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Sociolinguistics from the Periphery "presents a fascinating book about change: shifting political, economic and cultural conditions; ephemeral, sometimes even seasonal, multilingualism; and altered imaginaries for minority and indigenous languages and their users"
Review of The Politics of Language: Conflict, Identity, And Cultural Pluralism in Comparative Perspective
Date: Sun, 28 Mar 2004 15:39:42 -0500 (EST) From: David Golumbia Subject: The Politics of Language
Schmid, Carol L. (2001) The Politics of Language: Conflict, Identity, and Cultural Pluralism in Comparative Perspective. Oxford University Press.
David Golumbia, University of Virginia
The author (S), a sociologist and sociolinguist, provides a compact and useful guide to many of the issues rising in several modern societies where more than one language exists in conflict or in harmony with one or more others. Her approach is firmly sociolinguistic, in that little attention is paid to issues of syntax, morphology, or phonology; but it is fair to say that it is a qualitative approach to sociolinguistics, in that the emphasis is on the political and social consequences of various historical developments surrounding the deployment of various languages and dialects, their promotion or suppression, and so on. Less attention is paid, then, to some aspects of the sociolinguistic data that might be found in a Labovian approach. In general her method is empirical but also descriptive, tending more toward anecdotal accounts that are at the same time quite broad in scope and toward descriptions of larger social movements.
There is extensive use of what must be called quantitative sociological data, focused on the prevalence of different languages in S's examples. These are used to bolster S's general view, one that might be emphasized somewhat in the text, which is that strong national emphases on monolingualism often go hand-in-hand with what she calls cultural "xenophobia" and racism, and that there is no reason to believe that multilingualism is anything but an "asset" to social grouping, despite opposing political views that cannot generate the kinds of data S musters.
1. Introduction: The Politics of Language, National Identity, and Cultural Pluralism in the United States S's goals are specifically to examine the role of nationhood and perhaps even more specifically of national legislation in the creation of language policy and the maintenance of language politics. She is specifically interested in official movements and policy developments, such as the development of English-Only movements in the US.
2. Historical Background of Language Protection and Restriction S reviews the early history of the US, demonstrating that there is a "basic political (and linguistic) inequality between white citizens and non-white citizens". Throughout its history, in fact, the US has been highly intolerant of alternative language practices, so that only "conquest and immigration" are seen as acceptable models for inclusion. This is especially seen with regard to intolerance of Spanish in the territories now called the Southwest and Western United States.
3. Immigrant Exclusion and Language Restriction in the Twentieth Century S reflects on the high degree to which American society has relied on immigrants and immigration for labor and no less for culture. This reliance on immigration has coexisted with waves of anti-immigrant feeling and also waves of what S calls Americanization of immigrants, especially insisting that immigrants learn and speak English exclusively. S uncovers many surprising facts about immigration during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, not least the place of "symbolic clash[es] of lifestyle" (55) as one force behind language restriction.
4. Language Rights and the Legal Status of English-Only Laws In this chapter S surveys English-Only movements in the US and specifically examines the status of Official English laws, whose status she finds unclear. "They are mostly of symbolic value" according to the courts, she writes, but if enforced could effectively deprive many immigrant (and domestic) groups of language rights. S thus sides clearly against such movements, although this position emerges indirectly.
5. Attitudes toward Language, National Identity, and Cultural Pluralism S. notes that in the US the official status of English has been widely assumed by the general public, and that recent efforts have been largely on the side of intensifying such efforts, often in newly direct fashion. She locates the development of strong English-only views in religious and other social practices that have also been widespread in the US recently. S notes a range of attitudes and contradictions in Hispanic and white attitudes toward bilingualism, and notes that the "feeling that immigrants, especially Spanish speakers, do not want to learn English... is a fallacy" (98).
6. Language and Identity Politics in Canada S contrasts the language history Canada with that of the United States, noting that French maintained a historical presence in Canada throughout colonial history, in contrast to the persistent and sometimes successful of the US to eradicate the speaking of Spanish (and all other non-English languages). She suggests that "bilingualism has a very different meaning in Canada and the United States" and that despite the ongoing political struggles in Quebec Canadians are in general less immediately phobic about bilingualism than are those in the US.
7. Identity and Social Incorporation in Multilingual Switzerland S's example of a multilingual society is modern Switzerland, a society that has long fascinated sociolinguists for just this quality. S calls the Swiss situation an "enigma" (124) but carefully traces historical developments in the early part of the twentieth century in their relation to multilingualism, especially World Wars I and II. In the contemporary setting, the Swiss overwhelmingly support multilingualism, and S draws our attention to the 75% public support for the 1996 referendum that promoted minority languages beyond the four national languages (German, French, Italian, and Rhaeto-Romansch). S associates Swiss multilingualism with its tradition of direct democracy (142).
8. The Politics of Language in the Late Twentieth Century S draws conclusions from the previous chapters by introducing three contemporary debates in US society around issues of language: what she calls "the Ebonics debate, the discussion about Puerto Rican Statehood, and the bilingual controversy in California" create hard challenges for the dominant American myth of a cultural "melting pot" (144).
9. Conclusion: The Future of Language Politics in the United States In her conclusion S turns from the past to the future, to some degree lamenting the policy future for language politics in California. In this chapter a more synthetic view of language politics emerges, and S briefly suggests that a "defensive nationalism" has emerged in the US, despite the fact that "bilingualism should be seen as a complement to American pluralism rather than a challenge to English" (178).
This is an important, often surprising, and thoughtful book. S's command of the facts about American immigration and no less about contemporary multilingual societies is impressive.
At the same time, this book frustrates, perhaps due to a title that may not have been the author's choice. That title trumpets a subject that the book does not manage to fully address: the politics of language. While this is a general phrase that could have many meanings, the fact is that this subject matter has become widely-studied over the past few decades from many perspectives, and many of these perspectives are not addressed at all in S's book. Of particular note is the virtual lack of discussion of so-called "minority", "endangered" or "indigenous" language situations. While S does mention briefly, for example, the situation of aboriginal peoples in Canada, in general this material receives extremely scant attention in the book.
Since the topic of the book is the politics of language, which is in fact embraced by S herself several times through the book, it is hard not to read the almost exclusive focus on modern languages and modern societies as important but also as symptomatic. Many writers on this subject, including Joshua Fishman himself, continually draw attention to the lack of attention minority languages receive in modern society. By paying so little attention to these situations, S helps to reinforce the impression that, for example, contemporary American language politics are all or mostly about Spanish/English bilingualism, or that Swiss-style multilingualism represents the limit of intra-group language interaction (as discussions of areas such as the Amazon basin and Salishan Sprachbund would show). Due to the highly specialized situation of modern languages such a focus cannot help but obscure issues that come up in broader discussions, but for those seeking an up-to-date guide to the contemporary policy and sociological issues involved in US and European language politics, this is a fine volume.
Baker, C. (1992). Attitudes and Languages. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Fishman, J. (1989). Language and Ethnicity in Minority Sociolinguistic Perspective. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Fishman, J., ed. (2001). Handbook of Language and Ethnic Identity. New York: Oxford University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
The reviewer teaches digital media, cultural studies and theories of language. He is Assistant Professor of Media Studies and English at the University of Virginia.