languages Education edited by Jean Conteh and Gabriela Meier this month marks the 40th volume of our New Perspectives on Language and Education series. Here, the series editor Viv Edwards writes about how the series has evolved over the years.

The titles that form part of the New Perspectives on Language and Education series tend to cluster around three main themes – English as an international language, modern language teaching and multilingual education, with a host of other issues hovering around the edges that refuse to be pigeonholed in this way.

Identifying and disseminating new perspectives on ‘big’ topics like these requires Janus-like qualities. On the one hand, you need to recognize proposals which, while resonating with issues that you know are trending, hold the promise of taking things a few steps forward, not simply being more of the same. On the other hand, you need to be prepared to take risks: is this something new and original with the potential to make people rethink long-held assumptions? As Multilingual Matters prepares to publish the 40th title in the series, this seems a good time to offer my own particular take as editor.

NPLE coversHot topics

Looking first at the new and original, NPLE has a proud record. In terms of ‘hot topics’, Testing the Untestable in Language Education, edited by Amos Paran and Lies Sercu, and Joel Bloch’s book on Plagiarism, Intellectual Property and the Teaching of L2 Writing have made important contributions to debates in two fiercely contested areas, while Andrey Rosowsky’s Heavenly Readings focuses on literacy practices associated with Islam, an issue which has received remarkably little attention to date. The quality of the contribution made by any individual title lies, in my opinion, in its power to challenge readers to revisit and even reconsider deeply held beliefs. An excellent example is Jean-Jacques Weber’s Flexible Multilingual Education, which controversially places the needs and interests of children above the more customary approach which focuses on individual languages.

NPLE covers 2

In the case of topics such as English as an international language, it is possible to argue that the impact of NPLE titles is cumulative. Let’s take some recent additions to the list that specifically set out to bridge the gap between theoretical discussion and practical concerns: Aya Matsuda’s edited collection Principles and Practices of Teaching English as an International Language and Julia Hüttner and colleagues’ Theory and Practice in EFL Teacher Education. In the case of Julia Menard Warwick’s English Language Teachers on the Discursive Faultlines the focus is on different constituencies and stakeholders as she compares controversies around English as a global language with similar tensions surrounding programmes for immigrants.

 

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Another interesting cluster of titles concerns innovations in pedagogy and the management of multilingual classrooms. Take, for instance, Managing Diversity in Education, edited by David Little and colleagues; Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Classrooms where Jennifer Miller and colleagues explore new dilemmas for teachers; and Kathy Mills’ The Multiliteracies Classroom. The 40th and most recent addition to the NPLE list, Jean Conteh and Gabriela Meier’s The Multilingual Turn in Languages Education is a welcome addition to a strand of scholarship helping to develop a clearer understanding of classroom challenges.

Politics

Books such as these are underpinned by important political questions. In other examples, however, the political theme is even more clearly foregrounded. Particular personal favourites include The Politics of Language Education, edited by Charles Alderson which, with the value of hindsight, looks at the institutional manoeuvres that shape projects charged with innovation and change; Maryam Borjian’s English in Post-Revolutionary Iran, which chronicles the changing attitudes to English teaching and qualifies as the only academic book I have ever read which could be described as a page turner; and Desiring TESOL and International Education by Raqib Chowdhury and Phan Le Ha, which raises uncomfortable issues of market abuse and exploitation.

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Innovative methods

Innovations covered by NPLE authors go beyond pedagogy and policy to include new approaches to data analysis. Roger Barnard and colleagues have been responsible for a trilogy of highly original edited collections: Creating Classroom Communities of Learning, Codeswitching in University English-Medium Classes and Researching Language Teacher Cognition and Practice. Each of these edited collections aims to promote dialogue around a particular theme by inviting a second researcher to interpret the same data, or to comment on the approach of the first author.

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Updating classics

Occasionally we have the opportunity of updating important works by major international authors. A case in point is the second edition of Gordon Wells’ ground breaking The Meaning Makers which sets the findings of the original study of language and literacy development at home and school in the context of recent research in the sociocultural tradition, also drawing on new examples of effective teaching from the author’s collaborative research with teachers. Another good example is Sociolinguistics and Language Education, edited by Nancy Hornberger and Sandra Lee McKay, a state-of-the-art overview of changes in the global situation and the continuing evolution of the field.NPLE covers 7

Think globally, act locally

While decisions about what to take forward have to be commercially sound, Multilingual Matters values coverage not only of global interest but also takes pride in showcasing more local issues. Obvious examples of this include Lynda Pritchard Newcombe’s case study of Social Context and Fluency in L2 Learners in Wales; Anne Pitkänen-Huhta and Lars Holm’s edited volume on Literacy Practices in Transition, which showcases perspectives from the Nordic counties; and Minority Populations in Canadian Second Language Education edited by Katy Arnett and Callie Mady.

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A personal coda

As someone who has worked for longer than I care to remember with both large international publishing houses and Multilingual Matters, one of the last of a vanishing breed of small independents, it seems fitting to end on a personal note. Many readers of this blog will be aware that it is now just over a year since the death of Mike Grover, who together with his wife Marjukka, founded Multilingual Matters over three decades ago. Their finest legacy, embodied in their son Tommi and his current team, is the company’s continued openness to the new, the innovative and even, very occasionally, the quirky. Those of us privileged to work as editors and authors with Multilingual Matters appreciate the opportunity to develop a personal relationship with knowledgeable and committed individuals rather than anonymous, corporate players. Long may this last!

Language Policy in Arizona

One of our latest publications is Language Policy Processes and Consequences edited by Sarah Catherine K. Moore. Here, Sarah gives us a bit of background on the complex situation in Arizona.

Language Policy Processes and ConsequencesIn terms of language policy implementation, and specifically, English-only implementation, Arizona is unique because of its degree of oversight, top-down scrutiny, and elevation of English-only as a political priority. In Arizona, English-only played out quite differently than in California and Massachusetts, in part due to its precedence within socio-political contexts and its utilization as a tool for ideological rhetoric pronounced by those seeking to ascend in political office.

Understanding the complex case of English-only in Arizona requires following not only implementation of the state’s respective proposition (Prop. 203) in schools, but also its relationship with a court case critical to the larger scenario, and highly relevant to the field of emergent bilingual education—the Flores case. An additional facet involves teasing out the relationship between these two issues and compliance with No Child Left Behind (2001). Together, these three issues, combined with an aggressively restrictive and potentially xenophobic political atmosphere, created in Arizona roots that are, as we carry on, becoming established and entrenched artifacts and a new reality in schools.

In this new reality, kids are separated based on language proficiency for roughly half of each school day. If they don’t speak English, they are kept just one step back from access to content. Instead of content, they are taught ‘discreet’ English ‘skills’. And hundreds into thousands of teachers are being groomed to believe that teaching first involves separating kids.

This text attempts to document through a series of case studies, how policies become practice, and ultimately, what they mean for schools, teachers, and students.

Implementing Educational Language Policy in ArizonaFor more information on this book please go to our website. You might also be interested in this title: Implementing Educational Language Policy in Arizona.