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Review of  Language Policies and (Dis)Citizenship


Reviewer: Ghislain Potriquet
Book Title: Language Policies and (Dis)Citizenship
Book Author: Vaidehi Ramanathan
Publisher: Multilingual Matters
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Book Announcement: 25.3394

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Review:
SUMMARY
Language Policies and (Dis)citizenship begins with an introductory chapter written by its editor. It opens on the definition of citizenship used throughout the book; citizenship will be understood as a dynamic process, as “being able to participate fully”. This understanding of citizenship departs from the conventional view that citizenship amounts to a fixed legal status. Translations from an English language textbook written for Gujarati schoolchildren are used to justify the editor’s choice. When moved from one language to another, a text or a person experiences a similar transformation: each is mediated through another language that curtails their meaning. To allow such a person to express themselves unrestrainedly, Ramanathan argues that one must “unabashedly usher in history into applied linguistics, and view each person speaking an alien tongue as a ‘historicized being’” (8). Such awareness is a precondition to a new understanding of the interaction between language and citizenship, between one’s language skills and one’s participation in society.

Busi Makoni’s contribution focuses on a culture-­specific language variety of Ndebele, “isihlonipho sabafazi”, which translates as “women’s language of respect”. Makoni argues that this language variety further embeds the discitizenship of women in Zimbabwe, a country where gender equality is affirmed in a bill of rights, but also negated by the constitution’s recognition of customary law. Makoni shows how discitizenship occurs by examining the testimonies of women victims of rape. Isihlonipho sabafazi prevents them from testifying against their perpetrators, because sex discourses are forbidden by this language variety. Hence, a rape can only be referred to as “to play a game of getting on the mat” (28-­29).

Aya Matsuda and Chatwara Suwannalai Duran’s contribution studies the implications of constructing Americans as monolingual speakers. Their piece actually discusses many other terms used to classify Americans according to their linguistic abilities. To characterize Americans as English monolinguals is not only inaccurate; it also runs the risk of reinforcing monolingualism and restricting individual multilingualism (39). As to multilingualism, the authors note that it too is often synonym with “non­-native speaker of English” and call for the study of multilingualism as a feature common to both native speakers of English and native speakers of other languages.

Emily Feuerhem engages in a critical interpretive approach of interview data gathered among Iraqi refugees in the United States. Her goal is to understand how policies of resettlement help refugees translate themselves to their new country (53). Interviews and hours of observation conducted in a Sacramento community center point to the multiplicity of this translation process. Occurrences of “my country” in several refugees’ testimonies point to the importance of comparing Iraq to the United States in the adaptation process. “English” is another keyword that bridges these individuals’ experiences in their home and host countries: “speaking English is bound up in issues of external survival knowledge and fears of symbolic violence” (68).

Julia Menard-­Warwick questions the ideology of English as a tool for success on the global marketplace. How do teachers of English working in Chile avail themselves of this ideology? Using ethnographic data collected in a small university, she unveils an interesting paradox: “despite claims that English is important for success in Chilean society, very few teachers offered concrete examples of times when they had found English actually necessary” (79). Menard-Warwick also observes that English is valued by Chileans because it grants them access to a foreign, global culture.

Gemma Punti and Kendall A. King choose an original object for their study: multi level marketing companies. It appears that a high proportion of undocumented Latino youths work to sell products such as Herbalife nutrition products or Amway beauty products. This can be explained by these multi­-level marketing companies’ language policies and discourses of advancement, authors explain. Interviews and observations of two young Latinos working for such companies, as well as an analysis of the texts and videos made available to them yield many insights. Teresa L. McCarty asks how language and educational policies may enable Native Americans to exercise their citizenship. She begins her chapter with a reminder of the peculiar history of Native American citizenship, and then refers to a concept she developed in an earlier study: “safety zone”, or the “physical, social, psychological and pedagogic space in which the federal government and other colonizing agents have deliberately and systematically sought to distinguish ‘safe’ from ‘dangerous’ Indigenous cultural beliefs and practices” (121). She then studies two Navajo public school projects, which use different methods (immersion and dual-­immersion) to foster the academic success of all students, regardless of their linguistic background. By doing precisely the opposite of a majority of schools in the United States (that is, to consider a child’s proficiency in a foreign language as an impediment to the acquisition of English) these two schools made possible the exercise of a Native American citizenship.

The following piece by Gopinder Kaur Sagoo examines an equally inclusive environment in a very different setting. Her work focuses on a nursery founded by the Sikh community of Birmingham, England. After providing her reader with a brief overview of the history of pre-­K education in England, she analyzes data collected on site (field notes, interviews, recordings). The nursery school is imbued with the ideas of its founder, Bhai Sahib, a community leader who has elaborated an understanding of citizenship consistent with the Sikh faith, i.e. “‘a spiritual citizenship’ based on rights and responsibilities assumed by virtue of being domiciled... as a human citizen on the planet” (152). Analyses of verbal interactions between children and educators testify to the inclusiveness of the nursery, where English and Punjabi are equally valued.

Jacquelin Widin and Keiko Yasukawa’s contribution draws from ethnographic work conducted in Australia. They conducted fieldwork in four different educational programs catering to the needs of ESL adults. Against the backdrop of a contested Australian citizenship test introduced in 2007, authors focus on the development of a “third space”, where teachers and learners negotiate the curriculum and redefine their identities. An illustration of this is the interaction between a refugee from Guinea-­Bissau, who tells the story of his watch, a present from his father. Instead of simply proceeding with the lesson plan, the teacher allows this student to express himself, thus creating a supportive environment for all refugees. This is no minor detail, as the authors conclude: “Some of these learners may never achieve the kinds of human capital outcomes that ‘count’ in the dominant discourses of who is a worthy citizen (...) However, the Third space that these learners and their teachers have created expands the space within which people can exercise citizenship” (185).

Ariel Loring’s piece is situated against a similar backdrop; citizenship is also very much debated in the United States (188). Loring looks at the ways citizenship instructors enact citizenship in their classrooms. She draws from ethnographic observations conducted in three different community centers. She also interviews four different instructors, and finds that each has a different understanding of what citizenship ought to mean. Interestingly, all four instructors challenge the official discourse on citizenship: to integrate with each other, not just with the American community is something that they emphasize. Interestingly, some students continue to attend citizenship classes after naturalization, (205), a fact that belies the notion that citizenship is a mere legal status to be acquired once and for all.

The closing chapter of this volume is authored by Rosemary Henze and Fabio Oliveira Coelho. In 2008, both got involved in a partnership project between their university and a Nicaragua-­based non-­governmental organization. The purpose of this partnership was to improve access to English in the rural north. Instead of reaching its goals, this collaboration ended up disempowering local teachers and students. Henze and Coelho explain why. Teachers’ training is identified as a problem, but most importantly, they show that “the rhetoric of English as part of globalization doesn’t fit the rural communities’ realities” (244). They put forward an alternative curriculum, one that would meet the needs of these communities and take into account the material conditions under which a foreign language can be taught.

EVALUATION

Vaidehi Ramanathan’s edited volume is certainly a daring endeavor. This professor of sociolinguistics at the University of California at Davis had already distinguished herself by exploring an unusual topic in Bodies and Language: Health, Ailments, Disabilities and by dealing with it as convincingly as humanely. Her latest contribution builds on her interest in disability studies and hinges on a definition of citizenship put forth by Dianne Pothier and Richard Delvin in Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, Policy, and Law, namely that citizenship “is about the capacity to participate fully in all the institutions of society ­­ not just those that fit the conventional definitions of the political, but also the social and cultural.” (1) Central to Language Policies and (Dis)citizenship is therefore the relation between language and participation.

In order for her endeavor to succeed, Ramanathan has rigorously edited the eleven essays making up her volume. Such careful editing work is manifest in the essays’ common approach (ethnographic) or their systematic reference to Pothier and Delvin’s understanding of citizenship as participation. In addition, each essay follows a similar structure that includes a clear formulation of the research question(s), a presentation of the methodology and very useful background information, among other things. Ramanthan’s editorial rigor makes it possible for these eleven studies to form a coherent whole: from a criminal court in Zimbabwe to secondary schools in rural Nicaragua, the reader is given to see into the processes that end up depriving language minorities of their full citizenship. Chapter after chapter, a similar pattern emerges: discitizenship occurs when a linguistic norm, usually the vehicle of social values, is forced on a people. All contributors highlight the importance of fostering linguistic inclusiveness as a means to combat discitizenship. Collectively, they demonstrate the validity of Ramanathan’s initial approach, to move from the study of citizenship as a legal status to that of citizenship as “being able to participate fully” (2013,1).

In Language Policies and (Dis)citizenship, Ramanathan takes a giant leap from disability studies to sociolinguistics. Overall, her approach is very convincing, but doubts may linger in the mind of an informed reader: “discitizenship” when applied to a disabled person is one thing, but it becomes another when applied to an individual who does not speak an official language. For, to use a distinction made by jurists, language is not an “immutable trait”: one may move from a category to another, from discitizen to citizen, thanks to devoted language teachers, years of practice, etc. To this, one may retort that not everyone can become proficient in another language because of a number of factors such as age. Still, it remains to be elaborated whether discitizenship can adequately describe the experience of someone who happens not to conform to a linguistic norm. Our intuition is that it can, but also that further work needs to be done to study the relation between language discitizenship and the many other hurdles put on a person’s path to full of citizenship (class, gender, race, etc.). Such conceptual work would also further demonstrate the validity of citizenship as an object of sociolinguistic inquiry, one that allows more comprehensive insights than classical sociolinguistic concepts such as diglossia.

In short, Language Policies and (Dis)citizenship yields fascinating findings and opens up an exciting area for research. The book reads equally well as a whole or by chapter. Academics and graduate students will use the book as a source of inspiration for papers and dissertations. Single chapters may be used as reading material for an undergraduate course in sociolinguistics. Most importantly perhaps, language policy makers around the globe would be well­-inspired to read Ramanathan’s book.

REFERENCES

Pothier, Dianne and Richard Devlin (ed). 2006. Critical Disability Theory: Essays in Philosophy, Politics, and Law. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Vaidehi Ramanathan. 2009. Bodies and Language: Health, Ailments, Disabilities. Bristol, Multilingual Matters.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Ghislain Potriquet is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Strasbourg, France. His research interests revolve around the issues of language diversity and the law. He is affiliated to two research centers: “Groupe d'Étude sur le Plurilinguisme Européen'(GEPE) and 'Savoirs dans l'espace anglophone : représentations, culture, histoire' (SEARCH).

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