AUTHOR: Block, David
TITLE: Second Language Identities
Laura Callahan, The City College of the City University of New York
This is the paperback edition of a book first published in 2007. It contains
seven chapters, references, and an index. Notes are placed at the end of the
chapter in which they appear.
Chapter 1: Introduction.
Here the author situates identity as it is to be examined in this book,
beginning with a brief acknowledgement of popular perspectives on the concept.
With respect to second language learning (hereafter SLL), he quotes Norton
(1995: 12), who states that ''SLA theorists have not developed a comprehensive
theory of social identity that integrates the language learner and the language
learning context'' (p.1); Block notes that much work in identity has been done
since the 1990s. He next provides a brief overview of its theoretical trajectory
in various social sciences disciplines, from which the field of applied
linguistics has borrowed as identity has grown in interest for SLL researchers.
Block maintains that ''[t]he rise of identity in SLL has [...] been a question of
catching up with developments in other social sciences'' (p. 2). He provides
several references of work on the history of identity, from the Western European
enlightenment to the postmodern age. Finally, he summarizes the content of the
remaining chapters, and also anticipates questions readers might raise about
this volume's scope.
Chapter 2: Identity in the social sciences today.
Block examines the poststructuralist view of identity, with a comprehensive
overview of significant work from the past 20 years, as well as its foundations
from earlier decades. Concepts elucidated include subjectivity, discursive
construction and discourse; performativity and presentation of self;
positioning; ambivalence and hybridity; communities of practice; and power and
recognition. He then contemplates the seven most common angles from which
identity has been examined: race and ethnicity (considered in combination here
to reflect their frequent, if erroneous, conflation), national identity, migrant
identity, gender identity, social class identity, and language identity. He
cites authors who have objected to an over-reliance on the construct of
individual agency (e.g. May 2001), and ultimately demonstrates that the
progression from essentialist to poststructuralist and social constructivist
views can be seen as a building onto rather than a full scale replacement of one
school by another.
Chapter 3: Revisiting the past: identity in early SLL research.
In this chapter Block reviews pertinent studies from the 1960s, 1970s, and
1980s, teasing out references to identity. He points out that some work in the
social sciences decades prior to this contains ''the seeds of poststructuralism''
(p. 47), citing Whyte's 1943 book Street Corner Society. He then details early
research on motivation and French/English bilingualism, moving on to studies of
the language ego and adult ESL learners' pronunciation, work on the experience
of migrant laborers and the Acculturation Model, studies of affect in SLL, diary
accounts of foreign language learning experiences, the professional migrant
experience and fossilization, and the professional sojourner experience.
Chapter 4: Identity in adult migrant contexts.
This chapter is the first in a series of three, each one of which focuses on a
specific SLL context. Block argues that ''it is in the adult migrant context that
identity and one's sense of self are most put on the line [... and] individuals
are forced to reconstruct and redefine themselves, both for their own sense of
ontological security (Giddens, 1991) and the positions ascribed to them by
others in their new surroundings'' (p. 75). He examines investigations from the
1990s and 2000s on adult migrants and gate-keeping encounters in Western
European countries, Portuguese among Toronto factory workers, life stories of
female immigrants in Toronto, the language-based masculinities of a Polish
immigrant in California, and Spanish-speaking Latinos in London.
Chapter 5: Identity in foreign language contexts.
Here Block considers the possibilities that ''the emergence of significant new
subject positions mediated by the TL [target language]'' (p. 113) will actually
take place in classroom settings in which students attempt to ''learn a language
that is not the typical language of communication outside the classroom'' (p.
112). Studies discussed include ones focusing on interlanguage pragmatics and
the identity of the foreign language learner; intercultural language learning;
textual identity, language play, and the identity of the foreign language
learner; foreign language learning diaries; and the interpersonal language
learner. Block then reviews two cases that present exceptions to his conclusion
that identity in foreign language contexts is not often subject to target
language mediation. Both feature variations from the traditional pedagogical
context. The first involves Japanese women studying English in Japan, in classes
in which instruction is organized around feminist themes. The second involves
university students in a French course in the U.S. who use the Internet to
communicate with French speakers in France.
Chapter 6: Identity in study abroad contexts.
In the final context of the tripartite series, Block examines work on the study
abroad experience that includes case studies of sexual harassment of female
students in three countries, gendered subject positions, student-teacher subject
positions, and enhanced national identity as a result of the study abroad
experience. It is worth noting that this last outcome, an enhanced national
identity, is the exact opposite of what language educators have in mind when
they encourage students to spend one or more academic terms living abroad. In
addition, as is also the case in adult migrant contexts, mere physical presence
in a country where the target language is spoken does not guarantee an abundance
of opportunities to interact in the second language, even when potential
interlocutors do not speak the learner's first language. The chapter ends with a
call for more research on the study abroad experience. While acknowledging the
diverse perspectives offered in recent investigations, Block argues that more
investigations need to be done, including ones covering a broader range of
nationalities of both students and host countries.
Chapter 7: Second language identities: future directions.
In the closing chapter, Block suggests five angles for future work on identity:
a greater emphasis on social class, expanding the ambit of the 'First Language',
the emergence of local lingua francas, electronically mediated SLL experiences,
and the psychoanalytic perspective. In regard to this last item, he points out
problems that may arise when researchers who lack a thorough grounding in a
discipline not central to their field of expertise attempt to incorporate
psychoanalysis into SLL studies.
For its extensive survey of authors (too numerous to have included more than a
few names in this review) along with Block's lucid observations of their
significance and connections to other work, Second Language Identities is to be
recommended to graduate students and researchers who wish to acquaint themselves
with seminal studies in the discipline of identity in SLL. The volume contains a
cohesive sample of not only recent work—in which identity is the explicit object
of investigation—but also of earlier studies in which it was not in the
foreground but was nevertheless present in a less developed form. Two qualities
make the book especially readable. The first is that a case study-like approach
is taken with the investigations presented, in that Block goes into enough
detail to give a genuine sense of each one he has chosen to include. The second
is that information essential to an understanding of fundamental issues is
repeated at a rate appropriate to the volume's denseness.
With respect to Block's assessment of the studies he describes, it is important
to note, as he duly does, that the original authors did not in most cases set
out with the same objectives that Block and other writers he mentions use to
criticize these studies' shortcomings. As Block warns us in the first chapter,
''[a]s I discuss these studies, the reader should bear in mind that I am
deliberately misreading them, as I frame findings according to my own purposes
and intentions'' (p. 4). This approach works well, even if at times it may seem
as though work not intended to address the issue of identity in SLL is unjustly
criticized for not going far enough in that direction.
Giddens, A. (1991). _Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late
Modern Age_. Cambridge: Polity.
May, S. (2001). _Language and Minority Rights_. London: Longman.
Norton (Pierce), B. (1995). Social identity, investment, and language learning.
_TESOL Quarterly_, 29 (1), 9-31.
Whyte, W. F. (1943). _Street Corner Society_. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Laura Callahan is currently Associate Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at the
City College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY),
and Research Fellow at the Research Institute for the Study of Language in Urban
Society (RISLUS), at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Her research interests include
intercultural communication, language and identity, and heritage language
maintenance. Her most recent publication is _Spanish and English in U.S. Service
Encounters_ (Palgrave Macmillan 2009).