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


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.

Advancing the Research on Heritage Language Speakers

This month we published Heritage and School Language Literacy Development in Migrant Children edited by Raphael Berthele and Amelia Lambelet. In this post Raphael introduces the book and reveals how it came about.

The investigation of transfer phenomena is a classic topic in multilingualism research. Scholars have developed useful tools and frameworks for investigating crosslinguistic influence on linguistic structure and meaning: when patterns in an individual’s speech or writing can be compared to patterns known from dialects or languages that are in contact, positive or negative transfer can be identified. By contrast, the transfer of literacy skills, for example in the form of reading skills or knowledge about text genres, is trickier to investigate. Heritage and School Language Literacy Development in Migrant Children addresses this unsolved problem. Several studies focusing on different language pairs are presented; they deploy diverse methods, but all attempt to measure the impact of skills developed in one or more languages on the development of those same skills in another language. Languages investigated include – among others – Albanian, Turkish, Portuguese, French, German and Russian.

A considerable part of this book is devoted to a longitudinal study of primary school children who are heritage language speakers of Portuguese in Switzerland. This is the fruit of a project that was directed by the book’s two editors. Intrigued by some rather unexpected findings and questions that arose during this project, we contacted colleagues who had been investigating similar issues but with different methods and tasks. We realized that our work was complementary, and that they were able to fill some of the gaps we had identified in our data and in our thinking. That is how this book project was born. We are confident that it is a new and different contribution to the field, that puts into question some – at least in our view – rather problematic assumptions about the interdependence of heritage languages and school languages. We therefore hope that our contribution will nurture future thinking about research on heritage language speakers.

For more information about this book please see our website. If you found this interesting, you might also like Crosslinguistic Influence and Distinctive Patterns of Language Learning edited by Anne Golden, Scott Jarvis and Kari Tenfjord.

Prescription and Tradition in Language

Last month we published the book Prescription and Tradition in Language edited by Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and Carol Percy. In this blog post, Carol tells us more about what inspired her and Ingrid to put the book together.

Carol Percy presenting her plenary at the Prescription conference, introduced by Ingrid Tieken
Carol Percy presenting her plenary at the Prescription conference, introduced by Ingrid Tieken

The academic study of linguistic prescriptivism is relatively new. Historical linguists like my co-editor Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade and me, Carol Percy, have both hosted conferences on the topic. My bilingual conference in Canada inspired essay collections that focussed mostly on English and on French. Ingrid’s meeting in the Netherlands was truly multilingual in scope, and realizing the significance of this we commissioned chapters on a wide range of languages for Prescription and Tradition in Language. Our multilingual mandate and our English-language medium really highlight how the codification of language norms needs to be considered in unique cultural contexts, across Time and Space.

Some of our contributors consider prescriptive traditions for English. We see journalists and academic linguists contributing to the formation and dissemination of norms. In a chapter contrasting the prescriptive traditions of English with French, the pronunciation guide compiled by lexicographer Robert Burchfield for the BBC (1981) underscores the broadcaster’s “semi-official status” in the absence of a state-sponsored language academy for English. In reviews of Burchfield’s supposedly ‘descriptivist’ edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1996), we can compare the opinions of journalists and linguists. And in what is actually a very depressing chapter, we see that pervading popular ‘news’ about language (whether the Middlesborough dialect or immigrant children’s bilingualism) is an inflexibly unwelcoming ethnolinguistic nationalism. Indeed, another contributor makes the case that traditional prescriptive rules define communities, naturalize assumptions (about rules and the people who observe them, or don’t), and thus ultimately validate prescriptive rules. This argument is probably not English-specific!

Prescription and Tradition in LanguageMore contributors consider prescriptive traditions for other countries and languages—and we are delighted to be disseminating this material in English. For major languages including French, Russian and Chinese, our contributors synthesize traditions and analyze challenges posed by globalization and new media. In the state’s official Dictionary of Modern Chinese (2012), the inclusion—and exclusion—of words referring to economic and social changes is discussed in the media. English delivers technological terms to languages including French and Russian. In France, official committees devise French equivalents to English terms and disseminate them on websites as well as in print. For Russian, shifts in its status and its norms are particularly visible (and open to debate) as the rise of new media coincides with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

Some of our chapters contrast the status and standardization of the ‘same’ language in different contexts. Nineteenth-century Dutch in the temporarily-reunited Low Countries varied less in practice than in commentators’ imaginations. But the Russian written officially in Kazakhstan or spoken as a lingua franca in Dagestan is diverging from what is known as ‘Moscow Russian’. And although Macedonian is now recognized as a national language, elsewhere it is a minority language, with official recognition differing from country to country. Basque is recognized as a minority language in Spain but not yet in France: a committee is currently crafting a standard that can be spoken colloquially in multiple contexts. And (how) do sociolinguistic norms for German change when it is taught to foreigners?

While our collection can’t consider every language, it contains general and theoretical chapters. (How) do language norms vary by writing system? (How) does a language’s multilingual vs monolingual contexts or spoken vs written use relate to establishing its norms? Pam Peters recontextualizes these and other issues in her generous Epilogue to the volume. Both Ingrid and I learned (Ingrid “learnt”!) a lot from our contributors when we edited this volume, and we hope you enjoy it.

For more information about this book, please see our website.

Getting to know the Channel View team: Flo

Flo is the latest member of staff to join the Channel View Publications/Multilingual Matters team.  She joined us as an intern in September 2014 and she fitted in to our office so well that we asked her to become our full time Publishing Assistant from January 2015. In this post we get to know more about our newest member of the team…

Flo What was it that first attracted you to apply to work for CVP/MM, was it the books, the topics of our publications, or something else?!

After teaching English as a foreign language in France for nearly two years post-university, I was ready for a new challenge and decided to pursue a job in the publishing industry. I had assumed there wouldn’t be much in the way of publishing in Bristol, but a quick Google of ‘publishing internships, Bristol’ took me straight to the CVP/MM website. At the time, there weren’t any positions available, but the sorts of books you were publishing instantly piqued my interest: appealing to me as a language learner, EFL teacher and lover of travelling! When an opportunity to join the team came up just a few weeks later, I jumped at the chance and applied straight away.

Sounds like your interests fit with those of the rest of us very closely! I take it that you already speak French, do you speak any other languages, or are there any that you’d like to learn one day?

I studied Russian at university as well as French, and lived there for a semester in the third year of my degree. At that point I could speak Russian fairly well, having been plunged in at the deep end in a homestay with a Russian ‘babushka’ (grandmother) who didn’t speak a word of English. As you can imagine, my Russian improved pretty quickly…although I’m very rusty now! Other than rekindling my Russian, I’d like to learn Spanish one day – I hear it’s not too difficult if you already speak French and English.

Wow, living with a Russian babushka must have been quite an experience! As an office full of foodies, I’m sure we’d love to know if she cooked you any unusual meals or if you tried any exotic dishes during your stay in Russia?

Well, the typical breakfast in Russia is ‘kasha’ (каша), the Russian take on porridge, which is delicious. But the bane of my Saturday morning was the variation on this that my host called ‘molochniy sup’ (молочный суп), literally ‘milk soup’, consisting of a bowl of cooked spaghetti in warm milk – not quite the weekend treat it was meant to be! More importantly, as a result of my constant coughs and colds brought on by the -30 degree Russian winter, she introduced me to the medicinal properties of vodka. Consequently, it was an exciting day when I could reciprocate in the cultural exchange with my discovery of Heinz beans in the supermarket, which I brought home to my host. She put the unopened tin in a pan of boiling water to cook and we ate tepid beans that were pronounced ‘delicious’ for dinner!

Sounds like you had some interesting culinary experiences! If you could invite 6 well-known people to dinner (be it for baked beans or something more appetising!), who would you ask?

That’s such a tricky one… there are so many people I’d want to choose! I think I’ll go for: Louis Theroux for some good stories, Morgan Freeman or David Attenborough (I can’t choose!) ditto and also just to listen to them speak, even if it’s only ‘Please pass the potatoes’, Dawn French for her sense of humour and to create a fun, positive atmosphere, Eddie Izzard for some slightly eccentric and multilingual(!) comedy, Laura Marling for a lovely musical interlude between courses and Nigel Slater to ensure that the ‘dinner’ part of the dinner party is a success!

Quite a diverse selection, I’m sad this isn’t going to actually happen! Thank you for answering all our questions, Flo. To round off the interview, here are a few quick-fire questions:

Sweet or savoury? I’m a self-confessed chocoholic and always have room for pudding – so, sweet!

City stroll or country ramble? If I’m in the UK I’d probably opt for a walk in the countryside, but when I’m abroad I love exploring new cities.

Cats or dogs? Difficult to choose, but I grew up with a hilariously dim cat who I loved, so I’ll stick with cats.

Chat on the phone or handwritten letter? Much as I like a lengthy phone catch-up, there’s nothing quite like a handwritten letter – my friend’s been living in Australia for the past year and I’ve loved sending letters back and forth (even if the news in them is out of date by the time they get there!)

Neon or monochrome? The only neon things I own are highlighters, so I’d have to say monochrome.

Television programmes or films? Although I enjoy a good sitcom or drama (or episode of Bake Off), you can’t beat a great film.  One of my favourites is L’Auberge Espagnole, which inspired me to study abroad.

Multilingual Art Studio

Last month we were delighted to announce that the winner of our 2013 Multilingualism in the Community Award was a project for a Multilingual Art Studio organised by RCS Haven based in Glasgow, UK. Here, Nina Ivashinenko, director of RCS Haven, tells us a bit more about the project and how the prize money will help them to develop their scheme further.

RCS HavenLocated in Glasgow, RCS Haven has become a beacon of hope for multiculturalism and multilingualism in a city filled with cultural isolation. Initially set up in 2004 to help people from ethnic minorities integrate into Scottish society, the centre has gone from strength to strength in recent years thanks to the tireless work of our volunteers and our members. It is our wish to preserve Russian language and culture for our children and for posterity while simultaneously providing a platform from which émigré Russians living in Scotland can better integrate themselves into Scottish and UK culture. We do this primarily by providing both Russian and English language lessons for adults and by educating our younger members in Russian language and traditions. The centre is now a hub for cultural exchange in Scotland. Through teaching, discussion, research, and building a community we hope to make RCS Haven an environment in which all Russian speakers can come together to exchange knowledge and help each other to integrate effectively into UK culture.

RCS HavenThe importance of such a centre existing in Scotland cannot be underestimated. The population of émigré Russians currently living in Scotland has risen by 70% in the past six years. The estimated population of people from Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union living in the UK is thought to have increased by over 300,000 in the same period. Without the kindness and support of groups like Multilingual Matters RCS Haven would struggle to continue to provide such a wealthy cultural exchange.

RCS HavenAs well as promoting and preserving Russian culture for everyone in Scotland, RCS Haven endeavours to provide more and more facilities for children. These facilities will include Russian and English language classes, maths and art tuition.

It is our intention to provide a cross-cultural, bilingual arts and crafts studio for children of diverse backgrounds. We encourage local children to engage in multicultural artistic traditions, while also promoting the use of language in a fun and creative way. The classes, for children aged 4 – 8, are opened every Wednesday from 5pm.

RCS HavenThese classes provide an exciting and unique opportunity for the children to become acquainted with multilingual art and artistic techniques through different languages such as English, Russian and Polish. Russia, for example, has a rich artistic history ranging from traditional Slavonic art, to socialist realism, to matryoshka doll painting.  For the children of the Russian and Polish speaking diaspora, the classes also provide an opportunity to meet and socialize with other children from the local area. It will also provide valuable practice for their English language skills and build their bilingual confidence. For the other children, the classes provide an opportunity to mix with children from the Russian diaspora and learn more about Russian culture.

This is a very exciting time for all of us here at RCS Haven and we would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone at Multilingual Matters for their generosity and support. Spasibo bolshoe!

An Interview with Lyn Wright Fogle

As her book Second Language Socialization and Learner Agency comes out this week we wanted to ask Lyn Wright Fogle a little more about the background to her book.

What inspired you to study Russian-speaking adoptees?
When I returned to the US after a 2-year period as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, I became a tutor for two children who had been adopted from Russia. I was one of the only Russian-speaking contacts the two children had, and I was fascinated by the questions they asked, the stories they told, and the transformations the family was going through at the time. Since I had learned Russian in a largely uninstructed setting (by interacting with students, neighbors, friends etc.) I could begin to see what the children needed to participate in their new family life, but their situation was very different from that of other English language learners we were studying in my graduate classes. I became dedicated to better understanding the social and linguistic worlds of adoptees and language and education planning in adoptive families.

Why do you think international adoption is such a controversial issue?
I think almost everyone today accepts the fact that adoption is a viable possibility for forming a family and there is no longer a need for adoptive families to hide their identity. However, transnational adoption entails the involvement of government level processes in the transfer of children, which makes the individual family susceptible to global political and economic forces. The decisions adoptive parents make about children’s past connections and culture keeping can also be a point of controversy because of the power differentials involved. The more that Western parents are able to accommodate to and understand the backgrounds and individual circumstances of the children they are adopting as well as the communities from which they come, the more transparent these processes can become I believe. A good way for parents to do this is to learn their children’s first languages.

Lyn Wright Fogle

What different practices did the adoptive families use and were any of them more successful than others?
For the study presented in the book, I followed three families. In two of these families, the (English-speaking) parents learned and used Russian with their children for at least the initial period after their arrival. Using Russian emerged as one of the best things parents could do to smooth the transition to the new home, validate the children’s prior experiences and identities, and give some of the children a boost at school. The family that did not use Russian reported more frustration and confusion between parents and children in the early period.

How does your work differ from other research on second language socialization?
Most studies of second language socialization, especially with children, focus on classroom language socialization. I wanted to step out of the classroom and find out what goes on in adoptees’ daily lives and what makes them different from other English language learners. I assumed that these children would be actively socialized into mainstream US norms by their parents; what I found was that there was a great deal more negotiation of these processes and child direction of the interactions than I had expected.

Which other researchers in your field do you particularly admire?
Reading Ron and Suzanne Scollons’ Intercultural Communication: A Discourse Approach in a graduate class on language teaching was probably one of the first moments when I felt I wanted to be a researcher and a linguist, and the Scollons’ ideas continue to influence my work. Kendall King introduced me to the field of language socialization and helped me probe the constructs and consider varied ways of investigating these problems. Kendall also helped me see how fascinating and important studying the family and family interactions could be. I have spent a great deal of time reading and thinking about the work of Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin to understand the relationships between language development and social context. Elizabeth Lanza’s work on bilingual development, her attention to detail, and her support and interest in my work also gave me much inspiration. Of course, there are too many others to list here.

Finally, what are your plans for future research in this area?
I have recently moved back to the Southern United States and have an interest in understanding multilingualism in this region. I also continue to be fascinated by learners’ perspectives on family language policy. I am currently collecting narratives from young adults who grew up in bilingual families in the South to understand how these young people view their experiences speaking two languages and how they negotiated monolingual norms in sometimes very rural, intensely local communities. I’m finding that an affective connection to family through the home language and an ability to “pass” as monolingual in peer groups helped these young bilinguals to develop and maintain competence in both languages.

For further information on Second Language Socialization and Learner Agency please go to our website.