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.

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.